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Acknowledging a Multi-Cultural Denmark: Bringing Balance to the Folkeskoler

Freedom of Method is an almost sacred right among teachers in the Danish folkeskole, Denmark's ten year primary and lower secondary school system. For many years, as the population of bilingual children in Denmark grew, any initiatives taken to make the folkeskoler accessible to ethnic, racial, or religious minorities were the prerogatives of teachers acting independently in their own classrooms. The few teachers who made efforts to accommodate such students received no aid, guidance, or special education from the national government's Ministry of Education, which had not yet recognized multicultural education as the significant challenge it has since become.

Only recently have efforts to acknowledge and face the multicultural challenge become noticeable. During the past decade, the Ministry has produced guidelines and institutional support for municipalities, teachers, and schools coping with the challenges of bilingual education. Confronting the new reality of a multicultural Danish society is an issue with national repercussions--an issue which cannot be solved on a local, school-by-school basis by teachers in their own classrooms. Instead, today's classrooms and teachers need greater national guidance in order to coordinate the successful integration of minority children into the Danish folkeskole system.

Since the Danish government is now realizing the need for national initiatives, a new balance must be struck in Denmark between teacher Freedom of Method and coordinated nationwide reform. Searching for the appropriate equilibrium while trying to address new cultural, religious, and linguistic educational issues has introduced many new challenges. As primary education will forge the basis for broader societal integration, the Danish folkeskoler must hasten to address carefully carefully these challenges through innovative planning in the classrooms, and ongoing dialogue with parents and the government.

Reaching Children

The number of bilingual children in Denmark has been on the rise for years and, as of 1999, they made up 8.26 percent of the Danish folkeskole classrooms, according to the Ministry of Education's Statistics on Bilingual Children. In the coming years, a major challenge for Denmark's integration project will be learning to accommodate students with varied cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds in the folkeskole system. This will be all the more difficult to achieve because of the unequal distribution of bilingual children in Denmark. Some schools have only a couple of minorities, while they are clustered in city classrooms like those in Århus, Ålborg, and Odense, and in local districts (kommuner) like Ishøj, Brønshøj, Høje Tåstrup and Albertslund, some of which are more than 50 percent bilingual. Schools in these heavily minority districts face daily challenges in trying to develop an appropriate curriculum, teach students about unfamiliar cultures and religions, and communicate with bilingual parents and their children.

To address these challenges and begin to develop an educational system that can accommodate bilingual students, schools must first learn how to educate students whose first language is not Danish. People have a general misunderstanding about how to overcome the language barrier with bilingual students, according to Søren Hegnby, Head of the Department of Bilingual Pupils in Copenhagen. "Everyday thinking is that two languages is a problem, and we have to fight that." Beata Engels Andersson, a consultant for the Danish Institute for Development in Education of Bilingual Students (uc2), stresses that the best results are achieved when bilingual children are taught simultaneously in their mother tongue and Danish. "All international research tells us that it's very important to develop the first language; to develop the consciousness in the child of being a bilingual person," she says, pointing out that a strong background in the first language will help stimulate a child's abilities in Danish. Andersson's office is in Ishøj, a district with 38 percent bilingual students located just south of Copenhagen. She has found that hiring bilingual teachers to execute this method has also opened up better communication with parents.

Unlike in Ishøj, the general practice in Denmark has been to isolate bilingual students in separate classes until their language skills are strong enough to join other Danish classmates. The Copenhagen municipality has tried a different approach. There, children of the same minority background are grouped together in classes with Danish children. Two teachers are then assigned to the class, one who speaks Danish and one who is also fluent in the children's mother tongue. In this way the teachers are better able to match the linguistic needs of each child. Hegnby points out that this method allows all of the children to participate in and understand each lesson fully, and that bilingual students learn Danish more easily when they have daily interaction with Danish-speaking classmates.

This approach is not feasible for most municipalities to enact, however. In most districts, the cost of employing two teachers per class is prohibitive. The solution is also impractical because too few bilingual teachers actually live in Denmark. Finally, this method works in Copenhagen because of the high percentage of bilingual children. In most Danish municipalities, there are not enough minorities to put together a class which is half Danish-speaking and half bilingual.

