Danish secondary schools socialise parents as well as children. But don't mention exam results.by Sally Laird / July 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
For the past six years we have lived in Ebeltoft, a picturesque small town on the east coast of Jutland. We knew next to nothing about Denmark before we came here, spoke not a word of the language, and-living on the campus of an international film college whose lingua franca is English-might never have progressed beyond the words for bread, beer and herring were it not for our daughter, who attends the local school. To the extent that we have been integrated into the community, it is thanks to Skelhojeskole, one of the town’s two folkeskoler. The Danes set great store by the folk school, which sees children through from the age of six all the way to 16 or 17, when they leave for good or go on to university. Thus many children will have the same classmates, and the same class teacher, for ten years. The class, rather than the school, is the locus of belonging. My daughter, aged nine, speaks of The Class with something approaching reverence. It is here that the child is socialised and integrated-and not just the child, the parents too. Four times a year our daughter’s teacher invites us to attend a class function: sometimes an outing or a dinner involving all the parents and children; sometimes a parents-only evening at which the curriculum and the children’s progress are discussed. Great effort is made to ensure that these occasions are hyggelige-convivial and cosy. Tables are laid in the staff room with coffee and pastries. The teacher-a wise and humorous woman who is married to the mayor-tries to get everyone involved. On the last two such evenings we were arranged in groups to play a special kind of game. The first game involved discussing what kinds of skills and knowledge we would like our children to possess by the age of 17. Every group was given a set of cards, on each of which was printed a potential aim: “Will know about the Great Wall of China,” or “Will be familiar with the works of Hans Christian Andersen.” Together, the group had to arrange these in order of importance. We then had to subdivide them further, according to whether the school, the parents or both combined were responsible for ensuring that each aim was reached. My group consisted of a tax inspector; a local building entrepreneur; a pregnant mother-of-three who works in the meat-packing factory; an assistant in the town pharmacy; and me. We found ourselves in surprising accord on most of the cards. True, there was an element of cultural deference in my eager acquiesence that every 17-year-old should know about Poul Henning, the famous designer of Danish lamps. No doubt there was a tendency to pay respect to those things we knew least about (“Calculus? That’s something important in maths, isn’t it?”) while downgrading abilities that we (or our forefathers) took for granted. No one seemed to think that our school-leavers should know how to row, fish, milk cows, build a wall, make curtains or change a baby’s nappy; while, on the other hand, we all put knowledge of Picasso, Mozart and Shakespeare on the important pile, and agreed that the children should have visited a museum (the latter was deemed the school’s responsibility, while parents were to take care of the zoo). Ability to write a love poem was assigned low importance as something that could not be taught (“Who hasn’t written a love poem by the time he’s 17?” said the tax inspector. “Not me, for one,” said the entrepreneur), but everyone felt that a 17-year-old should be able to make a speech and chair a meeting. Knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer proved surprisingly controversial in a community in which Christianity is part of the standard curriculum, and Confirmation a mass rite of passage, but-like knowledge of the Danish royal family-it was eventually passed for PR purposes (it could be embarrassing not to know). The most definite endorsement was given to knowledge of the Holocaust. Round two of this exercise took place a couple of weeks ago, when we were invited to study a new set of cards representing the building blocks of an ideal school. Each card carried a slogan such as good leadership or pleasant environment. Several blank cards were given on which we could suggest our own building blocks if those offered proved insufficient. This time my group consisted of a bank clerk, a young diver and his wife, and a Copenhagen-born potter. Most striking to me were the cards that were missing. Hesitantly, I suggested that we add in “enough money” and “class size.” My group agreed politely, but none of the other groups came up with these foundations. As for exam results, which featured nowhere, I knew better than to mention them. No child receives a mark of any kind here before the age of 14, and the school-leavers’ jamboree takes place each year before they have sat their final exams. What happened to discipline was also instructive. The diver’s wife was nostalgic for the term, but the diver insisted firmly that the word be replaced by mutual respect. This formula cropped up in all the other groups as well. Many of the qualities endorsed by the group were ones that these parents-like most Danes-display impressively themselves: respect for others; the ability to speak confidently in public; a democratic sense of self-worth; and a desire to achieve consensus. The reporters from each group typically began their account, by saying not what their group had decided, but what they had found out: Vi fandt ud af in Danish is not so much an individual enterprise to uncover something as a process of arriving-humbly, and often collectively-at some immanent truth. I am not an unequivocal admirer of Danish education. I suspect that the great emphasis on equality may leave brighter children under-challenged. But I turn back to Denmark with relief from the angst-ridden and competitive discussions of education in England. I won’t be sorry if at 17 my daughter is as civilised as these parents, and has found out that mannerly discussion and an ability to listen are prerequisites for finding out in general.