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SCHOOLS

Foreign teachers accuse Swedish school chain IES of inflating grades

The Swedish free school chain IES exploits foreign teachers' ignorance of the Swedish school system to prop up students' grades, teachers at some of the group's schools have claimed in interviews with The Local.

File photo of a student at Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES).
IES said grading integrity is an important part of their work. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Nine foreign teachers who had worked at or were still working for schools run by Internationella Engelska Skolan (International English School – IES, one of Sweden’s largest free school, or charter school, chains), have claimed they were made to grade students despite having little training, that they were pressured not to fail students and that the grades given by teachers were then adjusted by management. 

One of the teachers said she had come to feel that the school exploited the fact that many of its teachers were fresh graduates from universities in English-speaking countries who had never been taught how grading works in the Swedish system. 

“They have a really high turnover rate, and from the outside, that seems like a bad thing. But that’s how they like it, because the longer you’re there, the more problems you start to see with the system,” she said. “So when teachers don’t know that you can even fail a student in Sweden, they like that. They don’t want you to know, because then you’re going to fight against it.” 

There are large discrepancies at some IES schools between the grade awarded to students by the teachers and the grades students get in their written national tests, standardised tests issued by the National Agency of Education to help teachers assess students fairly. Under Swedish rules, teachers are allowed to give their students a higher or lower overall grade, but they are usually in line with the national tests.

Grade inflation is not exclusively an IES phenomenon, and the government in December 2021 ordered the Swedish Schools Inspectorate to examine how schools assess their students, to help promote equality in grading.

Jonas Vlachos, an economics professor at Stockholm University who researches Swedish schools, found in a 2018 study that IES schools, together with those from the Kunskapsskolan chain, showed the biggest difference between pupils’ grades, as decided on by teachers, and the grades they got in national tests, after adjusting the figures. 

“Kunskapsskolan and IES stand out enormously,” he told The Local. “There are indications that they are generous on average, and that they are particularly generous in grade setting when it’s easy to hide the fact that they are being so.”

He estimated that fully two-thirds of grade advantage IES had over municipal schools can be explained by more generous grading from teachers.

The testimony of teachers at the school explains some of the ways this comes about.  

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Inadequate training in grade-setting from management

Teachers working at IES complained that they were made to grade their pupils without the school giving them proper information on how Sweden’s grading system works.

“A lot of international staff think it’s a Swedish thing to not fail students. And then they find out later, after they’ve been there for years and talked to Swedish people, that it’s actually an IES thing,” reports an American teacher who teaches at a school in Stockholm. 

Another said that as a newly arrived teacher she had been made responsible for grading a whole class of 32 16-year-old students, as her head of department was off sick with Covid-19.

“I gave the tests and graded them myself, which feels wild since I had no formal training other than my department chair trying to explain it to me,” she said. “In retrospect, I feel like I inflated grades, but I honestly don’t know because I had nothing to compare it to.”

New teachers arriving in Sweden are usually briefed on the country’s grading system in their first induction week, but the US teacher at a Stockholm school said this came as part of an overwhelming deluge of new information. Another teacher from the US claimed to have effectively received “little to no training in the Swedish grading system”. 

A Swedish teacher who works together with IES teachers hired straight from university in English-speaking countries, agreed that her international colleagues were rarely if ever properly briefed on how to grade students.

“We have a lot of teachers from countries with different school systems, so they are not used to the Swedish system when it comes to grading,” she said. “They are very poorly taught. They need much more training.”

Robin Kirk Johansson, head of education at IES, said the group does have a system for training new recruits in grading.  

“All our new teachers get an introduction to the curriculum and grading system during their first week and then continuously throughout the year,” she said. “We have a defined framework for systematic quality work in place, which we have developed over many years, and setting grades and working with grading integrity is an important part of it.” 

Pressure not to give poor grades

Teachers said that school management exploited new teachers’ ignorance to pressure them to give good grades, and in particular to not give students a failing “F” grade. 