Though Copenhagen's ambitious program is not currently practicable at the national level, the law does require three to five hours per week of first language lessons for bilingual students. Unfortunately, loopholes in the law's structure keep it from benefiting many students in need of such lessons. The Board for Ethnic Equality points out in their Alternative Report that this right actually only applies to children who have at least one parent born outside of Denmark. This law automatically excludes third generation immigrants regardless of whether they speak another language at home. This is a problem which should compound itself in the coming years if the legal right to mother tongue education is not made dependent on the language spoken by students at home. And, language instruction aside, mother tongue education is an important opportunity for minority students to learn about their cultural heritage. Andersson points out that understanding their home culture gives bilingual students the confidence to integrate better in Denmark. Furthermore, if this education is interwoven with students' other subjects these new cultures will become better understood by all Danish students.

Integrated cultural learning has always been an important part of the Danish folkeskole education. But, because of the effective homogeneity of Danish society in the past, lessons in social awareness and religion were never significantly contested. "The goal of the school system is to teach social competencies rather than just how to read and write," says Søren Hansen, a policy advisor to the Minister of Education. As he points out, however, the nature of cultural instruction has begun to change. "I don't think you'll find schools with the hard core Danish system anymore. That has changed," says Hansen.

Nonetheless, religious education, known in the folkeskole as Education in Christianity, has been the subject of some debate in recent years. Though the majority of Danes are not practicing Lutherans today, this part of the folkeskole curriculum is still valued by many. As Hansen points out, "It is Christianity that played a major part in the forming of our society." Despite this fact, the Danish school system now serves students observing many religious traditions, raising the question of whether an Education in Religion would be more applicable to students' lives.

Else Nielsen, chairman of UFE, a subdivision of the Danish Teachers Union dealing with the teaching of bilingual children, is a leading proponent of such a revision. The Folkeskole Act states in §6 that the Christianity education should take its departure from the evangelical Lutheran church, and introduce other religions in the last years of the folkeskole education. The education, according to Danish law, is supposed to be an orientation in Christianity, and attempts to convert children are illegal. Despite this, even if the lessons do not preach at students, Nielsen points out that this curriculum creates inherent inequality among students' religions. In this way, Education in Christianity fails to encourage students to explore each others' religions. Parents who feel uncomfortable with this part of the folkeskole curriculum may remove their children from these classes. Nielsen points out, however, that students who are exempt from religious lessons, miss the majority of the moral education received by folkeskole children.

Nielsen believes that a name change to Education in Religion would signify greater equality, and would encourage more frank discussions among students under the guidance of teachers. Nonetheless, the Ministry does not believe that there would be a practical advantage to such a change. In fact, Hansen points out that it would be "hypocritical" since the Chrisitanity education is intended to give an historical background of the underlying values of the Danish society. He also points out, however, that this curricular change, if only nominal, would be virtually impossible. "I don't think the system is ready to change," he says, pointing out the cultural and political resistance that would rise in opposition.

Changes like those suggested in the debates over religious education and bilingual teaching methods are difficult to implement for reasons other than social or political resistance. Lack of awareness among many folkeskole teachers and insufficient available in-service education inhibits integration efforts as well. There is a divide in the teacher community itself over how much curricular change should be instituted. According to Hegnby, "Many teachers do not agree on the official policy, and they are disobedient. They do what they want to do." He adds, however, that this is often due to a lack of training about multicultural education and bilingual teaching. Many teachers, particularly younger ones, are eager to learn more. Even the ones who learn only a little about multicultural education, according to Nielsen, develop a desire to understand further new methods of education for the multicultural classroom.

One of the most significant inhibitors of successful folkeskole integration is that basic teacher education does not cover issues relating to the multicultural classroom, according to an independent consulting company's main report on the integration project of the Ministry of Education. Hegnby and others identify a lack of funding as the main cause of this shortcoming. Bergthora Kristjansdottir, a former consultant for integration projects in the Ministry of Education estimates that at least ten percent of funding for special integration projects should be directed toward teacher education to maximize these programs' effectiveness. Kristjansdottir currently works at Danmarks Lærerhøjskole, a Danish teachers' university, and offers several courses in bilingual education. Unfortunately, many schools are unable to finance their teachers' in-service instruction at this institution. As one solution, Nielsen has been pushing for the inclusion of bilingual and multicultural teaching in the basic teachers' education curriculum. Without at least some basic knowledge on how to approach religious, cultural, and linguistic challenges in their newly diverse classrooms, teachers will continue to face difficulties facilitating integration.

