To Hafnia or Have Not — Copenhagen Schooling

First Day of School in Copenhagen — Hafnia is the Latin name for Copenhagen

I grew up in a home influenced in many ways by the Danish heritage and culture of my family, despite growing up 7000 km from Copenhagen. Moving back to the fatherland wasn’t as challenging for me as it may be for others for whom Denmark was a vague blob on a map before arriving.

There was little culture shock to speak of, but a long line of quirky realisations and bemused observations.

One thing you can’t prepare yourself for is having kids (yeah, generally) who shuffle off to daycare, kindergarten and school. Education systems vary so greatly from country to country and you don’t think about it until you work in the profession (I don’t) or have kids who need to fill their brains with useful stuff.

This morning at breakfast, my son Felix, aged 14, told me that he got a 12 on a math test. The Danish grading system is a seven-point system where 12 is given “for an excellent performance”.

All the grades in the Danish system are described rather positively, except for -3. Even a 02 is considered “adequate”.

That was pretty cool for the boy, but I realised that it was the first time I had ever heard him talk about getting a grade — and he is currently in the 7th grade. (children start a year later than most OECD countries).

When I asked about it he said that the teacher hinted that it might be a 12 — if she was allowed to give grades. Which she wasn’t. That starts in the 8th grade, apparently. How cool is that? No grades, no measuring of individuals up against their peers until 8th grade. No senseless competition between young people.

Felix has tests, of course, and he gets a mark for how he did. Forty questions, three wrong, that’s 37 out of 40. But that makes basic sense. Kids need to have some form of performance measuring to understand how to improve.


My daughter, Lulu-Sophia, is 8 years old and in 2nd grade. The other day she had some math work in her textbook to catch up on in the evening. I suppose that would be classified as “homework”, but these two kids have never really had any homework — as it’s percieved in other countries. Felix has some monthly tasks to complete, but he rarely needs to spend time on it outside of school hours. Maybe the Danish culture of effectivity starts early.

Lucky for Felix and Lulu-Sophia. There is a childhood to be enjoyed, a life to be lived, family and friends to hang out with. Who wants to have to do school work when you’re not at school? What kind of life is that?

I just realised that I have never seen a report card for either of my kids. There is a kind of feedback form from the teachers, but it is all written comments and no grades. Just a gentle pat on the back or an encouraging nudge if needed.

In it Together

The primary focus, from the moment kids first enter public institutions, is getting along with others. I noticed this when both of kids started in daycare not long after they turned one. It’s all about working in a group, sharing the toys, being nice to each other. It explained a whole lot about Danish — and Scandinavian — culture.

Some people in other countries find it odd that kids go to daycare from the age of one and are taken care of all day. After a long parental leave, the parents are keen to get back to work. The idea of a child staying at home with one parent is strange here. The kid is going to spend the vast majority of their life in situations featuring a number of others — school classes, jobs with colleagues. Why stunt that development by keeping them at home? Get them into a daycare so they can start learning how to interact with the people they’ll spend the rest of their lives with. Society.

The result is clear across the nation. People have tightly-formed social networks of friends, many of them old friends from school or higher education. Often so tight that outsiders — especially people new to Denmark — have a difficult time elbowing into these circles of friends. This loyalty to a strong circle of friends can resemble a mirror version of society at large. We’re in it together, for better or worse.

Interestingly, Danes are the nation in Europe that socialise with their work colleagues the least. Their tightly-knit social groups don’t extend to colleagues. But then their colleagues also have their own social groups.

Teacher-Student — feat. Parents

Another interesting experience is the parent-teacher meetings that are held twice a year. The kid is present, with the parents, and the greatest detail is that we, the parents, are basically flies on the wall. It’s a direct line between educator and student, where they are given feedback about the different classes. We can ask questions if we have any, but 95% of the eye contact is between teacher and student.

There is no referring to the kid in the third person as they sit right there between us. No grown-up talk about the kid who sits subserviently and listens. Nah. Only treating the student with the respect they deserve.

Dental and Mental

It came as a great relief to discover that the school system has the backs of the kids regarding medical care. From the moment they enter daycare, they are provided with free dental care. A mobile van in our city, Frederiksberg, rolls around to the daycares and kindergartens throughout the year, given the kids a check up. The parents are given the results every time.

Once they get to school, there is a dentist’s office on site and the kids are all called in regularly for check ups. I get a text message from the City when the kids have visited the school dentist, with a link to a website where I can see all the results, recommendations and even x-rays if applicable.

There is also a school nurse and school pyschologist on site. When my daughter was going through a tough behavourial phase in the first grade, it was impressive to see the school’s commitment to fixing the issues at hand. An arsenal of professionals rallied to get to the bottom of it. It extended to the City, as well, with family advisors provided by the municipality for further consultation.

It’s all a fantastic spider’s web in place to respect children, give them an education and upbringing that is positive, useful and, quite simply, good.