School Reform: Private Schools

Private Schools

What surprised a lot of foreigners (including me), during the lockout was that private schools were affected at all. The reason for this was that most private schools receive funding from the state. Teachers at private schools which are financed in this way are state employees.

One thing that gets forgotten in all this is who exactly was affected. These plans were drafted to change how folkeskole schools worked. These are free of charge schools maintained by the town councils. When we talk about school reform, we usually only mention these folkeskole schools and how it has affected them. But this has also affected the private day schools, the boarding schools and the language schools.

Terms and Conditions

Historically, private schools have had different working terms and conditions than teachers in folkeskoler. This makes a lot of sense in terms of boarding schools, where teachers are on-call at different times of day and have a different set of duties and tasks. It makes some sense in terms of private day schools too, they run things differently so they perhaps need a more flexible framework.

Now, the systems are almost identical. The changes made ‘for’ the folkeskole reform have affected the private sector. Each private school in Denmark had a choice:- go with the default system (as in ‘normalised’ working hours) or negotiate a local agreement balancing the needs of the staff and management.

Local Understandings

Some schools tried the ‘middle way’ of not doing the default system but not signing a local agreement either. This is a risky strategy for schools because teachers are able to demand in this case, via the union, that the default system be followed. If schools try to provide terms and conditions that are worse than the default arrangement (for example, not paying staff properly for going on overnight trips. Under the default system overnight trips are completely unaffordable), then the union can demand the ministry look into it. Across the country, a lot of union time is being spent on making sure that teachers are not being required to work for free in order to make ends meet.

But what is increasingly happening is that teachers are accepting this practice for the good of the school, for the good of the students.  Teachers are being asked, for example, to be on site between 8am and 3pm and the extra hour per working day is to be spent on planning at home. If the job actually requires more than that, too bad. Not the school’s problem. Or teachers are given a list of duties and told their working time is 42 hours per week (we aren’t paid for our weeks off, we just work longer hours in term time), and to figure it out for themselves. If they can’t, too bad. Not the school’s problem. The schools claim they have individual agreements with each of the staff and if the teachers can’t get everything done in the time allowed then it is on the teacher.

If these teachers are anything like me, they did not go into the job so they could keep a spreadsheet detailing the hours they actually worked. They did not go into teaching so they could stop halfway through a task because they’re not getting paid for it any more. They did not go into teaching so they could nickel and dime their school. Teachers also tend to be compliant with authority. They want their classes to succeed, they want their lessons to go well, they want to do the best for their students. They are not going to want to make waves and advocate for themselves.

The trouble now is that the system necessarily makes teachers have to choose between their work-life balance and their students’ success. If a parent is impatient with the amount of time their child’s teacher spends on preparation or other tasks, they won’t get mad at a system that is not fit for purpose. They will get mad at the teacher for putting themselves first. Meanwhile, the teachers that go the other way are at greater risk of burn out due to their higher workload. (Not that a year or two with a high workload usually burns people out, you can sustain it for a little while at least. But when exactly does the workload come down after you demonstrate you can get everything done and not cost any more money?)

Plenty of choice in the “burned out teacher” image search     Image credit:


Private school teachers are paid less in basic pay than teachers in folkeskoler. This has been true for a long time. There is a pay supplement that must be negotiated every year that is intended to be used to bring the two salaries in line. For a long time, there was a minimum base for this supplement but before the lock-out this minimum was removed. It was never intended to be zero but it is perfectly permissible for schools to award nothing at all.

Before the lock-out, you could argue that with the two very different terms and conditions, pay could be lower. You could say that private school teachers do not work as hard or for as long as folkeskole teachers, hence the lower pay. But after the lock-out, these terms and conditions were made exactly the same. So, now the argument is that class sizes are typically smaller in private schools, hence the lower pay. But now some private schools are filling up at the expense of class sizes in the folkeskoler. Besides, a lot of the work of the teacher does not have much to do with the size of the classes. Class size affects time spent on marking, data entry and school-home contact. It’s a matter of a few dozen hours a year. There is no way those hours are equivalent to a 2-4k pay hit per month. It is starting to be indefensible for private school teachers to be paid differently than those in the public sector in a lot of private schools.

What is also starting to happen is that new private schools are opening all the time because of the increased demand. Running a school is ridiculously expensive, especially in the early start up period because of low student:staff ratio. In the first year of operation, the pay supplement does not need to be negotiated, it is usually zero. After that, it must be negotiated but the answer can very well be “nothing this year, our budget won’t stretch to it” and there is not much the teachers can do other than ask for outside arbitration. Many teachers just don’t bother because they understand the pressure their school is under. On a school-to-school basis, this seems reasonable. No teacher wants to demand that they are paid more if it means that their workplace disappears.

You know when you’re too close to a problem to see it clearly? Magicians use this to their advantage. And so it seems, do politicians. The scale of this thing is what is important. It is not about individual schools or individual salaries. More and more teachers in Denmark are private school teachers, and increasingly they are being told there is no money in the budget to pay them the same as folkeskole teachers. More and more private schools are having financial difficulties. Some go bust. Others chunter along, getting away with paying their teachers less than they would get in a public school because they are allowed to and because no one wants to make their own school go under.

