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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

A guide to Danish school life!

Mid-August 2019, Odense International School, where I used to teach, opened its doors for students to return after the summer holidays. Approximately 150 previously enrolled students and 35 newly enrolled students - of the latter, many new to Denmark.

The following week, the second week of the academic year, most of the school’s students and staff went with the school’s Danish department to Sletten, an outdoor scout camp in Jutland, for a four-day residential trip.

The school administration and teachers had been preparing this event for months; a huge logistic accomplishment. The older students slept in tents, mobile phones were not allowed and there were lots of fun activities enabling students from both sections of the school to mix across year groups. We climbed (read walked) up one of Denmark’s highest points, Himmelbjerget (The Sky Mountain which with its 147 meters is not really a mountain!), and we had a day of sporting games. Furthermore, each class had time to do activities on their own in the surrounding area. All in all, a week of fun enabling students and staff to come closer together.

Enjoying time with my own class, a bunch of lovely second graders from the Danish section, who had all known me and each other for the past two years, I found myself wondering what it must have been like for international newcomers and their parents to be going respectively sending their children on such trip. Being new to the school and not knowing any of the teachers or the other students, perhaps even being new to Denmark and not knowing much, if anything, about Danish school culture, I imagined, it must have been daunting.

My own experience of sending children to school in a foreign country!

I recall sending my three young children to local schools in England without them understanding a word of English. We had discussed the possibility of them attending the Norwegian school in Wimbledon on the outskirts of London where they would have been able to make themselves understood from day one, but eventually agreed that we wanted our children to have local schooling for them to master the English language. It was important to us not to limit their ability to communicate outside of school gates.

For me, it took a lot of courage as well as faith in the teachers’ ability to deal with matters and in myself to have made the right decision to have moved my children out of their familiar school environment. I found it particularly anxiety inducing that one of my children suffered from severe food allergies and risked developing anaphylaxis without being able to tell teachers that they needed to administer an EpiPen and call for an ambulance immediately, should symptoms develop.

Thankfully, we were met with empathy, understanding, warmth, and an ongoing willingness to stretch far to make our children feel welcome and included in school life. The first six months were tough, and I was often asked to come into school helping to sort out issues with my children; but gradually, as my children began to master the language, things eased.

What does the law say about schooling in Denmark?

Funded by taxes, education in Denmark is mandatory for children aged 6 up to sitting the exams offered by Folkeskolen (the Danish state school), the latest by the 31st of July in the calendar year your child turns 17. There is no legal requirement for you to send your child to school as long as you fulfil your parental responsibility of ensuring your child is educated in line with the law about primary and secondary schooling, the so-called Folkeskoleloven.

This states that it is your parental responsibility to make sure your child is as prepared to enrol into upper-secondary education as well as live in a society like the Danish with freedom and democracy as children who have attended Folkeskolen. It is vital to understand that currently, the Danish Ministry of Education has made an entrance test to all Danish high schools mandatory for all students who have not passed the FSA (the final exam after year 9 in the Danish system) in Danish.

As internationals, you are faced with several choices of schooling to accomplish the above: home schooling, the local Danish state school funded by tax money, or a private fee charging school - some of which are Danish, some international. Regardless of your choice, it is essential to understand how the Danish school system works and may be different to that which you and your child are used to.

What is Danish school culture like?

After almost a decade of schooling in England, some of the things my own children noticed when re-entering Danish schools were the lack of locked gates to protect students from leaving school grounds; calling their teachers by their first name rather than Mrs or Mr So and So; the higher noise levels as well as the higher levels of student independence when problem solving; and lastly, the extended group work.

Even if you choose an international school working from a foreign system like Cambridge Assessment International Education, it is inevitable that Danish school culture will influence the way things are run. Resting on principles like freedom and responsibility, the Danish school system concerns itself with three aspects of a student’s life and wellbeing:

  • academic

  • social

  • emotional

It is a shared responsibility between the student, their parents and the chosen school to meet the criteria of the purpose and goals for a child’s schooling in Denmark.

To some, the Danish system may appear less rule bound and even slightly more chaotic than other school cultures; and it takes time to realise that the system relies on lots of unwritten rules about mutual respect, trust, and independence. All elements that are said to be contributing to Danes scoring high in happiness surveys.

Adding to that, testing is not as prominent a factor in Denmark as it is in many other school cultures. If you, like my children, come from a more rule bound and seemingly more academic schooling, it takes time to adjust and appreciate that social and emotional wellbeing are just as important factors for learning as are academic ability and skills practise.

