Why Denmark’s vaunted school system is showing signs of wear

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Anastasia Marcellin - [email protected]
Why Denmark’s vaunted school system is showing signs of wear
File photo: Thomas Lekfeldt / Ritzau Scanpix

Danish education is often seen as an effective and healthy model, in which the well-being of pupils is primary. But recent years have seen changes and reforms implemented, challenging the whole system.


“God morgen 1.A!” 

The hubbub of children's voices fades. All have just said goodbye to their parents, happy to find their classmates. The twenty students of class 1.A at the Skjoldhøjskolen school in Aarhus are ready to start a new day. On the board, Maria Elise Kjellerup Andersen, the Danish teacher, introduces the programme of her lesson of the day: "Today we are going to work on the pronunciation and writing of words.” The children stand up to take their exercise books and a pencil.

Located in Tilst, a suburb of Aarhus, Skjoldhøjskolen has around 400 students, aged between 6 and 16 years old. It is a folkeskole, a Danish public school which corresponds to the primary and middle schools in most national systems.

Abroad, the Danish school system is often seen as an example to follow: empathy classes, no notes before the age of 14 and even school in the forest. There are a lot of reasons to envy the little Danes.

However, the system is far from being appreciated by everybody domestically.

A number reforms implemented in recent years are exhausting teachers and school staff.

The results, far from meeting the expectations and the means put in place, raise questions over the effectiveness of the system.

Very autonomous schools

Denmark has a total of around 1,700 folkeskoler such as Skjoldhøjskolen. Their management is shared between the national government and the 98 municipalities that make up the country. This territorial division deals with the implementation of the laws taken at national level.

"The Ministry of Education is setting up a framework around public primary schools. But within this framework, municipalities and schools are quite free of their choices,” explains Roger Buch, researcher in political science at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus.

Spending, the application of programmes and recruitment of personnel are thus left at the discretion of the municipalities.

On their side, the folkeskoler are free in the choice of the number of children per class, the distribution of hours by subject, methods of teaching or activities.

File photo: Henning Bagger / Ritzau Scanpix

Municipalities are financed by grants from the national government, but also by local taxes.

"Differences in education between municipalities come from differences in taxation. But the way municipalities spend for their students and the amounts they choose to dedicate to education are also key factors," Buch said.

With 98 municipalities and more than 1,700 schools, it’s difficult to generalize. Demographic and socio-economic factors vary greatly from one municipality to another and even within the municipalities themselves. All do not have the same priorities, the same needs and the same means in terms of education.

This Tuesday morning, the pupils of the class 1.A of Skjoldhøjskolen are working on the pronunciation of vowels. All are barefoot and stand up without asking permission to see the board more closely, close the curtains or borrow a pencil.

"Maria, Maria!” Clara, a blonde little girl with glasses, raises her hand to ask her teacher for help. As in most schools in Denmark, students call teachers by their first name.

"The Danish school system is more informal than in other European countries. This is because our culture itself is informal and very open-minded,” Mette Marie Ledertoug, PhD in positive education at Aarhus University.

Class sizes are normally around twenty pupils and the composition of the group remains the same throughout the schooling.

At Skjoldhøjskolen, for Clara, Leander, Sophia and the others, there is no stress at the beginning of the year: they are sure to find the same classmates from one year to another. This organization aims to facilitate group cohesion and the well-being of children.

Education is one of the pillars of life

Group work and cooperation are at the center of learning. In her class, Andersen makes sure to offer funny and lively activities to her pupils. That day, they are divided into groups of four. On one side of the room, a sheet is placed on the floor with Danish words. On the other side, the pupils are seated in groups with a white sheet and a pencil.

In each group, one of the pupils must run to the sheet with the words, remember the spelling of one of them, go back to his classmates and spell the word so they can write it on the sheet. The group which writes the most words on their sheet in 10 minutes wins.

Students learn while having fun and moving, and in the end, the exercise is easier than it seems.

During the following class, Meryem, the maths teacher, also make them work in a duet with dice to understand the principles of addition and subtraction. In Danish schools, children have several teachers, even in primary school. Here, each teacher teaches one to three subjects, to classes of different levels. Once the class is over, she leaves the classroom to make way for another teacher.

File photo: Martin Sylvest Andersen / Ritzau Scanpix

The range of subjects taught is broad: Danish, letters, mathematics, sports, music, and also religion.

State and the church are, in fact, not separated in Denmark. Religious classes are offered during all schooling. However, pupils are not required to follow them if parents prefer to take care of religious education themselves.

