Historically, the Danish educational system has been rooted in Christian faith and ethics, and has sought to advance public knowledge and economic performance in the interests of ensuring social and political stability and promoting competition in a globalised society. The Primary School Act (Folkeskoleloven) outlines the guiding principles for compulsory education, as well as for the folkeskole (the public primary school). The folkeskole is the institution which forms the basis of the constitutional right to free education (established in 1953). It should be noted, however, that it is not school attendance as such which is compulsory for Danish children, but rather participation in education.
Only five major changes were made to the Primary School Act between 1814 and the end of the 20th century (in 1903, 1937, 1958, 1975, and 1993). The description of the academic content as well as the overall goals of the folkeskole were changed in 1975. For example, this reform encouraged greater emphasis on the fostering of democratic attitudes and the desire to learn, and school-home cooperation. The historic ties to the church were also abolished with this reform, and the public school system has since been non-denominational.
In the early years of the 21st century, however, comprehensive changes to the legislation were made, and the academic demands on students were tightened. In addition, the working conditions of teachers were much more clearly defined than they had been in the past. The focus of these reforms has thus been on professional levels of achievement and standards of conduct among teachers. The changes included setting clear goals for all of the subjects taught (2001), the introduction of a national electronic test to measure academic achievement at all levels of primary school (2006-07), and mandatory ninth-grade exams (spring 2007). These policies are intended to ensure that students achieve certain levels of subject knowledge and educational attainment. These goals are also reflected in the most recent policy changes affecting the educational system. For example, there are now mandatory individual student plans with academic goals (Law 354, 2009), and the curriculum in the 10th grade is intended to help students choose their future educational path (Law 560, 2007). In addition, youth allowance payments to parents of 17-year-olds are contingent upon participation in some form of education (Law 641, 2010), and the vocational educational system has been changed to make vocational training more attractive (Law 634, 2014).
Organisation of the educational system
The educational system in Denmark consists of a primary education phase (preschool to ninth grade), followed by an upper secondary education phase (Thomsen 2014). Youth education can be divided into vocational training and university preparatory secondary education; with academic programmes which qualify students for entry into higher education, and vocational programmes which prepare students for direct entry into the labour market.
The qualifications attained through academic programmes provide students with access to short, medium, and long higher education tracks (undergraduate and graduate levels). The higher education sector includes universities (undergraduate and postgraduate programmes), university colleges (professional bachelor’s programmes), and academies of professional higher education (short-cycle higher education institutions which offer professionally oriented first cycle degree programmes) as well as adult education (which provide opportunities for lifelong learning) (Danish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education (2012). The types of undergraduate degrees are as follows: 1) the academy profession degree (two years, 120 ECTS, theory- and practice-based, and in close collaboration with business and industry), 2) the professional bachelor’s degree (three to four years, 180-240 ECTS, aimed at specific professions), 3) the university bachelor’s degree (three years, 180 ECTS, research-based, predominantly theoretical education). The types of postgraduate degrees are as follows: the 1) master’s degree (two years, 120 ECTS, research-based), and 2) the PhD degree (three years, 180 ECTS, research and teaching). The master's degree is a prerequisite for attaining a PhD degree (Thomsen 2014).
Historically, the primary school system was stratified based on the academic abilities of students. With the elimination of the mellemskole in 1958 and the realskolen in 1975, the primary educational system has become more comprehensive. Today, instruction in primary schools is tailored to each student's abilities. Since 1980, children with special needs have been integrated into the public schools and included in ordinary classes. In 1993, the option of tracking students into basic and advanced courses was abolished, and stratification based on abilities has been permitted in limited forms only since then.
Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 16 (2014). As long as certain standards are met, children may receive their education in a publicly provided school, a private school, or at home. Thus, while education is compulsory, school attendance is not. Each municipality is responsible for ensuring that all of the children living within its borders meet the educational requirements.
The folkeskole is the Danish public primary and lower secondary school, and consists of one year of preschool education, nine years of primary and lower secondary education, and a one-year 10th form. About 85% of children attend public school.
In 1814, all children were given the legal right to seven years of education. The folkeskole was also founded in this year. The subjects taught were religion, reading, writing, and arithmetic. The public primary school system was under ecclesiastical supervision until 1933, and was committed to upholding a Christian worldview between 1933 and 1975. After the reform in 1975, the only values the public primary school system has been committed to upholding have been pluralism and democracy.
During the 1960s it became more common for pupils to stay in school after completing their compulsory education. Thus, in 1972 compulsory education was extended from seven to nine years with the addition of the eighth and ninth grades. At that time, attendance at the one-year preschool was voluntary. In 2008, preschool attendance was made compulsory. However, 10th grade attendance is still voluntary. An exam taken in the ninth grade qualifies students for further education.
- Danish Ministry of Education (2013): Agreement between the Danish Government (the Social Democrats, the Social- Liberal Party and the Socialist People’s Party), the Liberal Party of Denmark and the Danish People’s Party on an improvement of standards in the Danish public school (primary and lower secondary education): http://eng.uvm.dk/primary-and-lower-secondary-education/the-folkeskole
- Danish Ministry of Education (2014): Description of the Danish educational system on the ministry’s web-page: http://eng.uvm.dk/general-overview/overview-of-the-danish-education-system
- Danish Ministry of Education (2014): Description of the Danish primary educational system on the ministry’s web-page: : http://eng.uvm.dk/primary-and-lower-secondary-education/introduction-to-primary-education
- Danish Ministry of Education (2014): Overview of the Danish educational system on the ministry’s web-page: http://eng.uvm.dk/general-overview/overview-of-the-danish-education-system
- Danish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education (2012): The Danish Higher Education System. http://ufm.dk/en/education-and-institutions/higher-education/the-danish-higher-education-system
- Gertz SE (eds.). (2010): Folkeskoleloven med kommentarer. 13th edition. Dafolo Forlag, Frederikshavn
- Thomsen JP (2014): Uddannelse. In Greve B, Jørgensen A & Elm Larsen J (red) (2014): Det Danske Samfund. Hans Reitzels Forlag, Copenhagen.
- Velfærdskommisionen (2006): Fremtidens velfærd - vores valg. http://www.fm.dk/publikationer/velfaerdskommissionen/2008/rapporter-fra-velfaerdskommissionen/fremtidens-velfaerd-_-vores-valg/