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The Challenge of Immigration - Education as a Strategy for Integration and Social Change


There is perhaps no more important or more widely discussed problem in Denmark today than that of how to integrate new immigrants into Danish society. Although debates on the topic rage from the gilt halls of Christiansborg to the tangled alleyways of Nørrebro, few substantive solutions have been proposed, much less implemented, in what is perhaps the most important realm in any society for achieving social change: education. In this paper, we will attempt to gain insight into the current functioning of the Danish educational system and propose ways in which it can be changed so that future generations of New and Old Danes will be more likely to attain mutual understanding and learn to treat each other as equals. 

This work will be divided into five sections. Section I will provide background information about the Danish educational system and relevant immigration history. Section II will contain the information gleaned from the three interviews we conducted to attain primary data for this report. Section III will enumerate the problems faced by the Danish educational system in its efforts to integrate New Danes, and will incorporate both research and testimony from the interviews. In Section IV, we will propose initial solutions to the problems outlined in Section III, once again drawing upon the ideas presented by our interviewees. This section will also contain a discussion of the possible obstacles to the implementation of our solutions. Finally, Section V will be a conclusion that sums up the findings of the paper and offers suggestions for future research and policymaking in the topic area.    

I. Background

The Danish Educational System

Currently, around 3,000 schools serve Denmark’s approximately 5.2 million people, according to a December of 2000 article in the Heritage Foundation Policy Review. These institutions are divided up into public and private schools. As the Folkehojskoler website explains, the vast majority of Danes attend state-funded public schools, with only 10% enrolled in private schools and 1% enrolled in a special form of public school, called the Folk High School. In 1855, two passionate educational reform scholars, N.F.S.Grundtvig and Christen Kold, persuaded the Danish government to declare that all Danes had a right to free public schooling. According to an article in a 1997 educational publication, Educators' Contribution to the Peace Process, the progressive ideals of Grundtvig and Kold permeate the Danish educational system to this day, for Danish students are taught to be democratic participants in classroom decision-making, are encouraged to express their opinions avidly and are allowed some flexibility in choosing subjects to study within the standard curriculum. 

Immigration and Its Challenges to Danish Education

Despite the many unique and progressive aspects of Danish education, one problematic aspect of the system is that it was created by and for members of a homogenous society and may not represent the needs of the current burgeoning immigrant population.

Prior to the 1960s, Danish society was extremely homogenous, with the fast majority of the country proudly tracing its roots back to the Vikings, according to the historical background given in last year’s Heritage Foundation article about Denmark and immigration. However, a booming economy coupled with steadily declining birth rates created a demand for workers that the Danes could not fulfill. This situation led to the importation of “guest workers” from overseas in the early ’60s. After tightening regulations once more in the 1970s, Denmark began adopting more lenient policies towards family reunification in the 1980s. Currently, the only immigrants allowed into the country come as a result of family reunification or are asylum-seekers who can undeniably prove that their lives were in danger in their home countries. These regulations have resulted in a current immigrant population of 378,000, constituting about 7% of the total Danish population. 

The majority of current immigrants hail from Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Turkey and Palestine. According to the Folkeskolen website, these New Danes are highly concentrated in Sjælland, particularly in København, while in the much larger island of Jylland, there are comparatively much fewer immigrants with the exception of some enclaves in the larger urban areas. One reason immigrant families are likely to congregate in urban centers is because of the greater number of fellow immigrants with whom they can live and go to school. Since the 1980s, New Danes have ostensibly had the same rights to education as have Old Danes. In the public schools, there were over 9% bilingual students in 2000 (not counting Danish-English bilinguals). Representing the largest minority group, 20% of the total students enrolled were of Turkish origin, according to the Folkeskolen website. 

Despite being allowed educational access, New Danes currently face a host of challenges within the school system. These challenges include language barriers, lack of school preparation in their home countries, low achievement expectations from family and teachers, encountering a lack of respect for their practices and traditions from Old Danes, and overall race and culture-based discrimination on the part of fellow students and teachers. These challenges will be further explored later on in Section III of this paper.

II. The Interviews


In order to gain first-hand insights into the Danish educational system, we conducted a set of three interviews. The first interview was with Erling Petersen, a Folkeskole teacher, the second with a group of three students who attend Auerhøj gymnasium, and the third was conducted over email with a group of 10 Israeli and Palestinian students who had engaged in a conflict resolution program in Denmark's Helsingør Folk High School. By conducting these three interviews, we intended to flesh out our existing research on Danish education and receive aid from those within the system as to how to change it for the better.

