School for life.*
To start your day with a song – literally. That is what students and teachers do at Brenderup Folk High School, Denmark. In the morning, after breakfast, and before starting their daily duties, they all go to the “Strawberry House” (an ecological house, made of straw bales) and sing together. When needed, at these assemblies, they also have discussions about school matters, so decisions are democratically taken. Democracy seems to be a key element of the school life and of the Danish value system in general. For the Danes, democracy is not just an abstract political term, but a way of life in an active civil society. Democracy is something they learn in practice from a very early age. We’ve asked the Head Teacher of the school, Ole Dedenroth: What is the leading thing for Folk High Schools? What is the main thing they want to teach their students? He pointed out three things: Self-knowledge – to discover oneself, to know your strong sides, to discover your interests and the things you want to explore. The other thing is knowing your Community and finding your place in it. To know your importance for the community and how you can contribute to it. You also need to understand what the community means to you and what it can do for you. And the third, for which you must understand the other two, is Democracy.
The Music teacher with students in the Strawberry House.
Folk High Schools emerged in Denmark in the 19th century. The first Folk High School was created by Christen Kold (1816-1870), a follower of the philosopher, poet and a bishop Nikolaj Grundtvig (1783-1872). It is the philosophy of Grundtvig that lies at the core of the Folk High School and has made its mark on the school system of contemporary Denmark. For Grundtvig, education makes sense if it is accessible to everyone throughout their life. Those schools were turning into cultural and educational centers for the villages and towns throughout the country. And so they do today.
Folk High Schools offer a non-formal education for those who have finished school. There are long (up to a year) and short (one-week) courses for which, people of different age groups can enroll. Students may come from all over the world, which creates a vibrant, multicultural and a very lively environment for a life-enriching experience. The Folk High School is a boarding school, which contributes to building a community spirit and creates a warm, family-like atmosphere.
There is equality amongst teachers and students. Teachers in Folk High Schools are not in the position of the “knowing all” who will teach the rest. Skills and knowledge are passed on through telling stories and real life examples, and through practical tasks. These tasks can be hard and often require real-life implementation. However, no-one is scared, because students know not to fear their mistakes. The learning process is filled with exploration, togetherness and sharing. Teaching is also an individual process, addressing every student’s own pace and desire to learn. As we were reminded more than once: “You can take a horse to the river, but you can't make it drink”.
Each school is offering a variety of subjects but is usually profiling in specific areas. The focus at Brenderup Folk High School, which we visited, is on sustainability, as a life concept, but also in the fields of ecological building, gardening, arts and crafts. The last finished project we observed at the school was the wonderful “off-grid house”. This house, built by staff and students, is not connected to the electricity grid or to the central water system. All the energy, heat and water used in the house are sourced from nature. Everything that goes out from the house is purified and goes back to nature. Next to the house, a group of students have initiated a permaculture garden. These projects implement both well-known energy efficiency innovations and some brand new developments that students and teachers explore together and modify to meet their needs.
The plants for the permaculture garden are grown in the glass house at the front of the Off Grid House and are watered with purified rain water that was first used in the house.
Folk High Schools do not give you an official diploma or a certificate, but they are a wonderful school for life and can give you an idea of what to study or do in the future. According to statistics, the percentage of students dropping out of higher education is considerably smaller - almost none - among those who had previous attended a Folk High School, compared to others. Attending such a school gives you good credits later in life when applying for a job or continuing your education.
Folk High Schools are a part of the Free School Association in Denmark. Free Schools are neither state nor privately run. A Free School is usually initiated by a group of parents who are looking for a better educational alternative for their children. This means that parents have the leading role in the democratic management of the school. Teachers employed in this system do not necessarily need to have a pedagogical education as long as they have a very good knowledge of the subject they are teaching and a good approach to the students, which should be recognized by the school management. The curriculum and the subjects studied, as well as the teaching methods, are freely chosen by the School Board. The only requirement is that the students will learn Danish, English and Mathematics at a level comparable to that in state schools. Free schools are officially recognized as part of the education system in the country and receive a significant portion of their funding from the Government.
Another important feature of Folk High Schools and Free schools is that they have no grades or exams. The Danes say that “if we continually remove the plant from the ground to see if its roots are growing, it would not be able to grow and become big and strong”. Similarly, students do not need to be constantly checked on their learning. The lack of assessments and exams creates a relaxed, natural environment, with no tension, in which students are eager to prepare for life. Clearly, this system works very well in Denmark, because there is evidence that students who have attended such schools perform well in life after leaving the system - at work or in further education.
Although there is no requirement in the free school system for teachers to have a pedagogical qualification, for those who want to improve their teaching skills, there is The Independent Academy of Free School Teaching in Ollerup. The Academy prepares teachers for the Free Schools and Folk High Schools in the whole country. It is a five year course where the students spend the entire third year as practicing teachers in school. The principles are the same: no grades, no exams, equality and democracy.
The English teacher in her classroom at The Independent Academy of Free School Teaching in Ollerup.
Folk High Schools also exist in other countries, including Germany, Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Austria. Their popularity is growing in Poland, where the Association of Polish Folk High Schools is currently negotiating with the government for obtaining support and funding.
The visit of Botanica Life’s team in Denmark, and in particular to the Brenderup Folk High School, was very inspiring and positive. It took place just at the time when our team was preparing our own training courses which would be held in the summer of 2018 in the village of Nadarevo. While we were observing Branderup, there were countless moments when we were saying to ourselves "We can do that, too ... We have to apply this in our work ..." Good practices need to be adapted to our environment in the best possible way. And as the wise men said: "The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones"
Democracy, freedom, sustainability, community, equality – these were the words we heard most often during our stay in Denmark. They all come with full comprehending, sense of responsibility and personal commitment.
Brenderup Folk High School – main building.
This article was inspired and written after a study visit of Botanica Life’s team to Brenderup Folk High School in Denmark in May 2018. The group consisted of Apostol Apostolov, Galina Pencheva, Simona Dyankova and Peter Petrov. We are grateful to the staff and students of Brenderup Folk High School who were most welcoming hosts. We also thank the Velux Foundations, The Erasmus + programme of the EU, and the ZIARNO Association for making this visit possible.