Private school teachers have the same terms and conditions, often the same class sizes, sometimes more duties and responsibilities as in the public sector. But if they advocate for higher pay, they could sink their school. A higher proportion of Danish children are taught in private schools and even though the state pays the school to educate these students, if budgets can’t stretch to paying the going rate in salariesthe government are not paying enough. And this is happening on an alarming scale. The shortfall in the state budget is made up with the salaries of the private school teachers.

Teachers tend to be risk averse people, they are not entrepreneurs for a reason. Having a market where workplaces regularly go bust and many people in your trade are unemployed makes workers much more pliable.

“I wasn’t trying to make an instruction manual”

There are too many private schools, so ends can never be expected to meet. These schools ought to fail but are kept afloat by teachers playing nice and agreeing to being paid less for the same work as down the road.

As more and more teachers in Denmark are in this sector, this means the average wage for teachers in Denmark is dropping. I doubt the resolution to this will be increased wages for the public sector, somehow, I think a case will eventually be made to normalise folkeskole salaries in line with the private sector some time down the line.

Was the plan to make folkeskoler chaotic and unworkable all along or is it just a happy coincidence? Was the game plan all along to reduce the spend on education by pushing children into schools with cut-price staff?

If you look at each issue in isolation, it just looks like regular incompetence and poor planning. The change over to unlimited number of lessons, the reduction in preparation time, the mess with the ‘normalisation’ of hours, the inappropriate application of the public system to the private, the poor implementation of inclusion in public schools, the poor implementation of extra numeracy and literacy, the rise of the local ‘understanding’ as opposed to negotiated agreements, the drop in average teacher pay, the rise in numbers of private schools in financial difficulty, the rise of unacknowledged overtime, the increase in teacher illness and absence… all of this in isolation is unfortunate. But as a gestalt, this is horrifying.

Can it be all down to incompetence and a failure of forward thinking? And is that better or worse than some of these terrible outcomes for students and teachers were planned all along?

School Reform Folkeskoler


Several changes happened all at once in Danish folkeskoler. This sort of ‘shock and awe’ tactic is becoming more common in political governance. Politicians make a huge crisis (or wait for a huge crisis), and then make all the changes they want. All at once. People are so turned around by the crisis the changes become a ‘new normal’.

The major changes were to the working hours of teachers or ‘normalisation’, beginning ‘inclusion’ (where special needs students are taught alongside students with no particular educational special needs), more focus of numeracy and literacy, longer school days, introduction of homework clubs and new ‘activity’ lessons added to the timetable.


The ‘normalisation’ 8am-4pm thing in folkeskoler has meant that teachers have not been able to do their preparation properly without doing unpaid overtime. If you only have 15 minutes on a Monday for preparation because you’re teaching or in meetings, you’re not going to get a lot of prep done for Tuesday. As much as you can prepare a week (or weeks in advance), sometimes things happen in lessons that should inform your planning for the next lesson. For example, you are teaching how to solve polynomials and realise your students don’t know how to do long division. You have no long division lesson plans ready to go because it’s usually the teachers in the grades below that cover that topic, you need to think carefully about how to teach this skill to your students. If the next lesson is the next day: too bad under this new system.

If you have a lot of long essays or tests to grade, you can either grade them all in one go and not have any time left over for lesson planning or you can do a handful at a time in short spurts. It’s a horrible choice. Option A: your under prepared lessons will be crap in weeks you have a lot of marking. Option B: your students will get inconsistent grades and get their work back long after they have forgotten all about it. Option C: work unpaid overtime and get it all done.

If you have a lot of parent-teacher conferences in one week or a lot of ad hoc meetings or you receive a large order of equipment that needs to be put into cupboards, then your planning time gets wiped out in these weeks too.

The reason that teachers worldwide typically plan at home, after school hours, is that grading and lesson planning is very taxing. It can be creative, it is usually done with respect to several inter-related factors and you often need undisturbed quiet to do it. Teaching itself is exhausting. You have to keep  your sense of humour and proportion up even in the face of extraordinary provocation. You have to make decent human connections with several young people. You have to run activities that will best help these individuals learn. You have to fine tune these activities on the fly. You have to ask and answer challenging questions. You have to be a performer, a professional and a person. If you think you can go from a high-impact lesson on radioactive half life with 9G where you kept them active and on-side for 90 minutes and then go to your desk and plan a lesson from scratch for 7B on the Haber process where you will have the same level of activity and engagement then you have a lot more juice than I do. What I typically like to do straight after teaching is have a nice cup of tea and zone out. I plan my lessons when I have recovered, usually after dinner or at the weekend. If it’s in the school day at all, it’s before any lessons have happened.

In short, this thoughtless change has been disastrous for many schools and their students. It’s all very well saying that teachers are ‘normalised’ with other state employees as compensation for the changes the lock-out brought but if they are not able to provide the usual level of service without working for free, then this is nothing like compensation. This is just a way of obscuring unpaid overtime.