“There are students who shouldn’t pass, and there’s definitely this level of pressure put on teachers to not only pass every student, but to give them grades that may be higher than what the teacher thinks they deserve,” says the teacher from a school in Stockholm. 

“I was actually called into a meeting with the principal. I had already put in all my grades, and I was brought in without any knowledge of what was going to be happening,” the teacher said.

“And I had to sit with the principal and the academic coordinator alone, without my head of department or anyone from the union to support me, and I had to go through every single grade I had given my year-nine students and explain them.” 

The teacher said that the headteacher had then pushed her to raise the poorer grades.

“I was told about one student whose grade had dropped, and that was because they had just not turned in any work at all. But I was given a backstory about the student how they had had a hard time at home, which of course, tugged at my heart. But then I said, ‘But I can’t change the grade based on their personal experience’. And they were like, ‘well, can you think of anything? Have you had any conversations in the hallway, or in the lunchroom that you could base the grade on so that we could push it up a bit?'” 

Using paperwork as a disincentive 

A teacher at a school in southern Sweden reported that after showing scant interest in struggling students throughout the term, school management would then pile bureaucratic paperwork onto teachers if they said they intended to fail a student.

“You’ve seen them almost every day or every week with their class, and you know that they are not capable of passing your class. And at the very end, admin will give you so much paperwork saying, ‘Have you done this? Have you done this? Do you have documentation on this?’ You have been with a student for months, and they only come in at the end saying, ‘but why are they failing?'”

She said that when she had stood her ground and insisted that a student deserved to fail, she had been hit by a barrage of questions.

“They question you a lot to make sure that you’re making the right call in failing the student. They would never do that for a student that has a C or a D.”

Like the teacher in Stockholm, she was then asked to use any justification she could find to raise the grades of students.

“I have definitely have been encouraged to like ‘grade the whole student’, every little thing that happens. So, like, if they tanked in a speaking assessment but one day in the cafeteria, they just randomly told me this fact, then I could use that to grade them.”

Academic coordinators improving grades

Several teachers said that the academic coordinators and academic managers at their schools had at times gone over the heads of teachers completely and improved students’ grades. 

At the school in Stockholm, a student who had been failed was called into a classroom by the academic coordinator at the end of term and sat down for an hour. 

“This student had failed every assignment for the entire year, since year seven basically up until year nine, and they had passed him every year,” the teacher claims. “They had him sit down and write one paragraph about his day and then they passed him. They did not tell the teacher that they were bringing the student in, and did not give the teacher an opportunity to make an alternative assignment. They did it behind the teacher’s back and just changed the grades.” 

A former teacher at a school in southern Sweden claimed that the academic coordinator at their school had adjusted grades without even requiring additional work.  

“At the end of last year, the academic coordinator edited some of the teachers’ grades without talking to the teachers to make them look better,” he said.

Jonas Vlachos, an economics professor at Stockholm University, said that school management is not supposed to change students’ grades without giving their teacher the final decision. 

“They’re not allowed to do that,” he said. “The teacher in charge of teaching the class is the one in charge of grading. The idea is that the teacher is the most well-informed about student performance.” 

Kirk Johansson asserted that the group’s management would take immediate action if it suspected that academic coordinators or principals were abusing the process in this way. 

“There are legal criteria that teachers have to follow in order to set a grade of F. The teachers in a Swedish school have the legal right to set grades, called exercise of authority (myndighetsutövning) and there are strict rules attached to this process that must be followed. Any signals that the grading process has not been followed correctly, would lead to a thorough investigation from our side.” 

She said that IES welcomed the push by Sweden’s government and the Swedish Schools Inspectorate to increase equality in grading: “Grading integrity is very important to us so that our students go to further education with grades that reflect their true knowledge.”

This is a follow-up to The Local’s investigative article about what it’s like to work as a foreign teacher at IES in Sweden. Many thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us to share their story.