Erling Petersen

Currently Folkeskolen, the public Danish primary and lower secondary school, faces new problems with a relatively new and growing number of pupils, the New Danes. As a representative of school teachers’ view on integration, we spoke to Erling Petersen who throughout his career has been working with bilingual pupils in several schools and leisure clubs, and serving as an consultant. He is a man who appears to be very concerned with and committed to improving the conditions of these pupils. Due to his extended experience we find it reasonable to give voice to what he considers some of the problematic issues concerning the meeting between the Folkschool and the New Danes. It should be mentioned, that in this context, when we refer to bilingual pupils, our focus is particularly on pupils with an ethnic heritage in the Middle East, simply because, according to the Folkeskolen website, they make up the majority of bilingual pupils.

Since 1997 Petersen has been a teacher at Helligkorsskolen, a school where only two Old Danish pupils in a class of more than 20 is not uncommon since this school is situated in Nørrebro, the part of København with the highest percentage of New Danish inhabitants.

Especially in many of the older classes Petersen describes a pattern that exists in a group of 2 or 3 bilingual boys behaving very dominantly and exerting control over the class. The teachers often have a hard time dealing with these boys because of their provocative behavior. The children with less obvious problems do not get the attention needed and the pupils who are actually trying to learn something are likely to be victims of bullying. In dealing with such problems in the Danish Folkeskole one would normally strive to create room for dialogue with pupils that are perceived as troublemakers. However, Petersen feels that these tools are not always as useful in conflict situations with New Danes as they are in situations with Old Danish pupils. He finds it hard to enter a dialogue with some of the young bilingual boys, whom he perceives as generally talking very loudly and reacting to criticism with strong anger and outbursts or even threats. These pupils are not very oriented towards reaching consensus or finding solutions to problems through dialogue, which he thinks partly can be traced to their upbringing.

Another important problematic aspect that Petersen touches upon is the communication between the school and parents of bilingual students. This communication is often hard to establish due to factors such as different ideas of punishment and disagreement and disputes over how much parents should be involved in their children’s schooling. Language barriers naturally also are held responsible for a lot of information being misinterpreted or disappearing on its way from teacher to parent or vice versa.

Petersen also points to the fact that very few bilingual pupils take part in leisure activities compared to the Old Danish pupils. In Denmark there is a long tradition of letting children go to clubs, sports activities, music or art schools etc. whereas it is a new phenomenon for many parents of bilingual pupils that they have to pay anything for their children to take  part in leisure activities. The result is that a lot of bilingual students, especially boys, hang around in the streets, and a lot of Old Danish pupils go to different institutions or clubs. Here it is seen how segregation not only works within the school system, but also is part of the pattern of leisure activities for Old and New Danish pupils. This segregation is evidently not contributing to integration or trans-ethnic friendship, since friendship in many cases arise outside school. Petersen stated that typically one would see Old and New Danish boys playing until the age of 12, while girls from the two groups tend to stop playing when they reach the age of 9 or 10. According to Petersen this segregation occurs because the parents of bilingual girls do not want them to play with Danish girls from that age. In case of the boys not interacting after the age of 12 he describes it as though the Old Danes give up on making friends with the New Danes, a result of them not seeing each other outside school and having several experiences with inviting New Danes to, for example, birthday parties and having them repeatedly fail to attend.

On the topic of tolerance Petersen’s impression is that it is generally high among pupils who on a daily basis are confronted with different ethnic groups. Though the Old Danish pupils may face problems with a group of bilingual boys, he does not believe that it makes them less tolerant, since they also get to meet the majority of the bilingual pupils who are not troublemakers. So even though the Old and the New Danes in general do not create any lasting friendships, they still are able to peacefully co-exist. 

The leader of Helligkorsskolen is trying to improve relations between New and Old Danes by offering the teaching staff courses in mediation. Though not rejecting the idea of peaceful problem resolution, Erling Petersen is rather skeptical about the way it is being introduced at the school. He has the suspicion that mediation techniques at his school are being introduced in order to keep down or shy away from conflict and real confrontation. Also he finds the teachers of the courses to be incompetent. Generally he thinks that there is too little time to engage in the discussions needed to implement true mediation through dialogue, both in the courses in which he participated and also in his daily work. 

