Thoughts on primary education in Denmark

My son recently started his formal school career here in Copenhagen almost eighteen months later than his peers in the UK. Although he has been able to recognised letters, write them and spell his name (and other simple words) for some time, he has been reluctant to learn to read at home with us as he wants a ‘real teacher’ to teach him. Reading and writing is the first thing he has had to learn that he needs to be taught – walking, talking and social norms all come from observation and copying what a child sees around them. He is just starting phonics in his nursery class and it is very relaxed yet already I can see how much he is learning and I believe this is because he is now ready to sit down, listen and learn in a structured way.IMG_1882I read and enjoyed ‘Raising Boys‘ some years ago and one of the key things the author talked about was education and boys. He cited the Scandinavian systems as being perfect for boys who are not ready to learn and sit still at the age of four and to be forced into formal education that early can have a negative effect on their idea of education for many years. Especially when you throw in the level of measuring and testing kids in the UK have from as young as six.

Here in Denmark there is no formal education until the age of six and this is the preschool or nursery class, which is seen as the bridge between formal education and daycare (either in an institution or in the home). This is the year when children begin to be exposed to the three Rs but also a time for everyone to get used to school and a more formal environment. The years before this are seen as an important time for children to be children – to play, explore, develop socially and culturally. Education experts say that children entering education at the ages of 6-7 consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of well-being.

Whilst most children don’t read very well until they are at least eight they have, statistically, caught up with their peers in the UK by the age of 10 or 11 and are perhaps more mature in general by that age as more of an emphasis has been placed on being responsible and social, for example many ten year olds are taking themselves to school and home again before they can read a Harry Potter book.

I recall staying at a friend’s house when her daughter was around five and there seemed such a lot of pressure put on them to do homework, which was actually just reading together. I understand expat families’ desire to accelerate their children as the lateness to education seems problematic to them based on their own experiences. I have the resources for my son when he is ready, we encourage him to read and write within the games he plays, and we have always read books before bedtime (and at other times of the day) but I keep in mind that he is only six years old and I don’t want him to feel pressured about education just yet, reading should be fun.

I struggle a little with this lateness to reading as I love reading myself and I can see that my son will too but I have faith that the system works and he will be reading and enjoying it when the time is right rather than seeing it as a chore. I sometimes feel inadequate as a mother when I see people I know in the UK on social media with sons the same age as mine reading chapter books and writing stories but I realise it is just a different system not a real problem. After all by the time he is 10 he will be learning two other languages other than English, will be reading and writing at his age level and will have the confidence to learn and be curious.


  1. When I first arrived in Denmark I was really keen to follow the Danish education system. My son, then aged three, began at a forest school. I loved the concept of being outdoors etc. Unfortunately it was a disaster – partly because all the teachers resigned because they fell out with København kommune. But mostly because there was no structure and they couldn’t deal with a child who couldn’t speak Danish. He pretty much spent four months on his own and was miserable – as were we. I think we were unfortunate. But I really do believe kids – especially boys – need structure. He’s now 5 and has just started year 1 at an international school that follows the British system. Yes there’s more homework etc which I dislike. But I have a much happier child. And that means everything to a parent!

    • Thanks for commenting, Alex. I agree a child’s happiness is very important. The Forest school system has a lot of pros but also it is a very different system to even regular børnehaver. Perhaps as my son went to a Montessori preschool he had a little more structure than in a kommune institution. The biggest reason we made that choice was because I feel the Danish børnehaver are relatively unstructured in their approach and I felt that something in the middle was best for my son.

    • I’ve read Alex’s comments with interest. My (4 year old) son started Danish børnehave in September. This børnehave, in Frederiksberg has a mix of traditional and forest school (they go out on a 3 week rotation) and so far, the experience has generally been positive but not without concerns and challenges.

      We chose this kindi because they offer Danish language ‘tuition’ for non-native speakers…(though I have no idea what they really get up to in those classes as my son talks about playing on the tablet (in English!) quite a bit when I ask him.)
      I have been really concerned some weeks because my son seemed very isolated from his peers. He came from a UK nursery where he was friendly with everyone, and very close to a couple of children and was very popular with his teachers who, I think liked the fact that he was always up for a ‘good chat’! Here, he was coming home almost every day telling me that he hadn’t played with any children. I think he was talking most of the teachers ears off because he knew he could talk to them (in English) and was opting to do that rather than attempt to engage with his peers, most of whom didn’t seem to realise he existed.

      I saw, and his ‘key worker’ also commented, that he got on much better with the kids in the older age-group and seemed more ‘mature’ than the kids in his group (‘he knows more and can talk about & do more’ she said)…I still feel it’s a shame (for him) that the year groups are arranged by calendar years, as these older kids have consistently been more friendly, more open and more interested in him despite the language barrier and I see the potential for stronger friendships here than with his own age group. However, he is gradually making inroads with his peers now, but it’s a slow process and obviously impeded by his lack of Danish. On my request, the staff have created small group activities for him with a couple of other children so they play together…They tell me he’s doing well in learning Danish now and the staff are gradually talking to him more in Danish and less in English (again, at my request) so he gets more Danish input. The last couple of weeks have been much happier ones for him, so something’s definitely working better.

      I think the fact that my son is very outgoing has helped him overcome a lot of the challenges, but I believe the key to success here for us has been good communication with the staff. When I’ve expressed concerns, I’ve immediately seen changes for the better and knowing that I’m being listened to and that my son is happier as a consequence makes me happier too.

      good luck to other new parents here!

  2. Hi,
    My son just started 0grade at Danish school aged 5 and won’t be 6 till next April! He is the youngest in his class. After spending a year in a Danish kindergarten where he was miserable and even broke out and came home on his own one day, he is now so happy to be at school with a desk and some proper learning structure. If I left it up to the Danish age requirement he would have spent another miserable year at kindergarten. He doesn’t have much Danish but to my surprise is coping very well and happy! Some kids are ready and usual a mother knows when!
    My three and a half year old daughter has recently started a forest kindergarten and so far so good! Her teachers are dedicated and caring, and there seems to be a timetable and structure which they follow that ensures the kids there are busy. I have no complaints so far. My almost seven year old daughter will be starting grade 1 mainstream Danish school in November. Moving from a special school he has attended for the past year to learn basic Danish. She will now be a year behind her class mates in Ireland and I do worry about her reading and writing. However some decisions we make are neither right or wrong and I put my trust in the Danish system that she will develop all the skills she need and catching up on English will come easy to her when we return to Ireland. The benefits of learning a new language and the experience of a different culture will outweigh any disadvantages of this move. For now once my kids are happy so am I!

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