Informal chit-chat with students. A quick hug. The piece of paper that is hastily picked up off the shiny, polished floor. Walking with Barbara Bergström through one of the IES schools gives you a clear image of the culture that she determinedly built up during her active years since the start in 1993.
“It is based on respect for the students and that their school life should equip them with the best possible tools for adulthood – in the form of knowledge and social skills. Our task is to create a safe environment where adults act with warm authority and where learning is possible,” she says.
“If the environment is appealing then we’ll automatically tend to take care of it. Additionally, it’s my task to be a role model for everybody in the school. We expect strong commitment from both teachers and students, so all school leaders must show the same level of commitment.”
BUILDING THE CULTURE IS CRITICAL
Entrepreneurship and working hard to achieve your goals comes naturally to Barbara Bergström. She’s the American who came to Sweden, started working as a science teacher and became frustrated at the lack of leadership she witnessed in Swedish schools, so decided to start a school herself. The objective was to create a safe and orderly school environment where teachers can teach, and students learn. There would be high academic demands made of the students and a substantial proportion of the teaching would take place in English.
“My vision was to build a school that encourages students to develop to their full potential – both academically and personally – irrespective of their background. I wanted to create an alternative to the prevailing view; that is, that children manage best without adults and that knowledge is something the children should seek themselves.
“I knew from the beginning that it was enormously important to create a school culture that would foster this and that every detail was important. Everything counts, from daily routines such as the principal standing in the school entrance and welcoming the students by name, eating lunch – which should be nutritious – with them, to adults always being present in the entire school to create a safe and calm environment.
“Children truly appreciate the stability this creates. If the adults don’t decide the rules then the gang leaders take over.”
Since the first school opened in Roslagstull in Stockholm 30 years ago, a further 46 schools have been established across Sweden, from Trelleborg in the south to Skellefteå in the north, and there are more planned. A total of 50,000 students have graduated from year nine at one of these schools. Demand from parents, students and municipalities has been strong during IES’ growth.
LEADERSHIP THE MOST CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTOR
According to Barbara Bergström, the most critical success factor is clear leadership and a leadership style that is characterised by discipline and warmth – which she refers to as “tough love”.
“Leadership is everything, our schools are dependent on strong, good leaders who can ensure that our culture and our values are upheld, and who in turn can attract and retain good teachers. We have to work hard for our culture, every minute of every day,” she says.
“As a leader you have to deal with difficult situations. For me the most difficult thing of all over the years has been finding the right leaders – and when the leadership of a school doesn’t function properly – if the leadership doesn’t work, then the school won’t work. We have managed to recruit many truly fantastic cultural ambassadors who are really passionate about IES.
WORTH ALL THE BATTLES
Several of the procedures that IES introduced early on, and that were criticised at the time by the authorities, have not only become generally accepted, they have also later been introduced into municipal schools as the norm, for example grades in earlier years, regular reviews with the students and parents and a ban on mobile phones in the classroom. Research has also shown that students searching for knowledge themselves is ineffective learning, and has highlighted the link between hand and brain, in other words that the ability to learn improves through writing information down.
“There has been a broad opinion when it comes to the view of schooling in Sweden that creativity and discipline are mutually exclusive. This is completely wrong – on the contrary order stimulates creativity and additionally leads to pleasure as it is much easier to focus on your creative power if nothing else competes for your attention,” says Ms Bergström.
When asked whether she thinks that creating IES has been worth all the work she answers that she wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, and also with her husband Hans Bergström, the former editor-in-chief of Dagens Nyheter, who played an important role in the development of IES from 2001 to 2019. The American not-for-profit foundation that the Bergström couple founded is currently the largest minority shareholder in IES with around 14 per cent of the shares.
“We have been a very good team and complemented each other well. The development of the organisation during those years required Hans’ analytical skills and unlimited work capacity, just as much as my conviction and soul.
“We both hope that IES will continue as a quality school with the same strength and determination, even once we are no longer part of the picture,” she says.