Some teachers, it is worth mentioning, prefer this system. They like how they can say ‘done with school now!’ and can go relax when they finish their working hours. But I wonder how they manage to get everything done. How is it done? I don’t think I could do it. Not in weeks where I have to write reports or go on training and probably not in ‘ideal’ weeks where I don’t have much to do. How are they managing, these teachers who don’t mind this new system?

The unions can do nothing right now because their war chests are depleted. It’s not like they can threaten strike action. And so the politicians keep coming with new reforms:- inclusion for those with educational special needs, more focus on literacy and numeracy, more hours in school. Nothing particularly controversial but they have made it clear they do not want teacher input on the implementation of these changes. So, these reforms have been a load of bollocks.


Inclusion without proper resources and training is not doing anyone any favours. The special needs students either get sent out of the lesson every 20 minutes or they get a crappy make-work task to keep them busy or they have a great lesson but the other kids get short changed. Something has to give.

Special needs inclusion is something that I believe in. It is the way to go for most students, I think. But you can’t just drop kids with learning difficulties or emotional disorders into a room with 20 other children and call that ‘inclusion’. Inclusion necessarily means you are planning separate activities according to your students needs. Inclusion means you have other adults in the room to support learning. It means you have some basic understanding of the different disorders and how they make learning difficult for the student.  You know, so they are ‘included’. Otherwise, it’s ‘mainstreaming’, if you want to get technical. ‘Mainstreaming’ is when you just put all the kids together in one place:  the lack of special needs will rub off onto the kids with problems!


Without this input of funds for training and extra members of staff and time for preparation, your special needs students are going to struggle. Your students with no particular educational disabilities are also going to have a crap time because so much teacher in-lesson-time is spent on preventing or dealing with problems relating to having one or more children in the room who can’t read or sit still or remember instructions or deal with strong emotions.

Numeracy and Literacy

As for increased focus on numeracy and literacy, who can argue against that? If Denmark is spending so much on education, you would hope its students would be able to demonstrate basic skills, right? But if 4 hours a week with your math or Danish teacher isn’t raising your attainment, why would 5 hours? If students in Danish schools are not doing well with basic skills it is not because they don’t get long enough in the classroom, it is their teachers are not doing the things that will help them improve.

Oh, unhelpful teacher, what will you do next?

Much research has been performed and analysed to tackle the question of what helps students learn best. All I am asking, from the bottom of my heart, is that the people implementing changes in Danish schools just read it. This is about the most frustrating thing about teaching. So much time is spent talking about stuff that makes little or no difference to students’ attainment while the things that do make a difference are completely overlooked. There are several interventions and techniques that are shown to improve how well students learn.  It’s not like the research is secret or hard to read. People just cannot be bothered. Increased contact hours is an overly simple solution to a complicated problem. Which is why it is doomed from the start.

This has led to is greater use of private schools. More and more private schools are opening up to cope with increased demand. This has some interesting knock-on effects on the private sector.

Part One: Introduction

Part Three: Private schools.

School Reform

Those familiar with recent Danish politics will know that there have been some major school reforms. But even the informed observer, for example, those who work in education might not know the breadth and extent of the changes.

In April 2013 there was a lock-out. This is when employers prevent unionised employees from working and taking a wage during a dispute in a negotiation. This is subtly different from a strike. A strike is where unionised employees withdraw their labour during a dispute in a negotiation. Funny how everyone keeps calling it a strike now it’s passed into memory. I met a man who worked for the Modernisation Ministry and had been involved in the dispute. He called it a strike. It matters. This terminology matters.


The dispute was over two relatively minor points. Point 1:- should older teachers have a reduced timetable with no reduction in pay. Point 2:- should there be a national upper limit on lessons taught per week and a set amount of lesson preparation time.

Almost immediately the negotiations broke down. They broke down so fast the unions called shenanigans on the process. Evidence came out that interested parties such as the education ministry and finance ministry were involved in preparing and briefing ‘the employers’ (a federation of borough council politicians), in such a way that the negotiations would fail. The ministries had big plans for Danish schools and they were not going to wait for union buy-in.

A lock-out was unthinkable in March 2013 but went on for nearly a month. This wiped out the unions’ strike funds. No one expected such an extreme measure, especially not one that lasted so long.

When the government stepped in to ‘break’ the deadlock, they did so in a way that would fig-leaf the things they were not supposed to do. They were not supposed to act as puppet masters to the employers, they were not supposed to have managed the negotiation process from start to finish. They were supposed to be independent interested parties. To mask their interference they needed to give something to both sides.

The employers got their demands about senior working hours and preparation time. The major concession the government made to the teachers was curious: they would no longer have to work beyond 4pm on weekdays. They would not have to work evenings or weekends any more. As if this is something that teachers would actually want(!) Where do they get their ideas from?


Teachers in Denmark have been working with this new system for five months now and some interesting knock on effects have come up. Some of these will have been planned and some of them will be pure happenstance. It is hard to know the difference sometimes.

The changes were a lot more wide ranging than many people appreciate. It did not just affect schools run by the town councils which are free of charge called folkeskoler, but also the private schools, the boarding schools and the language schools. This is such an epic blog post I’m going to have to split it into parts.

Part Two: Folkeskoler

Part Three: Private schools