From the interview with Erling Petersen one gets the picture of the Danish Folkeskole in a sort of crisis as it is confronted with a new group of pupils with both special needs and different backgrounds. On one hand the problems seem to be very much about those New Danes entering the Danish school system. On the other hand the problem seems to be not so much about them being New Danes but rather that they are representatives of a socially marginalized groups that also within the Old Danish population has a tradition for not fitting into and getting full advantage from the school.

The Auerhøj Students

We interviewed three students, two of whom had just completed their first year at Auerhøj Gymnasium and one of whom had recently graduated from there and will be attending the University of København in the fall. Auerhøj is located in Gentofte, a wealthy suburban area to the North of downtown København. During the interview, the three students referred to New Danes as immigrants, and thus the following description of the interview will reflect this word choice. 

At the beginning of the interview, the three interview subjects, Lars, Dorte and Margrethe, stated that there were no New Danes at all in their school. When asked why this was the case, Lars remarked that, “That’s because they don’t live in the neighborhood.” He added that, “Immigrants don’t have an urge to go where there aren’t a lot of other immigrants—they want to go where their friends are going.” He also mentioned that few immigrants were as wealthy as the students at Auerhøj and that the economic differences might intimidate immigrants or otherwise discourage them from coming. 

When asked if they had any immigrant friends outside of school, Lars remarked that, “It’s sad but true, I don’t have any contact with them (immigrants).” He continued by saying that, “I’m not meeting any immigrants at the moment so it’s hard to make friends with them.” Dorte went on to note, “We have friends from other parts of the world—just not any immigrants.” Lars continued by saying that he considered immigrants to be people from “the Middle East or Yugoslavia.” He remarked that, “I have friends from Iceland and the Faroe Islands but I don’t see them as immigrants.” 

The students talked about the difficulties New Danes have in the Danish educational system. Lars said, “There's problems teaching people who don’t speak proper Danish. The problem isn’t educational, it’s more social. Some pupils just can’t be taught the same—they have problems from home or with themselves. It’s a hard background some of them are coming from.”

When asked about how and why their attitudes towards New Danes were different than those of older generations, Lars replied that, “People in the Folk Party don’t live around immigrants.” Dorte joined in by saying, “For us, it’s part of your day that you meet immigrants all the time.” Lars broke in to say that, “When I see immigrants, I smile at them all the time because there are so many people shouting and throwing rocks at them.” Dorte then continued with a more ambivalent view, saying, “I’m open-minded but late at night on my bike when I see a group of immigrant boys I get scared that they might hurt me.” After a moment, she continued, “I don’t have the same fear with Danish boys.”

The Crossing Borders Students

In search of institutions within the Danish educational system that already did practice conflict resolution techniques, we chose to do a further examination of the Crossing Borders program at the International Peoples’ School in Helsingør. Both in the section with the teacher and with the young gymnasium students the meeting of different groups seemed to be perceived as a cornerstone in the creation of greater tolerance. In order to find out whether the meeting of conflicting groups actually promotes greater understanding and tolerance, we wanted to know about the results of the Crossing Borders program. In this program young Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian students meet on neutral ground in Denmark or Turkey to receive training in journalistic and conflict resolution techniques. Many participants go on writing for the youth newspaper Crossing Borders that is distributed in a circulation of more than 25,000 both in Israel, the Palestinian zones and Jordan. We addressed former participants by e-mail in order to obtain a sort of evaluation of the program. Not all answered but in the following we use as testimonies the contributions that we received.

The majority of the participants with whom we had contact seem to agree that a strong motivation for being part of the program was meeting the other side or “the enemy” as expressed by a young Israeli girl named Liat Margalit. From reading the different answers one gets the impression that the meeting is regarded by some as a way in which to contribute to the peace process and is beneficial to their respective communities. 

As the question of whether the program actually contributed to greater tolerance among the participants there also seem to be general agreement that it did. Liat Margalit wrote, “People came to me and said ‘We didn’t know Israeli people are like that,’ so I saw that when people get to really have a meeting with the other side they know that the person’s’ image is not what they had thought it was.” An Arab boy named Jamil Hamati, though skeptical of the Crossing Borders program due to the current escalation of conflict in Israel, admits that, in meeting young Israelis, he “found that they aren’t that bad...i managed to be friendly with them all...and we got friends after the seminar by e-mails...we managed to interact with each other as friends not enemies...” (direct copy). Also the Jordan coordinator, Khaled Shorman, has the impression that the program succeeded in creating greater mutual tolerance and respect among the participants.

