Homeschooling is Growing in Denmark
John Holt’s affinity for Denmark is easily seen in his later writing—and for those familiar with Holt’s enthusiasm for classical music, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen was a strong favorite of his. The way the Danes integrated adults and children into their daily lives encouraged John that other designs for living and learning were possible besides the factory model. John even funded a documentary about a Danish free school . Danish government policy then was to support parents who wished to form small, local schools for their children, and some of these schools provided considerable autonomy to their students.
My wife and I were in Denmark in the mid 1980s and I asked a Dane we got to know if homeschooling was allowed in Denmark. He replied why would anyone do that in Denmark? They could make whatever school they wanted.
35 years later there is now a nascent homeschooling/unschooling movement there. Is something rotten in Denmark?
To learn more I contacted Cecilie and Jesper Conrad who unschool their four children. Cecilie, a psychologist, has a popular blog about self-directed learning and Jesper is a senior online marketing consultant, working for Danish and international clients.
Cecilie says, “It’s a constitutional right to homeschool in Denmark, but so few people do it that there is no real system to control or report to the state. There are no laws or legal requirements for homeschooling in Denmark, but the government has the ability to check on the children’s welfare.
“Recently the Danish government adopted the American idea of testing elementary school children every year. We never did that before. We had an exam after ten years of schooling—and it’s actually voluntary! After that, the children can go to high school (16 to 19). They can get in with the exam and a teacher recommendation, or they can go to the high school and ask for an admission interview, which often gets them in.
“We are part of the homeschooling group and online forum in Denmark and we know that lots of them had big problems with the control system. There were very few good stories of the control system being good.
“As a new homeschooler I had great insecurity about the state and the whole control system and what would happen if they came to control us. There is a lot of freedom, but that was also scary for us. No one checked us for the first three years and we often wondered, ‘What will we say if they knock on our door? What will be our answer to their email?’
“Eventually a friend talked to me about my fear of the control system and my need to document everything we did with our children. I also realized it was a complete clash with our family’s value system. We vowed never to do anything out of fear in our marriage. Fear had no part in our life. Yet I was spending two or three hours a day doing something out of fear (i.e., kitchen- table homeschooling). “That was when I stopped worrying. I have had one relapse since then, and it had to do with math and science, but it was fear again. I did schooling for two weeks and I stopped again and went back to unschooling.”
When I asked Cecilie about the growth of homeschooling she cited how a new public school law was passed a few years ago; within a few years of the law’s passage homeschooling doubled in Denmark. She notes, “So something is going on. You see homeschooling mentioned in the serious news media more than before. As more people are homeschooling the control system seems to be getting better at working with us. But there are still sometimes demands from the control system, such as to take the national test.
“The homeschoolers protest that their curriculum is not designed around the national test for public schools but around each child, and this seems to go back and forth every few years without any laws getting passed. They find a way where the school and the control system feel safe and happy and the parents feel okay about the whole control method.
“So it is really free and liberal here because there are no laws and regulations and we need use the democratic process to work things out. The school has the right to check us, but we have the right to refuse, so we must solve things with conversations.”
Jesper adds that bullying has become a big problem in Danish schools and that parents are tired of schools claiming it is normal for children act this way. “No,” says Jesper, “It is not normal. Kids don’t naturally bully each other. They learn that behavior."
“Bullying wasn’t something the media focused on in the 1980s, nobody really talked about it. ‘Suck it up’ was the response, or ‘I was bullied and I wound up fine as an adult.’ Unfortunately, people don’t actually remember what it was like to be a child who had water poured on their trousers or whatever was considered normal then. Yes, they wound up as people/adults, but as hurt people/adults. I do not believe the problem is a lot bigger now than earlier, but now people are talking about it.”
The homeschooling/unschooling movement is very young in Denmark and there are no grown homeschoolers/unschoolers to serve as models for younger people.
Cecilie says, “The oldest ones I know are now 17 and in college. There was, however, a minister of education who was homeschooled until he was twelve, but for some reason, most people do not know this! We are raising the first generation of Danish homeschoolers.”
NOTE: Our conversations grew beyond homeschooling in Denmark, and the Conrads agreed to share their experiences that led them to live and learn with their children. Next week's post: How Cecilie and Jesper Became Unschoolers