NECE Exchange

19.10.2015 | Von:
Claus Haas, Institute of Education, Aarhus University, Copenhagen

Citizenship Education in Denmark

Civic Education in DenmarkDenmark (© bpb)

  • Background information: brief history of citizenship education
  • Definition of citizenship education
  • Ecosystem of non-formal Citizenship Education
  • Legal environment
  • Stakeholders
  • Challenges

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    Background information: brief history of citizenship education


    From a general theoretical point of view, citizenship education could be said to refer to those processes of teaching through which individuals and groups of people learn to think and act as members of political and/or cultural communities. In that sense, citizenship education is as old as the formal educational system itself. With the establishing of the formal, state-sponsored school system during the 19th century, citizenship education of formal education was closely connected with the aim of promoting national-Christian cultural citizenship – that is, promoting national identity with and loyalty towards the imagined community of the Danish nation.[2] In Denmark, it was not until the mid-1970s that citizenship education was fundamentally re-framed within a discourse of democracy. It was articulated within the overall legal framework of the primary school as part of the reform of primary school that was implemented in 1975:
      "The primary school prepares pupils to live by and participation in a democratic society, and to take responsibility for the solution of communal concerns. Thus, the teaching and the whole of daily life of the school must be grounded in freedom of thought and democracy".[3]
    Gradually, this concern for democratic education was also incorporated into the curriculum guidelines of all school subjects. From this outset, progressively democratic citizenship has been established as the central normative point of reference of the Danish educational system as a whole. However, it has been so without the use of the notion ‘citizenship education’ as such. Sometimes, ‘democratic citizenship education’ has been promoted and understood as an endeavor separated from former national-Christian identity politics. Sometimes, these components have been combined. During the 1990s, a third and often highly contested element has found its way into the discourse of citizenship education: the question of cultural diversity.

    This trinomial notion of citizenship education is also present as part of the comprehensive reform of the primary school that was implemented during 2014, as well within the overall legal framework, and within the curriculum guidelines.[4] This is also the case within the upper secondary educational system, although to lesser degree. In this sense, the discourse of citizenship education has become part of the public controversies concerning the consequences of immigration and expansive cultural diversity within the Danish society. Some consider democratic citizenship education to be part of broader bulwark against what is considered to be the dangerous disruptions of the social and cultural cohesion of the Danish society, caused by the intrusive ‘multiculture’. Others consider democratic citizenship education as a mean to further a broader and more inclusive notion of social, cultural integration or inclusion, and not least political participation, as well among immigrants, non-ethnic Danes, and other potentially excluded groups. At this point, the hegemonic situation of citizenship education is characterized by ambiguities and discord. In general, it seems that the current situation is in favor of the former position.

    So, to sum up: On the one hand, democratic citizenship education functions as an almost undisputed consensual point of reference when it comes to express the overall normative aim of education. On the other hand, the national – multicultural nexus reveals that this consensus is more ostensible and precarious than real.

    Definition of Citizenship Education

    Within the field of formal education, the notion ‘citizenship´ (= medborgerskab) is used explicitly only within the official curricular guidelines of bachelor of education, bachelor of social education, within specific branches of formal vocational education, and within what is called language centers. The latter are specialized schools that provide teaching in Danish as a foreign language, aimed at different kinds of immigrants. However, in none of these instances, ‘citizenship’ is defined or otherwise conceptually clarified. Consequently, there exists no officially approved and applied notion of ‘citizenship education’, either within legal frameworks and curricula guidelines, syllabuses, nor through other official policy documents concerning of formal education.

    Curriculum guidelines provide the formal educational sector with overall official guidelines for the elaboration of more extended and detailed syllabuses, which are the responsibility of local authorities or schools. In that perspective, the concrete elaboration of the syllabuses of formal education are to a large extent decentered matter, even though the Danish state has been still more eager to influence the content of different school subjects, for instance through the implementation of obligatory canons for the primary school subjects history and Danish. In recent years the curriculum guidelines of all school subjects have been named Fælles Mål (common goals). There exist a set of common goals, specified for each school subject, including intermediated and end learning objectives and specified competences for each grade.