Concerning long-term effects of the program the answers we received bear positive evidence. Margalit writes that “CB (Crossing Borders) is something I take with me every day of my life. It is not something you leave, you grow with it and into it, every day I learn new things.” Unfortunately, the present escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict constitutes a serious threat to this understanding and the new friendship, as described by Hamati, “ . . .but the worst e-mails I received was from a girl called Shimrit...she attacked  us arabs big time...i’ll give one example for this..., ‘Arafat is a person who smiles to your face, and when you turn around, he sticks a knife in your back’...that was really bad for me.” 

III. Problems

Educational Discrimination

As reflected in the Erlig Petersen and Auerhøj student interviews, not all immigrants have an equal chance at educational success once they arrive in Denmark simply by virtue of their schooling backgrounds. Immigrants from extremely poor families, rural areas, or highly unstable regions may have only seen the inside of a classroom for a few weeks if at all. In contrast, some immigrants come from countries with very high standards of education and are thus in some cases farther ahead in some subjects than their Danish counterparts. In addition, prosperous New Danes have been able to send great sums of money home to their families and, when their children immigrate due to family reunification, these youths can meet Danish educational standards due to the funds they have received from their family member(s) living in Denmark. 


Racism also plays a role in which immigrants receive which kind of education. For example, statistics from a 1998 educational report conducted by the Danish Amternes og Kommunernes Forskiningsinstitut show that youth from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe enjoy almost identical educational opportunities as do Old Danes. However, of the large population of young Turks, only 20% have access to vocational education, a crucial steppingstone to success within the labor market. There is little evidence that educational standards are very divergent in these two areas and citing cultural differences can hardly account for this vast educational opportunity discrepancy. As Lars said in our interview, “The sad truth is that they (people from Eastern Europe) just look more like us.” And thus it appears that the color of the New Danes's skin, and not in fact the content of their characters or qualifications, can be a determining factor in their educational as well as vocational success. 

Socio-Cultural Differences

Another more clear-cut reason why New Danes have a tougher time in the educational system than do Old Danes is because of comparative lack of parental guidance and social legacy, according to an August of 2000 report by the Amternes og Kommunernes Forskiningsinstitut (AKF). Old Danes are more likely to come from families where graduation from gymnasium and a university degree are expectations, not simply long-shot possibilities. As with immigrants in every country, Danish immigrant families are less likely to keep significant stockpiles of Danish newspapers, books and other publications around the house, thus making it less likely that young children will pick up reading and other educationally enhancing techniques as Old Danes. New Dane families also in general have many more problems to deal with than do Old Danes, such as finding jobs in a discriminatory workplace, attaining adequate housing, maintaining contacts and cultural practices from the country of origin, etc. A New Dane teenager is more likely to have to work longer hours in a week in order to help her/his family attain economic stability than will an established Old Dane. These and other pressures take valuable study time away from New Danes and contribute to the likelihood that they will be farther behind educationally than Old Danes. Lars, our recently graduated interview subject, confirms this research by saying, “If you look at Danish pupils in gymnasium, their parents have a high education so we get a high education because it’s natural for us to do. That’s not the same for immigrants.” Dorte backed him up by saying, “They do what their parents do and we do what our parents do.”

Lack of Language Skills and Social Interaction

Command of the Danish language seems to have a marked effect on educational opportunity. Younger immigrant children are usually able to pick up Danish more quickly and are thus more speedily integrated into Danish schools and society. However, older teenagers who know no Danish upon arrival face much greater challenges, especially if their parents expect them to immediately join the labor force. In addition, children from conservative families are routinely discouraged from interacting with their Old Danish peers outside of school and in general tend to pursue different leisure activities, a form of ostracism that is aided by the discrimination many New Danes face from teachers and other students while at school asserts an AKF study published in April 1998. This lack of interaction in Danish social life not only slows language acquisition but also inhibits the development of friendships and bonds of understanding between New and Old Danes. Old Danes are just as cheated by their lack of interaction with New Danes, for such segregation makes it more likely that they will harbor discriminatory attitudes towards the new arrivals and they will also have no chance to learn from the varied perspective and experiences that are such a valuable contribution that New Danes can make to Danish society. 