Reaching Parents

Many of the difficulties teachers face in communicating with bilingual students also cause less than adequate understandings between bilingual parents and the schools. This type of communication is very important in the Danish folkeskole, and parental involvement in school programming is required by the very first section of the Folkeskole Act. Nonetheless, cultural and linguistic barriers have frequently prevented productive discussions between parents and teachers. In many cases, immigrant parents are not accustomed to developing close working relationships with teachers and, for those that are willing, unfamiliarity with Danish often prevents discussions. Additionally, many parents feel a general alienation from Danish society, making them reluctant to participate directly in the folkeskoler.

Misunderstandings arising from poor communication have reprecussions for bilingual children who miss out on class trips, school parties, and after school activities. This exclusion sets many minorities further apart from their classmates. In the same way, insufficient learning by the teachers can also be socially disruptive for minority children. For example, some cultures do not place the same emphasis on birthday parties and Christmas that Danish society does, and some teachers do not realize that their students cannot eat pork at class events. Better communication with parents could help avoid cultural misunderstandings such as these and make well-intended gestures more effective. Increased hiring of bilingual teachers could also help alleviate these types of problems by leading to stronger communication and enhanced cross-cultural understanding. This is difficult, however, because many bilingual teachers enter Denmark with foreign teaching degrees that are not accepted by the Danish folkeskoler. To address this issue, the Danish government has recently launched an initiative aimed at encouraging the education of bilingual teachers in Denmark.

Serious consequences have arisen from the lack of success at accommodating bilingual families in the folkeskole, including segregation. Over the past several years, parents have begun to take advantage of the Danish private schools, state financed schools requiring only a nominal private enrollment fee. Thus, some schools with a large concentration of bilingual students have experienced a cultural majority Dane-drain, causing a sometimes systematic segregation of minority children.

Kåre Bluitgen, chairman of the schoolboard and a parent at Blågårdsskolen in Nørrebro says that certain reputations can be devastating for schools. Bluitgen points out that only Blågårdsskolen and one other school in Nørrebro are considered to be options by nonbilingual Danish parents in the area. If these two schools are full students will almost certainly be sent to private schools. One school in Nørrebro may actually be closed down in the near future due to intense reluctance to enroll there.

Segregation has also been caused by the flight of the most conservative bilingual parents from the folkeskole to minority private schools. Many children graduate from these schools without any exposure to Danish culture after growing up with the most conservative minority parents and classmates. As a result, after completing their education, they must start learning to function in Danish society from scratch, and on their own. According to Andersson, "In a way, the fact that these families use money and energy to make their own schools shows that something is wrong with the folkeskoler." On a day-to-day level, this is reflected in the difficulties teachers face in the classroom and in cross-cultural communications with parents. But, the shortcomings of the Danish folkeskoler are also reflective of the ill-defined official policy of the Ministry of Education.

Defining "Danes"

In 1993, an education act regarding the curriculum of the Danish folkeskole mentioned the importance of multiculturalism for the first time. Nonetheless, since the act's institution in 1994, the Ministry of Education, and many Danish politicians, have failed to recognize Denmark as a multicultural society. According to the pamphlet distributed to all folkeskole describing the legislation, "In school, pupils must learn about Danish culture and history. But they must also learn about other cultures, many of which Danish children meet in school and in their everyday life." Regardless of the ministry's intentions, statements like this keep the cultures of Denmark's bilingual citizens on the periphery of Danish culture. As Andersson has said, in order for children of ethnic minorities to contribute equally to Danish society, ministry policy must support the notion that the folkeskole "is not a Danish school. It is a school in Denmark." The next folkeskole education act, expected within a couple of years, will be an important opportunity for the Ministry to announce its official support for a truly multicultural Denmark.

Such a statement would be a major landmark for Danish education and integration as a whole. Hansen has said, "If it is a good school, even the most rural school with no ethnic minorities will have to teach the students about [minority] aspects of Danish society. This is required by Danish law." The question, however, is whether these newer cultural contributions to Danish society will be taught as part of Danish culture or as external to Danish culture. During the next several years, the official dubbing of Denmark as "multicultural" will probably pose a politically insurmountable obstacle. Nonetheless, such an acknowledgement of Denmark's current state will bring crucial accountability and focus to the drive toward integration.

