Folk high schools

Folk high school

Folk High Schools

Folk high schools (Danish: Folkehøjskole; Finnish: kansanopisto and työväenopisto or kansalaisopisto; German: Volkshochschule and Heimvolkshochschule; Norwegian: Folkehøgskole; Swedish: Folkhögskola) are institutions for adult education that do not grant academic degrees. They are most commonly found in Nordic countries and in Germany. The concept originally came from the Danish writer, poet, philosopher and pastor Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783–1872). Grundtvig was inspired by the Marquis de Condorcet's Report on the General Organization of Public Instruction which was written in 1792 during the French Revolution. The Revolution had a direct influence on popular education in France.

Despite similar names and somewhat similar goals, the institutions are quite different in Germany and Sweden as opposed to the traditions in Norway. Folk high schools in Germany and Sweden are in fact much closer to the institutions known as folkeuniversitet or folkuniversitet in Norway and Denmark which provide adult education. However, unlike the folkuniversitet, folk high schools in Sweden are not connected to a regular university. The Finnish työväenopisto or kansalaisopisto (called arbetarinstitut in Swedish) are also part of the educational Folk tradition.

Other countries have been inspired by Grundtvig's concept of popular education. In Africa, the United States and India, a few schools have been built upon Grundtvig's principles for education.


The character of folk high schools differ from country to country, but usually institutions have the following common features:

  • Large variety of subjects
  • No final exams
  • A focus on self-development
  • Pedagogical freedom
  • Courses last between a few months and one year

Especially in non-German speaking countries, folk high schools may be boarding schools or may mainly offer courses for adults age 18–30.


The first folk high school was founded in Rødding, Denmark in 1844. It began on the initiative of Kristen Kold, who was a follower of Grundtvig. The school was inspired by the need to educate those not fortunate enough to have an education and the poor, orpeasantry, who could not spare the time or the money to attend a university. Among the other old folk high schools in Denmark are Askov Højskole in Jutland and Vallekilde Højskole in Zealand, both founded in 1865.

As of 2008, there are currently 79 folk high schools in Denmark. The principal subjects of instruction vary from the creative arts such as music, arts, design, writing, to intellectual courses such as religion, philosophy, literature and psychology. Some schools even have courses that specialize in sports.

In recent history, globalization has exercised an increasingly important influence on Danish schools. Many courses are open to foreigners as well as Danes, and many courses include travelling or voluntary stays in other countries as part of the curriculum.


Norway's first folk high school was founded in 1864. As of 2007, there were 77 folk high schools spread across the country, thirty of which were Christian schools. Folk high schools provide opportunities in general education, primarily for young adults. These schools are different from secondary schools, high schools, and higher education. All students are eligible for normal financial aid. Most folk high schools are connected to some sort of organization. Most courses are for one year, but there are a few that are two years.


The first folk high schools in Sweden were established in 1868. As of 2008, there are about 150 folk high schools throughout the country, most of which are situated in the countryside, often in remote areas. Tuition is free, and the students are eligible for normal financial aid for expenses such as accommodations and othe school costs. After graduating, the students are eligible to study at a university.

Some schools, for example Södra Vätterbygdens Folkhögskola near Jönköping, cooperate with schools in other countries and have an exchange student program.


Folk high schools in the German-speaking countries usually provide non-credit courses for adults in:

  • general education
  • vocational education
  • political education
  • German as a second language (especially for immigrants)
  • various foreign languages
  • various forms of art
  • information technology
  • health education
  • preparatory classes for school exams (especially for the Abitur or Matura)

This type of folk high school is currently most widespread in Germany. Because they offer preparatory classes for school exams, the German folk high schools also function as the equivalent of adult high schools in other countries. Germany also has folk high schools that are boarding schools, called Heimvolkshochschulen.


In 1866, during the Second Empire, Jean Macé founded the Ligue de l'enseignement ("Teaching League"),which was devoted to popular instruction. Following the split between the Anarchists and the Marxists at the 1872 Hague Congress, popular education remained an important part of the workers' movement, especially in the anarcho-syndicalist movement which set up, with Fernand Pelloutier, various Bourses du travail centres, where workers gathered and discussed politics and sciences. The Jules Ferry laws that were passed in the 1880s established free, secular, mandatory public education as one of the founding principles of the Third Republic. In addition, many teachers were strong supporters of Alfred Dreyfus during the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s. Afterward, some teachers set up free educational lectures on humanist topics in order to struggle against the spread of anti-semitism in France.

In more recent times, following the 1981 presidential election Minister of Education Alain Savary supported Jean Lévi's initiative to create a public high school that would deliver the baccalauréat but would be organized on the principles of autogestion (or "self-management"). This high school took the name Lycée autogéré de Paris (LAP). The LAP was explicitly inspired by the secondary school Vitruve, which opened in 1962 in the 20th arrondissement of Paris (and is still active), Oslo Experimental High School, which opened in 1967 in Norway, and Saint-Nazaire Experimental High School, which opened six months before the LAP. Theoretical influences include the works of Célestin Freinet, Raymond Fonvieille, Fernand Oury, and other theoreticians of the institutional pedagogy, institutional analysis (René Lourau in particular), and institutional psychotherapeutic movements.

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