What are Free Schools?

Grundtvig and Kold 
The Free School tradition has its origins in the thinking of the great Danish thinker, clergyman, poet and politician, N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872) and in the actions of the teacher, Christen Kold (1816-1870). On the basis of their ideas about ‘a school for life based on the living word’, the first Højskole or ‘folk high school’ for adults was founded in 1844 and the first Friskole or ‘free school’ for children in 1852. These were followed in 1879 by the creation of ‘Efterskoler’, boarding schools where teenagers spend a year before typically going on to ‘Gymnasium’ or sixth form. These schools were in particular designed to serve the rural population.

Grundtvig’s educational ideas were realised in practice by Christen Kold. The result was a view of education and child development that was way ahead of its time and which continues to form the basis for Free School thinking. The balance of individual responsibilities and freedoms, the primacy of learning rather than schooling, of personal development rather than training, are central, and with them goes an appreciation of the symbiosis between the individual’s development as dependent on the community and the development of community as dependent on the individual. The aim is to create a healthy and sustainable society on the basis of healthy and wholly developed individuals. This means nurturing the potential of every individual, regardless of background and ability and regardless of age. For in the Free School tradition, learning is life-long, and people of all ages have the opportunity to develop their knowledge and abilities. Even more important, learning here is learning for life; its aims are not short-term or trivial but relate to the essence of the individual’s being in the world. This form of education involves equal and substantial degrees of trust and of freedom. It means giving each individual responsibility through involvement in the democratic process and enabling each individual to support and be supported by all other individuals in the process of learning.

The ideas of Grundtvig and Kold had such an impact on the political thinking of their time that they were written into the democratic Constitution adopted by Denmark in 1915. It stipulates compulsory education for all – not compulsory school attendance.

In Denmark, all children must receive nine years’ of schooling, but – provided certain minimum standards are achieved – it is a matter of choice for the parents whether the education is received

a) in a state primary and lower secondary school,
b) in an independent (or ‘free’) school, or
c) at home.