Not only do schools have to prepare students for a life with freedom and democracy, these elements are incorporated into school life. Where appropriate, schools appreciate and encourage student voices in decision making. In many countries, teachers enjoy a heightened respect amongst their students via their position as teachers; in Denmark, known for its flat hierarchy in work places, respect is earned on a individual basis by how a teacher interact with students.

Obviously, teachers are in charge and responsible for the learning environment and curriculum, but students are encouraged to become independent learners from a very early age, to take responsibility for their own learning and behaviour; also, when appropriate, to partake in decision making about school life - both in classroom situations and in school student councils.

Research shows that Danish schools are cradles for democracy and that students in Denmark are amongst the most competent when it comes to democracy as well as in relation to being able to structure, organise, and effectively carry out tasks on their own and in groups.

For some, the principle of inclusion may be foreign. The Danish system is based on inclusion in the sense that schools must cater for the learning and wellbeing of all children; including those of children with special needs who with support are to be taught in mainstream education alongside their more able peers. This means that you may experience a greater diversity in students’ ability then you have experienced previously.

How to support your child’s teachers to best support your child!

For parents, it can be challenging to trust a system that, effectively, is unknown to them. Adding to that, the Danish system may be pushing qualities that are foreign to those of the parents' own culture, for instance encouraging children to be independent, make their own way to school, be in charge of their school work, take a stroll through the city with their peers after school; and more provocatively, encouraging students to participate in discussions with adults expressing their own opinions, even when these are different to those of their parents and home culture.

In relation to parents, the Danish school system expect parents to show a certain level of openness about their family life, their values and ways of raising their children, as well as the challenges they experience with these. Trusting a school and its staff with such personal information can be anxiety inducing; and many may be reluctant to doing so given that teachers, being state mandatory reporters, have an extended duty to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities.

When you are new to a country, it can be difficult to trust that child welfare policies put in place are there to support children and their family living a good, peaceful life for all to thrive together. If your way of raising children is different to mainstream Danish upbringing, it can be anxiety inducing to having to share your experiences.

I recall that after my divorce in England, two mornings a week, I had to leave my children to get ready for school on their own as I had to be at work for 6 am. This, in a community where most children arrived at school in big, expensive cars, and were accompanied to the school gate by their mum or nanny. I felt awful! Not only did I feel as if I was letting my children down, I was afraid that someone would report me to the local authorities for neglecting my children. Bottomline, I had to work to support them, but I did feel caught in between a rock and a hard place.

My professional experience of the Danish social system is that the overall aim is to help parents cater for their children; and that lots of support is to be had if asked for. Help your child’s teachers support your child by being open and honest with them; meet their requests and, at difficult times, remember that teachers have your child’s best interest at heart. In my experience, teachers are always willing to discuss any concerns you may have if you book an appointment with them.

How to best support your child!

By being open to and curious about your child's experiences at school as well as trying to embrace and support these rather than being critical of them being different to the school culture you are familiar with, you will show your child that school is a safe place with lots of good experiences to be had, friends to be made, lots of learning and valuable experiences to be had.

Your child will meet children from lots of other cultures, religions, countries, and social backgrounds. By encouraging your child to play with them all and inviting their peers home for play dates, you will enhance your child's cultural intelligence.

Listen to your child's experiences. Support them to express their feelings and emotions; and try to encourage them to see things from the perspective of their peers for them to develop empathy. For young children this can be particular challenging in the aftermath of an upsetting conflict with a class mate; when the dust has settled, it can be helpful for them to draw the incident. This visual enables them to talk about the incident from different perspectives without placing blame and shame.

Work on your own identity to better accept that your child will grow up with a different set of values to those of your own. Unlike children who grow up in their parents' home culture, expat children, also called Third Culture Kids, will grow up with a multitude of cultures to mirror themselves in. This can cause confusion, and it is not uncommon to develop what is called Expat Child Syndrome. By being open and accepting, you can help them deal with this.

Welcome to the Danish school system! Enjoy the ride!

Like and follow my Facebook page for more on how to live The Good Expat Life in Denmark. You are also welcome to sign up to my newsletter on mental health during expat life; click here for the signup form.

First published in August 2019; re-published July 2023.

Danish schools are cradles of democracy! A miniguide on Danish school culture


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