I’ve just come back from a visit to Denmark, and my intention was to blog about what I learned about the education system there. In fact, it was such a productive visit that I’ve had to divide it into two parts. Here’s the first instalment, and it focuses on the education system and what we might learn from what is a very different approach to the UK. Part 2 is about sport and wellbeing.

The Danish Education System

The first thing to set out is how schools work in Denmark. Education is compulsory from ages 6-16, with pupils doing a pre-school year (Year 0) and then Years 1-9. This is ‘primary’ and ‘lower secondary’ education and there is an option to carry on in Year 10. After primary school things split into different pathways depending on what works best for each student. There are three options:

  1. High school (gymnasium) – three years of upper secondary at a general gymnasium (stx), a business college (htx, or handelsgymnasium) or a technical school (htx, or teknisk gymnasium), which leads to a leaving examination and provides a pathway into university. This path is by far the most common.
  2. A three year pathway of vocational education leading more directly to specific professions.
  3. A two year vocational education leading directly to skilled or unskilled professions.

School leavers are typically 19 years of age and for those of you who are PISA fans, Denmark came 25th out of 79 countries in science in 2018. However, the socio-economic differences in attainment are below average (10% compared to 12% in reading), and economically disadvantaged students are marginally more academically resilient (by 1%). Those stats might not seem world-beating, but the ethos is completely different. Danes sacrifice attainment for egalitarianism. You won’t find Singaporian mass cramming here, but you won’t find so many human beings consigned to perpetual failure either. 

A Different Option – the Folk High School Movement

This is where things get really interesting. There is something called the ‘folk school movement’ which was inspired back in 1844 by Nikolaj Grundtvig, and became fully established in the late 19th century. Folk schools were a reaction to the prevailing conservatism of the 1840s, and they are open to adults of all ages. Exams are forbidden, the curriculum is bespoke (schools design them based on need), and the length of time here can vary. Folk high schools are also typically boarding schools. They offer opportunities for non-formal lifelong learning which can provide highly skilled people with new skills, or a chance for those who have struggled to reset their life. In a post-COVID world, this looks incredibly attractive.  

Boarding Schools

A key feature of the Danish system, which is common across Scandinavia, is that many parents opt to send their children to boarding schools for one year in Year 10. This is equivalent to S5 in Scotland or Year 12 in England, and gives pupils a social experience which is rooted in life skills. There are no exams in this year, and about one third of all Danish pupils (around 30,000 per year) take this option. It’s subsidised by the state, but parents know that it is coming and will save up for several years in advance to pay the 10,000 euros (approximately) that it will cost. The main objective is to teach young adults about socialisation and living as a community.

Case Study: the Three Schools at Oure

I spent an afternoon with Michael Sørensen, who has worked at Oure for 20 years and is a former pupil. He’s now on the Senior Leadership team and if you want to speak to someone who is passionate about their school and the values they espouse, he’s your man. Oure consists of three schools and they are very much a community. As Michael says, the purpose is to “lift people up”, often when they lack the resources or skills to do so themself.

Oure is a boarding school that specialises in sports and the performing arts and was founded in 1987. It’s on the outskirts of a village about two hours west of Copenhagen. It has three schools: the upper secondary (the Kostgymnasium) for years 10 and up, so ages 16-19; the continuation school (Efterskole – a Danish word that I’m sure should be be Scottish) which offers a formal secondary school education for pupils aged 15-16 to add life skills, additional maturity, and lifelong friendships to the formal part of the education, effectively like an early gap year; and the Folk High School. In total there are around 1050 students and 250 staff. Each school is boarding, and two thirds of the funding for the Kostgymnasium and Efterskole is provided by the state, with the remaining third being paid in fees by parents or students themselves. The Folk High School is entirely state funded. The cost for all education, activities, food and lodgings is about 250 euros per week, so in line with the 10,000 euros p.a. cost outlined above. 

The school specialises in performing arts and sport, so has various dance studios, music practice rooms and studios, a swimming pool, sports halls and many outdoor areas for biking, handball, volleyball and football.

Boarding life is organised around small houses, which are mixed gender. In the upper secondary, eight boys will share with eight girls in four rooms. When Oure was founded there was real opposition to co-educational boarding houses, but this has been normalised now. The bedrooms are separated by gender but the toilet and shower facilities are shared. Each year, students have to work for one week in the main school kitchens to develop a work ethic, a respect for the staff, and learn about food waste. Student work about wellbeing, health and nutrition can be seen posted on the walls of the canteen. In the Efterskole, the same principles apply but students are in two bed rooms rather than four. The furnishings are modest – think of a clean, functional youth hostel and you’ve more of less got the picture. 

The Folk School currently has an age range of 20-32, and the average age is 22. There is no upper limit – it is open to adults of all ages. At the younger end you have people who still don’t feel they have found their purpose in life and need more time to develop. At the older end, you have people who want to change career or take a break, so need time to think and to learn new skills. The eldest graduate last year was a man who left the army and didn’t know what he wanted to do. Social life here is vibrant – there is a bar/cafe and plenty to do. 

Michael is especially passionate about the folk school. “If it hadn’t been invented over a hundred years ago then no one would want to establish it now, because it’s too ambitious and idealistic. Yet all political parties support it and no one would ever criticise it. That would lead to defeat at the next election for any politician.” It is so well established and respected, but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that such a great idea was possible in the 19th century but probably wouldn’t be feasible to start from scratch now. 

The site is incredible and has been developed incrementally over time. There are multiple facilities for sport, arts and leisure. The whole place is powered by a wind turbine that is 32 years old – how’s that for being ahead of the curve? Thought has gone into locations of buildings and there is a natural flow. For example, the music school is next to the indoor skateboarding park, causing a lovely cross-fertilisation of ideas and friendships that come from those two social groups mixing outside. The mountain bike park has a huge hill that is man-made, coming from earth that was dug out of the lake – all done by the folk school students. The lake is due to be extended to allow for watersports to be done on site. There is a shop, which was opened by staff when the local village shop closed down. It’s a co-operative where all the proceeds are divided between the students annually to help cover their expenses. 

As I visited during the holidays, the campus was being used for summer schools. Interestingly, when parents enrol their children on these they attend as well. The emphasis is on family learning, so I saw a sports hall packed full of parents and their children doing various games. The staff were mainly former pupils who had come back because they love the school and believe in the Danish tradition of non-formal education and volunteering. That’s a big part of the ethos, not just at Oure but across Denmark. 

Families taking part in the summer camp


There is a lot we can learn here about ethos and values, and about life-long learning. Danish education isn’t talked about in the same lofty terms as Finland or Estonia, but the metrics are different. Emphasis is on equity and allowing people to learn (or relearn) at their own pace. State support for boarding is based on the intrinsic belief in building shared communities, and this is where Denmark does stand out. After all, it’s frequently cited as being one of the happiest places on earth. That might be down to hygge, but it might also be down to the education system. 

2 thoughts on “The Danish Way of Life 1: the Education System

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