In Denmark, education is understood as the acquisition of academic skills but also as the learning of life in community, explains Ning de Coninck-Smith, is Professor of the History of Education and Childhood at the Danish School of Education in Copenhagen.

"There is a very strong belief in Denmark that education can improve society and democracy. Today, we still believe in this. Education is one of the pillars of life. Danes are obliged to educate themselves throughout their lives. It is not a right but a duty," de Coninck-Smith says.

The Pisa change

But for several years now, this vision of Danish education has been facing serious challenges.

"The school devotes less and less time to social skills. On the contrary, academic skills are given more and more importance,” Ledertoug said.

READ ALSO: How Denmark's new government could change education

And when looking for the reason, the majority of respondents point in the same direction: Pisa. Four letters that have changed many things in the way of teaching in Denmark.

Pisa stands for Program for International Students Assessment, a set of tests conducted by the OECD to determine the level of education in participating countries. Results are then used to make an eponymous ranking, the Pisa ranking. The first tests were carried out in 2000 and the first results were published in 2001. Since then, tests have been conducted every three years.

In Denmark, the results of the first Pisa ranking in 2001 were disappointing. The country, far from the podium, ended up in 17th position, between the United States and Switzerland.

"Nobody took this test seriously. Nobody could imagine that Denmark was not the best country in the world in terms of education,” de Coninck-Smith recalls.

These results shook the vision of teaching in the country. Denmark spends about 7 percent of its GDP on education, one of the highest percentages in the OECD countries. Given the average Pisa scores, some wondered whether the money spent on teaching was worth it.

The government decided to act and to give more importance to the evaluation of academic skills.

"There has been a trend in recent years for pupils’ testing and grading. There is the idea that you have to test pupils and be sure they are learning. This is one of the major trends in education today in Denmark, with reforms," Buch notes.

Reforms again and again

In 2013, a major reform looked set to transform Danish schooling.

This reform planned longer school days for children (with a change from 21 to 30 weekly hours, on average), more hours dedicated to the teaching of Danish and mathematics, and 45 minutes of physical activity per day or the learning of English from the first year of school.

But the reform also included a redesign of teachers' working hours, encouraging them to spend more time in the school.

That measure that angered teachers and paralyzed schools across the country during a three-week industrial conflict in April 2013.

READ ALSO: Trust, risk and regulation: how Denmark's 2013 teachers' lockout built the platform for a far greater crisis

"This measure has poisoned the entire reform. Teachers and parents focused on this, without seeing the other measures it contained," says de Coninck-Smith.

Nevertheless, the bill was passed by parliament, and in September 2014, the reform was put in place. At least, partially. Because the autonomy given to municipalities in the management of education allowed them to apply the new rules with varying degrees of rigour.

File photo: Thomas Lekfeldt / Ritzau Scanpix

"All the schools had to put the reform in place, but some did it in its most minimal version," says Ledertoug.

"The problem nowadays is that primary school is being reformed every three or four years. It's difficult to manage for municipalities and schools. And it's not even a matter of political color: education has always been a subject of debate, regardless of the majority in power," Buch notes.

New problems, new debates

Fatigue is felt by schools and children alike.

Following the reform, school days have become longer. At Skjoldhøjskolen, classes end at 2:10pm. But pupils can stay in school until 5pm, supervised by teacher-educators who provide fun activities.

Similar facilities are provided at many other Danish schools.

"However, even with fun activities, pupils complain about the long school days," says de Coninck-Smith.

Increasing difficulties with public education have led many parents to turn to the private sector.

Today, about 15 percent of Danish pupils are enrolled in a private school: an expansion supported by the Danish government, which finances about 75 percent of the cost of tuition in the private sector, with the rest left to the families.

"There is an economic and social selection. Most private schools cost between 1500 and 2000 kroner per month (between 200-266 euros),” Buch says.

That is difficult sum to pay for some families, especially with several children going to school.

The Danish school is definitely changing, but in which direction? Opinions on the subject are divided, and the arrival of the new government looks likely to signal a change in direction.

Recent upheavals have shown weaknesses in the system, particularly in terms of results and time management.

For Ledertoug, the school system in Denmark is generally good, "although there is still room for improvement.” According to her, the country, like its northern neighbors, is on the right track.

Roger Buch concludes: "There is currently a debate in Denmark. Recently, we focused on tests and notes but maybe we should focus on something else.” 



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