Though official recognition of multiculturalism will be slow in coming, many teachers admire the practical guidance that the ministry has begun to provide during the last decade. "From ten years ago it has now changed where we do talk about the [bilingual children] not so much like problems, but like challenges," says Nielsen, who has noticed a change in schools' approaches to minority children. She has attributed the guidance for these changes in part to a shift in the ministry's outlook, saying, "The ministry has done a lot during the last ten years to ensure that the folkeskole education will have a better quality for bilingual children." Today's ministry recognizes that the continuity of the welfare system requires that all Danes develop an inclusive understanding of the definition of "Danish." Hansen has said that "we have to discuss this with the students" of the folkeskoler, and explain that "it is not enough that you are successful." While the political battle over the language of multiculturalism has been downplayed throughout government and suffocated by right wing politicians, significant improvements have been guided by national programs.

In 1994, the Ministry of Education began a four year, 500 million Dkr integration project called Byudvalget. This project pulled together 200 million Dkr to support municipality-wide integration projects for folkeskoler. Projects at three levels could qualify for funding under Byudvalget, including those affecting a whole community, both schools and institutions, school-wide projects, and projects aimed at specific folkeskole classes. The last group was very important for changes in bilingual education, including the teaching of Danish as a second language. The Ministry administered the entire reform effort, approving each project and rounding up funding. At the end of four years, the project results were analyzed by an independent consulting firm which felt the project was successful, and a good precedent which the government should follow up with more clearly defined, nationally-led research and guidelines. The report will also help schools which can turn to the results of Byudvalget in planning new approaches to education and community planning.

A second project which has been important for the improvement of bilingual education at the national level was the Ministry's creation of the Danish Institute for Development in Education of Bilingual Students (uc2) in 1996. The Institute's self-described role is "the systematic gathering, development and use of experience and knowledge concerning qualifications, potential and needs of bilingual children and adolescents." This organization is an example of the Ministry's attempt to provide practical, nationally organized guidance and support for municipalities dealing with the challenges of bilingual education and multiethnic student bodies. In this way, successful reforms used in one municipality will become nationally known and available to other regions of Denmark.

An example of this is the pamphlet of typical problems and solutions currently being produced by uc2 for distribution to the folkeskoler. This brochure is meant to familiarize the schools with cultural, religious, and linguistic challenges, and ways to alleviate their negative impacts on the folkeskoler. The Institute hopes that the suggestions about cultural dietary restrictions, holiday traditions, and physical and sexual education will lead to increased understanding and productive improvements in multicultural classrooms.

Unfortunately, even the most positive and successful efforts of the Ministry highlight a major failure in its attempts to reform the folkeskoler. The Danish teacher's Freedom of Method and broad curricular freedom are central tenets of the Danish educational system. As a result, any attempt by the Ministry to impose outrightly rules for the administration of a multicultural classroom would be impracticable. Nielsen says, "I would wish more from the top, but the Danish society is very decentralized," adding that while the Ministry has taken significant steps in the last ten years, "it takes a long time for the law to come down from the Ministry to the classroom."

According to Nielsen, this delay is caused by a two-fold problem within the school system. The first issue is that the education of bilingual students is a new challenge in Denmark. "Most of the teachers still don't know a lot about [multicultural education]," says Nielsen. Many folkeskole teachers are eager to obtain further education themselves so that they are better equipped to manage their newly diverse classrooms. But, teaching classes are expensive for schools to finance, and significant Ministry funding is not available to aid teachers.

A second problem is the generational divide in the folkeskoler, where most of the teachers are over 50 years old. "You can also find teachers who have the attitude that the school must go on as it always has and the students must adapt to the way the school is," says Nielsen. This second issue is exascerbated by the lack of firm instructions from the Ministry of Education. While Freedom of Method must be preserved, without greater national guidance Danish teachers will become increasingly disoriented. The challenge of redefining Danish education as a multicultural phenomena cannot be achieved without national coordination.

This confusion is most clearly illustrated in schools with up to 90 percent bilingual students. "It is very tough to be a teacher in these schools with almost no Danish children anymore," says Andersson. Many young teachers are leaving these schools because they lack resources, training, teacher education in multicultural awareness, and guidance in communicating effectively with immigrant and minority parents. As teachers decide to leave the folkeskoler, the problem of improving education for the children is greatly worsened. Andersson points out that "the Danish system is to do things voluntarily. If you give a Dane an order, he will do the opposite." Nonetheless, without more national input and stronger guidelines, the folkeskole response to this multicultural challenge will remain uncoordinated.

