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Denmark - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceDenmark - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Primary Preprimary Education, Secondary Education


Education is and has been regarded as one of the essential pillars of the Danish welfare state and has contributed to a relatively homogenous population and work force in Denmark. By international comparison, the Danish educational system today appears relatively coherent, comprehensive, and egalitarian. It is mainly controlled and financed by the State. School leaving, as well as the recognition of competences in further and higher education, is almost entirely regulated by the State through the Ministry of Education. However, the educational system includes a range of private institutions under public regulation and funding, and the participation of social interest groups and organizations in governing education is important for the function of the system. The core of education is a comprehensive primary school, which is, though locally governed, quite homogenous, and comprises a system of pathways into further and higher education. Furthermore, a wide range of education and training is available, particularly in adult and continuing education. The aim is for the system to be open and flexible; however, removing dead ends and detours caused by traditional admission criteria and lack of institutional coordination is still being attempted.

Until the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for education. After the Protestant Reformation, Denmark was one of the first European countries to establish a national Lutheran Church, and the Church had a huge historical influence on Danish education. The foundations of the system, stemming from Reformation statutes of the 1530s, survived until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1536, the State took over the grammar schools from the Catholic Church, and the history of the Danish national education system may be said to have begun from this date. State supremacy was accepted and even promoted by the Lutherans, with the result that the Church and the State were never in conflict.

The later development has been motivated by the national State and has been strongly influenced by the fact that Denmark was an agricultural society until World War II. Since then, a rapid development of the industrial and service sectors has taken place, and the development of the educational system may be regarded as a specific consequence of modernization.

The impact of modernization and novel philosophies of education was felt in three different directions, all related to social class. The most famous direction was the growing class of independent farmers, liberated from landlords and influenced by the revolutionary democratic trends in the rest of Europe. The result was a Free School Movement, which owes its origin to the ideas of N. F. S. Grundtvig—poet, clergyman and philosopher. Grundtvig criticized the grammar schools for being too academic and elitist, and was opposed to the rigid style of the Church. He defended a more joyous and lively religious practice. He believed in the "necessity of the living word for the awakening of life and the transmission of the spirit," as well as in the development of basic skills.

This rather romantic idea of a Nordic popular culture was to be promoted by folk high schools outside the control of the State. In 1852, Kristen Kold founded the first of many Scandinavian folk high schools. These schools had no entrance or leaving examinations, and instruction was confined to lectures. Students were generally adults from 18 to 30 years of age. The teaching included—with local variations—history, religion, Danish language and literature, mathematics, science, gymnastics, and practical farm work. The terms were five residential winter months and three residential summer months. This tradition of schooling based on an agricultural rural class endured until after World War II and has remained a part of nonformal Danish education, influencing the state school system and offering alternative schools of liberal as well as practical education.

During the nineteenth century, the rise of urban merchant classes needing a more practical type of schooling led to a secularization of the State school system, with the inclusion of modern languages and science in the curriculum. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a modern system of general education had thus already taken shape in the cities and towns, comprising the folkeskole ("school of the people") at the elementary level and the mellemskole ("middle school") at the middle level. The former Latin grammar schools were replaced by real-skoler (lower secondary schools). A three-year upper secondary school, or gymnasium, prepared students for university education of the German Humboldt'ian type. For another half century, however, the modernization mainly affected secondary education in urban communities. It was a very selective education system with a strong class bias, the streaming (or channeling) taking place at the mellemskole level.

The influence of the growing working class led to a demand for a more egalitarian school system. The labor movement secured public funding of primary schools and evening classes. The selectivity in admission to secondary education, however, remained unchallenged. Urban and rural communities had different types of school systems until the 1950s.

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