The Danish efterskole experience: a powerful, independence-building alternative

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[Blogger’s note: this post was written by a guest blogger, Eliane Pohl, whom you can read more about at the end of the story. Photos are courtesy of Bjergen Efterskole, which the author’s son attended from 2014-15.]

In Denmark, children start school when they are six years old. There is actually no law requiring that children attend school in Denmark, but there is a law requiring them to be taught. In principle, this means that children can be taught at home, though home schooling is quite rare. Grade school in Denmark runs from kindergarten through ninth grade, when kids are typically 15 years old, and the majority of children go to school at a Folkeskole, or public school. Denmark also has a long tradition of Friskoler, which are similar to charter schools in the United States, and there are also some private schools. While most of these concepts probably seem relatively familiar, Denmark does have one unusual type of school, which is called an Efterskole.In essence, an Efterskole is a boarding school, where teenagers both live and attend classes. Efterskole is available to anyone  the ages of fourteen and eighteen, and their curriculum covers grades 8-10.The first Efterskole was opened in Denmark in 1851, and in 1874 several more were opened near the German-Danish border. At that time, there were many Danish families living south of the border that sent their children to Denmark daily for school. Opening Efterskoles in the area enabled those children to attend school in Denmark without having to go back and forth across the border each day. At the time, it was a fantastic solution to help the children of expatriates maintain ties to their language and culture. Later, Efterskoles went through a period of being for troubled kids, those who were really struggling in school, and for a time many Efteskoles had a strong religious aspect to try and “straighten out” wayward youth. Today, however, they are seen as a valuable option for all sorts of kids, and many Efterskoles have long waiting lists.

sport dayThere are currently approximately 250 different Efterskoles in Denmark, which are attended by approximately 28,000 students. While some youth attend Efterskole for all three grades, many attend regular Folkeskole through ninth grade and then go to Efterskole for tenth grade only, before continuing their education at high school. Many Efterskoles are focused on a particular theme. This can encompass almost any area, including religion, music, football or other sports, theater, writing, and so on. This provides the teenager with an opportunity to explore an interest or passion in a more in-depth way than is possible in Folkeskole.

When my son was wrapping up ninth grade, he was still unsure about what he wanted to do next. Denmark offers so many options – even high school is specialized into tracks for science, liberal arts, trades and so on. He knew he needed to continue his education, but he was a little unsure about which direction he wanted to take. In Denmark, tenth grade is made for kids like him. Tenth grade is a year where kids who struggled academically in Folkeskole can catch up before continuing on, or, for kids like my son, it provides a chance for them to catch their breath, hone their academic skills and try to figure out what they want to do next. It’s possible to take tenth grade in a Folkeskole, but Efterskole provides a place to be challenged academically, while also growing socially and gaining independence.

groupAs stated by the Ministry for Children, Education and Equality, the goal of Efterskole is to provide “education and togetherness, while fostering life skills, community and a sprit of democracy.” While they do meet the standards of the national curriculum for each grade, and provide opportunities to delve into interest areas, one of the main focuses of the Efterskole is to help teenagers gain a sense of independence, while also fostering a sense of community. The students live at the Efterskole, though each weekend they can choose to either go home to their families or stay at school and participate in extra weekend activities. Living at school allows them to gain some independence and really begin to explore their own ideas away from the constraints and traditions of their parents. At school, they learn how to live with one or more roommates, and also participate in the school community by helping to prepare meals, clean and maintain the facilities, set and enforce rules, and otherwise participate in the school community. All of these things help them gain independence, while also teaching the importance of contributing to the community they live in. This lesson is very important to Danes, as a feeling of community underlies all of the associations and clubs Danes participate in throughout their lives, as well as being the backbone of the social state.

labEfterskole costs between 35,000 and 70,000 kroner per year, depending on family income and how many kids are still living at home. This sliding scale is subsidized, meaning that Efterskoles have students from all socioeconomic classes in Denmark. Students also often travel quite far to Efterskole – it is not at all unusual for a teenager from Copenhagen to attend an Efterskole in northern Jutland. This also gives the students a chance to interact with kids from other parts of Denmark, with different backgrounds and experiences. The price includes room and board, though some Efterskoles charge additional fees for their annual school trip, which can be anything from a week of skiing in Norway, to a trip to France or somewhere else where the kids can experience a foreign culture.

As an American living in Denmark, the concept of sending my 15-year-old son to a boarding school felt incredibly foreign to me. A little research made it apparent to me that this was a “normal” thing in Denmark, and after visiting a couple of different schools, my partner and I agreed that the experience could be just what our son needed. So, with heavy hearts and nervous stomachs, we loaded his belongings into our car and drove him out to an Efterskole in western Jutland, where they had a special track for teenagers interested in music. The school year started with a series of getting to know you activities, long bike rides and a camping trip. The kids met their roommates, set the rules for the year and started to learn the rhythms of being at school. Each day started at six, with a 3 kilometer walk/run, followed by breakfast, tidying rooms and then a full day of class. We were nervous about how he would take to the structure and how he would handle living away from us. What a pleasure it was when after the first couple of weeks he came home for a weekend overflowing with stories about the friends he’d already made, the fantastic food (that opinion would change later in the year!), and the great facilities the school had to learn more about music.

My son finished tenth grade at Efterskole last June. He made friends that he’ll probably have for life – friends that he can relax with and who know him well and accept him for who he is. He had a great academic year, and we attended several concerts and a musical, where we could see the progress he was making with his music. He learned to communicate better, solve his own problems and speak up for his own needs. Despite my initial worries, there is no doubt that the year he spent at Efterskole helped him gain confidence and independence he wouldn’t have acquired at home.

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ElianeAbout the guest blogger: Eliane Pohl grew up near Seattle, Washington in the US. She is a product manager at a software company in Aalborg. She has lived in Denmark for almost fifteen years and still hasn’t gotten used to mackerel in tomato sauce, but otherwise enjoys the calmer pace and hygge that life in Denmark affords. She enjoys gardening, traveling, reading and waffles.

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