Finding Freedom

The final goal of creating a multicultural folkeskole system is to help educate children of both the ethnic minorities and majority who will soon live in and maintain an integrated Denmark. It is probably feasible for each school or municipality to provide a quality basic education independent of each other or the national government. A school in a minority-free municipality could easily continue to teach as it always has. Its students would learn all of their subjects, the teachers would be comfortable in their classrooms, and the administration would never have to learn how to communicate with people who speak different languages, act on different cultural impulses, or practice different religions than the majority of Danes. But, such a school would not be addressing the broader social reality of today's Denmark which is becoming a multi-cultural, multireligious, multi-lingual state.

A school with no ethnic minorities or bilingual students must begin to teach its students a broader definition of Danish culture. Every school must teach more than Lutheranism. If the folkeskoler are going to teach religion, they must teach Islam, Bhuddism, Judaism and more because many religions now contribute to "Danish culture." In order to participate in Danish society, students of any folkeskole will have to learn to understand the many cultural and religious facets which contribute to a Denmark on a path toward integration. For the same reasons, ethnic minorities who send their children to private schools with children from similar backgrounds are missing a chance to teach their children most effectively about a society they are trying to join.

For the Danish folkeskole to play an effective role in Danish integration, they will need greater guidance from the Ministry of Education and organizations like uc2. This means being part of a national plan, but it does not require the creation of a great hierarchy or the sacrifice of Freedom of Method or curricular autonomy. Guidelines are ways for teachers and schools to become better informed about how to approach bilingual classes and parents and they outline how schools and municipalities should receive the resources necessary to enact programs to help teachers and students. Guidelines are in fact central to the survival of Freedom of Method. For teachers' autonomy to remain an effective teaching tool, national resources and knowledge must be increased and applied to the instruction and support of Danish folkeskoler and their instructors.

Many issues hinder successful Danish integration, including both feelings of exclusion on the part of recent immigrants and ethnic or racial minorities, and feelings and acts of resentment by many Danes. For successful integration to proceed, many problems in Denmark must be overcome. But, for students to grow up equipped to handle these social challenges, the national government must help the Danish folkeskoler take the lead in raising multiculturally aware children.



Beata Engels Andersson, consultant, uc2 (Danish Institute for Development in Education of Bilingual Students). June 22, 2000.

Kåre Bluitgen, chairman of the school board, Blågårdsskolen, Nørrebro. June 22, 2000.

Søren Hansen, Integration Section Head, policy advisor, Ministry of Education. June 21, 2000.

Søren Hegnby, Head of the Department of Bilingual Pupils, the municipality of

Copenhagen. June 21, 2000.

Bergthora Kristjansdottir, Danmarks Lærerhøjskole (a Danish teachers' university),

former consultant on bilingual children in the Ministry of Education. June 22, 2000.

Abram Mahmoodi, Director of Labor Relations, IndSam. June 21, 2000.

Else Nielsen, UFE (teachers of bilingual students), Danmarks Lærerforening (Danish Teachers Union). June 20, 2000.


The Danish Folkeskole Act (1993).

Danmarks Lærerforening/Danish Teachers' Union (1993). Foreningens

politiskvedrørende tosprogede elever (The Union's Policy Concerning Bilingual


Indenrigsministeriet/Ministry of Interior (2000). Bedre Integration - en samlet

handlingsplan (Better Integration: an action program).

Nævnet for etnisk ligestilling/The Board for Ethnic Equality (1999). Alternativ rapport til Danmarks anden rapport til FN's Børnekomité vedrørend FN-konventionen af 20.

November 1989 om Barnets Rettigheder - om etniske minoritetsbørns forhold i

Danmark/Alternative Report to Denmark's Second Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child Concerning the United Nations Convention of 20 November, 1989, on the Rights of the Child.

PLS Consult (1998). Undervisningsministeriets Integrationsprojekt Hovedrapport (The Integration Project of the Ministry of Education: Main Report).

Undervisningsministeriet/Ministry of Education (1993). A School for All: On the new

Education Act.

Undervisningsministeriet/Ministry of Education (1999). Statistik over tosprogede elever i folkeskolen (Statistics Concerning Bilingual Students in the Folkeskole).


The Ministry of Education: www.uvm.dk

uc2 (Danish Institute for Development in Education of Bilingual Students): www.uc2.dk

UFE (teachers of bilingual students, Danish Teachers Union): www.ufe.dk

The Municipality of Copenhagen: www.copenhagencity.dk

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