Member comments

  1. This comment actually comes from my husband, who worked for a while at an IES school. He asked me to post this comment after I showed him the IES articles posted here on The Local.

    “Hi,

    My wife showed me this article and the previous one and I can’t agree more. I taught Mathematics at IES in 2019-2020 school year to 7th graders.
    I have postgraduate degree in engineering from Sweden and other countries with no former experience in Swedish school education system.
    All the abuse and exploitation stories that you posted are true and pushed me to the edge of depression and constant anxiety. The shady management system smiles in your face but stabs you in back by giving a low salary, overcrowding the classrooms, expecting much more than a person can do, and providing little or no training.
    When it comes to grading I was very surprised that how some students incompetence in calculating the simplest operation could make it to grade 7 and I got my answer at the end of the term when it was my turn to grade them. I’m not going to discuss here how ridiculous the grading system is but need to say that I was asked repeatedly to pass as many as possible and lower the bar. I did what I would see as fair but about 6-12 out of a 30 student class would fail according to my assessment. After I came back from the winter break I was surprised that this number was reduced to 3-4 as the result of a revision in my corrections which were performed by the head of department. He was forced to do so because the management was “uncomfortable” with the results of my grading.

    I couldn’t continue with that school and I quit 1 month before my contract was over. Corona gave me a good excuse and I saved my sanity by doing so.
    Thank you for uncovering the corrupt and toxic nature of this school chain. What I saw made me seriously concerned about the future generations of Swedish graduates.”

  2. As a parent who has had her child in both the normal Swedish School and IES, I can, in all honesty, say that the grading system in both types of schools was rigged – just as described in this article. I was shocked and very disappointed with this, having come from a country where my child was in a REAL International school system.
    Just as Katie’s husband laments, I too was astonished at the school system in Sweden and what the future of the next generations was going to be.

  3. Given that IES is one of the largest, if not the largest chain of schools in Sweden, of course you are going to find issues. The size of them basically guarantees that you will find bad actors – the same way that you will find clean McDonalds and ones with less than hygienic practices.

    Given the past advertising of IES competitors on thelocal, this series of articles is starting to feel more like a hit job than objective reporting.

    1. Hi, these articles are based on what dozens of readers have told us, but we would love to hear from more teachers who have positive stories to share! The best way to do so is to get in touch with our correspondent Richard Orange, who’s written the article, at [email protected].

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SCHOOLS

Swedish watchdog closes two Islamic schools for radicalising pupils

The Swedish Schools Inspectorate has revoked the permits for two Islamic free schools in Uppsala and Stockholm, after the country's security services warned pupils were at risk of radicalization.

Swedish watchdog closes two Islamic schools for radicalising pupils

On Thursday, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate announced that it had revoked approvals for the Imanskolan Foundation and the Framstegsskolan Foundation, based on warnings from Sweden’s Säpo security police. 

Säpo had complained about both the management at the schools and the learning environment, judging the school leadership unsuitable to conduct school activities.

According to Säpo, students of the schools are at risk of exposure to extreme Islamist ideology.

“Säpo have assessed that children risk being exposed to radicalization by staying in an environment that advocates creating enclaves in society instead of respect for human rights and basic democratic values,” The inspectorate wrote. 

The announcement of the closures comes just months after a proposal for stricter controls on religious free schools.

In February, Schools Minister Lina Axelsson Kihlblom stated that while a ban on new religious free schools would not be put forward, stricter controls would be established through the introduction of a  “democracy clause” or demokrativillkor.

“The proposed law will create clearer requirements and stricter rules for confessional [religious] preschools, schools, and after-school clubs,” said Axelsson Kihlbom.

More than 200 students at the Imamskolan primary school in Uppsala will be forced to change schools for the autumn term. At Framstegsskolan in Stockholm, about 90 students are affected by the shutdown. 

The decision, which may be appealed, currently applies from 15 and 17 August 2022.

by Kirstie Hall 

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