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?

4 thoughts on “School Reform: Private Schools

  1. Hmm… and you haven’t even beGUN to address the needs of special needs kids on either side of the divide. My impression is that the Danish State sees each person primarily as money-generating COGS.


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