Peter Allerup
Sara Kirkegaard
Maria Nøhr Belling
Vibe Thorndal Stafseth
Department of Education (DPU), Aarhus University

Overview of Education System

In Denmark, education is compulsory and public schooling is free. Public preprimary, primary, and lower secondary schools are combined into one unified school, called Folkeskole (School for the People). Although the Folkeskole Act centrally regulates the Folkeskole, municipalities decide how local schools will function in practice within this framework.1

In 2003, the Common Objectives were introduced.2 For the first time, the teaching objectives for each subject no longer constituted mere recommendations for the municipalities, but national goals that schools are required to follow. The Common Objectives establish centrally defined objectives and intermediate and final achievement goals for each subject, and describe the content of all subjects in the Folkeskole. However, because these guidelines define only objectives and goals, not specific content and teaching materials, school practices vary throughout the country. From 2006 to 2009, the Common Objectives were reviewed, which involved rewriting certain goals and strengthening reading, Danish, English, science and technology, and mathematics.3

From 2013 to 2015, the Common Objectives were simplified. The new Simplified Common Objectives are formulated as competency objectives, and skill and knowledge objectives. The aim of the new Simplified Common Objectives is to shift focus from the contents of teaching to learning outcomes. The new Simplified Common Objectives were introduced on an optional basis in August 2014,4 and were implemented officially in August 2015. The original Common Objectives (2003–2009) were still in place officially when this TIMSS cycle was completed in Denmark in the spring of 2015. This chapter is based on the new Simplified Common Objectives. For information on the Common Objectives (2003–2009) please refer to the TIMSS 2011 Encyclopedia.

Within the parameters set by the national objectives, individual schools may have their own unique focus. Every school must have a school board with representatives from its parents, teachers, and students. The school board makes recommendations regarding curricula based on the national guidelines. Once the local curricula receive final approval from the municipal board, they become binding for the individual school. The majority of municipalities in Denmark choose to have a common plan for all schools within the municipality. Many municipalities have merged schools in recent years. A school may consist of several geographically separate departments, each with its own school principal and they share one common school board and one district school principal.5

The Danish school system is comprehensive in the sense that it includes preprimary (Grade 0 in Denmark, corresponding to kindergarten in other countries), primary (Grades 1 to 6, corresponding to ISCED Level 1),6 and lower secondary (Grades 7 to 10, corresponding to ISCED Level 2) education. Although lower secondary education mostly covers Grades 7 to 9, Folkeskole includes an optional Grade 10. Approximately 50 percent of students leaving ninth grade attend the optional 10th grade at the Folkeskole, at a private independent school, or at a continuation school.7 The different grades are defined by age cohorts. There is no streaming, and grade retention is almost nonexistent. The average class size was 21.6 students in 2014.8

Since August 2009, compulsory education has begun with Grade 0. The school year starts in August, and children commence Grade 0 in the calendar year in which they turn age 6.9 After Grade 0, compulsory education continues for another nine years. After compulsory education, students can choose from a variety of youth education programs (preparatory study or professional qualification programs) that are academically or vocationally oriented, or both. For example, upper secondary school takes three years to complete (Grades 11 to 13) and qualifies students for university education.

At the beginning of the 2014–2015 school year, there were approximately 710,000 students in Denmark enrolled in primary and secondary schools.10 Among these students, 78 percent attended public schools, 16 percent attended private independent schools, 4 percent attended continuation schools, and 2 percent received instruction in other educational contexts (e.g., special education schools, treatment centers, or at home).11 Private independent schools (Frie Grundskoler) are self-governing institutions that must adhere to public school standards. Continuation schools are private boarding schools that emphasize social learning and include subject areas such as sports, music, nature, and ecology. Continuation schools offer schooling in Grades 9 to 10. Private independent schools and continuation schools receive a substantial state subsidy based on the number of students enrolled per school year;12 parents pay the remaining fees.

Languages of Instruction

The official language in Denmark is Danish, which also is the language of instruction in public schools and the majority of private schools. Very few private schools offer instruction in another language (e.g., Arabic, English, German, or French).

Since the 1960s, immigration from western and nonwestern countries has resulted in an increasing number of people in Denmark who speak Danish as a second language. In July 2011, immigrants constituted 11.1 percent of the Danish population, and immigrants from nonwestern countries alone constituted 6.4 percent of the population.13

Students study English as a foreign language in Grades 1 to 9, and German or French from Grade 5.14 Students may choose a third language to study from Grade 7 (e.g., German, French, or Spanish, among others).