Religious and Culture-Based Discrimination

Discrimination against New Danes often centers around cultural or religious practices, especially those related to Islam, that seem strange or unjust to Old Danes. For example, Muslim women are routinely ridiculed for wearing the hajeb, or head scarf, for sporting long heavy dresses even in the summer, and for allegedly being less enlightened about gender equality than Old Danes. In our interview, all of the Auerhøj students pointed out sadly that many of their own grandmothers wore head scarves and that, from behind, it could be nearly impossible to tell if a woman was an Old Dane or a New Dane. Even so, their later comments indicated that they still believed the Muslim head scarf made, “people get the idea that they (New Danes) don’t want to be a part of Denmark.” In addition to mere comments, Muslim students can face much worse while at school. For example, in Kolding, the Trekanten technical school dismissed a student, Mohamed Hassan Elmi, for praying alone in a compartment on school grounds. Of the harassment he suffered at the hands of his schoolmates, Elmi stated, in a report to the United Nations on discrimination in Denmark published by FAKLEN, “They were throwing pebbles, kicking on the wall, yelling at me, and drawing idols on the walls of the compartment.” 

Thus, it appears that, though most Danes are well aware of the tensions between ethnic groups and have some inkling of the need for positive change, acts of discrimination and violence still occur. For example, a study involving New and Old Danish students, conducted by the AKF in 2000, shows that both groups thought it was important that they interact more with the other group in an educational as well as social context. However, the problem seems to be that no one knows exactly how this interaction should be conducted such that it could suit the needs and time constraints of both groups. In light of this difficulty and based on our research and interviews concerning the Danish educational system, we propose the following solutions.

IV. Solutions

Eliminating Segregation: The Conflict Resolution Model

The Danish government must commit itself to decreasing school segregation. As the Auerhøj students stated, New and Old Danes must interact with each other on a daily basis in order to begin to learn to understand and form alliances with one another. However, simple integration is only one step. As Erling Petersen pointed out, students typically self-segregate based on the wishes of their parents or in response to (c)overt social norms. 

After decades of discrimination and “us vs. them” mentalities, proactive steps must be taken to help young people overcome the prejudices of older generations. One way to start accomplishing such a goal would be to implement a mediation or conflict resolution program similar to the Crossing Borders model. There are several possible implementation strategies. For example, the mediation class could be part of the regular curriculum or core conflict resolution concepts and skills could be integrated into existing courses or the class could be conducted after regular school hours or it could meets several times per week. In any such class, students of all ethnic backgrounds should be engaged in projects, exercises and learning workshops that allow the achievements and rich heritages of each culture represented to be explored. 

Critics of conflict resolution, such as Petersen, might decry this model as unrealistically idealistic but, according to a Conflict Resolution Education Network Research and Evaluation Report, conflict resolution techniques have been used to strengthen ties between tensely coexisting ethnic groups across the U.S., the Middle East and Europe. In addition, this type of ready-made program seems to fit the ideals of the Auerhøj students, who claimed that they would be very pleased to get to know more New Danes if somehow given the opportunity. Also, such a program could spark closer social relationships between New and Old Danes, thus escalating extracurricular interactions, a move that most researchers and students believe is the key to long-lasting tolerance. Thus, we urge the Danish government to look into this matter and, in particular, undertake a full-fledged study of existing conflict resolution programs as part of an initiative aimed at implementing such programs within the Danish Folkeskole within a short period of time.  

Teacher Sensitivity Training

Another important step in creating greater tolerance and room for the New Danes in the Folkeskole would be to train teachers in adjusting their education to pupils of different ethnic origin. As Erling Petersen states, the leadership of a school should be obliged to provide teachers with knowledge of how to set up a framework for culturally sensitive education. In addition, employment of staff with non-Nordic ethnic backgrounds is necessary to create the conditions for a climate of mutual understanding and tolerance in the Danish Folkeskole. Above and beyond their beneficial presence in the classroom, such personnel would function as “translators of culture” and probably be very useful in dialogue and mediation processes.      

V. Conclusion

Both of the solutions offered above have the potential to help young Danes of all ages and ethnic heritages overcome the prejudices Danish society, especially members of older generations, have already begun to instill in them. Implementing sensitivity and conflict resolution strategies among educators and students can help rectify the inequities of poor Danish skills, minimal social capital and marginalized cultural tradition. From our interviews, we have discovered that Danes, as well as Arabs and Palestinians, are generally optimistic about their future societies becoming comparatively free of the prejudices that currently exist. We believe that if young Danes are taught in the Folkeskoles to understand and respect one another regardless of class, color or ethnic heritage, they will take these beliefs with them as they become the new generation to (re)create Danish society and change the definition of “Dane” altogether. As Lars said to us, “When we don’t look at immigrants as strangers, some of the problems will disappear.” 



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