Historical Overview

Legend has it that Ansgar, a French Benedictine monk, was the first missionary to visit Denmark around 822, purchased the freedom of twelve male thralls and educated them in the first school in Denmark, at Hedeby in Schleswig. This was the forerunner of the religious houses which sprang forth over the entire country from about 1100 onwards. In their cloisters, boys from surrounding villages -- and occasionally girls as well -- received elementary instruction in the Mass and in dogma.

However, quite early trade and crafts demanded more practical schools. The primitive writing-and-counting schools had their origins here, usually with very mediocre teachers, but they were very useful and therefore they flourished, maintained by private support and by the guilds.

The Lutheran Reformation came to Denmark from Germany in 1536. As in Germany, Protestants quickly broke up the Catholic school system. The religious houses were closed and the vast estates of the Roman Catholic Church taken over by the Crown. This meant that the state also took over such tasks as education.

The Church Law of 1539 contains Denmark's first educational legislation with a formal requirement for schools in all provincial boroughs. While new grammar schools sprang up, laying the foundation of classical humanism among the higher strata of society, the broad masses had to be content with the old Danish schools or writing schools which provided a primitive form of instruction.

A substantial stride was taken in the direction of popular education in 1721, when King Frederick IV established 240 schoolhouses bearing the royal insignia and called them Cavalry schools after a division of the country into military districts. At the same time, the new religious movement of Pietism was spreading from Germany to Denmark. It aroused among church people a sense of responsibility towards forthcoming generations and enjoyed royal support. A series of calls by the church for universal confirmation which could only be met by some degree of literacy, brought many new schools into existence. Thus, a limited kind of compulsory education was formally introduced.

However, it was the 'philanthropic' movement, a very active current of educational thought inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the second half of the 18th century, that first succeeded in creating a real school for ordinary people, open to all children.

Planned training of teachers developed in parsonages and state training colleges, and two Education Acts were enacted in 1814, introducing better municipal primary schools and independent schools for children in rural areas all over Denmark.

When a prolonged agricultural crisis and economic slump after the Napoleonic Wars threatened to cripple the entire educational reform programme, the government had to resort to a distressingly mechanical method of education, the so-called Bell-Lancaster method imported from the industrial north of England, which reduced the number of teachers by a drastic simplification of the curriculum to enable preposterously large numbers of pupils to be taught by a single individual. After some years, this method provoked increasing opposition from parents, who wanted more liberal and inspiring forms of education. Their demands received vigorous support from the poet-clergyman N. F. S. Grundtvig, who exercised a powerful influence on the development of Danish schools. Grundtvig wanted to reduce the task of children's schools to no more than the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic in order to make room, either at home or at school, for a liberal narrative education that would build on the natural potential for development inherent in the child's mind.

Grundtvig's ideas were translated into practice by Christen Kold, who created a distinctively Danish parent-controlled school known as the free school as an alternative to state-sponsored education, exercising a growing influence over the latter's mode of functioning.

The Education Act of 1894 improved teacher training in several important respects. As Danish agriculture continued to modernise and Danish society continued to urbanise, new Education Acts were brought forth around 1900, which changed the Danish basic school by expanding its curriculum. A four-year middle school for students over 11 years of age was established in 1903 to form a bridge between the folkeskole and the realskole (lower secondary school) and the gymnasium. The middle schools rapidly attained great popularity, and over the next half-century, large numbers of children and young people used them as a stepping stone to upper secondary education.

The strong attraction to the upper classes to the folkeskole gradually weakened. Since the conception of the welfare state was intensifying the demand for social equality and democratisation, middle schools were reorganised in 1958 to include two academic paths: a 3-year academically oriented real department and the 8th-10th forms.

Modern form
New acts in 1937, 1958, and 1975 reflected the demands of a new age in terms of equal access to all forms of education. The act of 1975 abolished the real-department and introduced two completely new examinations: the Exit Examination of the Folkeskole and the Advanced Exit Examination of the Folkeskole held on a single-subject basis.

A new act in 1990 introduced new provisions regarding the administration of the schools with more managerial competence vested in the headteacher and the setting up of school boards with large parental representation. Finally, another act that came into force in 1994 stiuplated that the folkeskole give a student the opportunity to develop as many of their talents as possible. One of the watchwords of the new act is differentiated teaching, or that teaching should be adapted as much as possible to the individual student.