    The closest one gets to a specification of what citizenship education seems to be about is the use of the conceptual constellation ‘active citizenship’. The meaning of citizenship education appears to be a way of drawing attention to participatory aspect of democracy, as an alternative to a more formalistic and instrumental political education, often associated with learning about institutional structures and procedures of democracy. Therefore, the use of ‘citizenship’ seems to indicate a pressing need for furthering democratic involvement and participation in a situation of presumably growing political apathy, especially among the youth, or simply compensate for a presumably lack of insight to what democracy is about. This seems to be conspicuous if one look at the ways in which the Danish state, or municipal authorities, have tried to involve formal education as a component in a variety of immigration policies, including different kinds of policies of anti- radicalization.[5] This has been done especially within the above mentioned language centers for immigrants. In these contexts “citizenship education” seems to function as a way of articulating what immigrants, especially non-western immigrants, seemingly lack, that is, insights into the normative core of Danish society, which is, so the narrative goes, sustained by participatory democratic involvement, especially in civil society.

    Neither EU nor Council of Europe references to citizenship education are made within officially sanctioned formal education.[6]

    Ecosystem of non-formal Citizenship Education

    While the notion ‘citizenship education’ is finding its way into formal education slowly and sporadically, the situation is somewhat different within non - formal educational sector. Especially within the Grundvigian inspired “folk high schools”, citizenship education has been a key concept since around year 2000. Folk high schools offer a wide variety of short and long term educational activities, within almost every subject – arts, athletics, social sciences, philosophy etc. as well as more leisure oriented activities. The organisations of folk high schools are to a varying degree inspired by some of the educational ideas, which the Danish priest and poet N.F.S. Grundtvig formulated during the 19th century. Grundtvigian folk high school was meant as an alternative to the formal educational state sponsored system, and directed towards the interests of famers. Originally the school were thought to have to main aim – to secure the re-education of farmers in relation to farming techniques, and to provide these groups with demotic Christian – national identities and values – as opposed the bourgeois elite based education and nationalism. Also within non-governmental organisations of civil society, for instance human right organisations and foreign development organisations, we find a more explicit use of ‘citizenship education’. Within these organisations, citizenship education is developed and conducted in various forms and through heterogeneous practices, both inside and outside Denmark. While some of the non-governmental organisations explicitly address citizenship education, other provide citizenship education in more indirect way through, for example, organising volunteering and other community work understood as active citizenship. Non-formal citizenship education is provided predominantly by the non-governmental organisations through project-based activities, which financed partly by public, partly by private funding.

    Legal environment

    In legal terms, citizenship education, understood as part of a discourse of democratic education, found its way into formal education as part of a reform of the primary school in 1975, as mentioned above.

    In different versions, this overall legal framework of the primary school, has been an often used legal point of reference point within different sectors of the educational system ever since. In those cases, mentioned above, where “citizenship” actually forms a part of the legal framework, the meaning of citizenship education remains unspecified. In that sense, seen from a legal point of view – what citizenship really is about is surprisingly difficult to dissect.


    Key stakeholders in the field of citizenship education in Denmark can be divided into six main categories.

    • First, stakeholders are academics in the field of research at University level, for the most part engaged in forming the theoretical and conceptual framework of citizenship education, and but to a lesser degree, involved in conducting concrete empirical research. The most important actor in the field of research, science and expertise in citizenship education in Denmark is Institute of Education, Aarhus University.
    • The second, stakeholders are University College teachers, involved in the branches of formal education mentioned above, which gradually have included the “citizenship education” into the curricula.
    • The third sets of stakeholders are the municipal authorities that articulate and implement various forms politics of integration or inclusion, especially but not restricted to immigrants.
    • The fourth set of stakeholders are positioned in the field of non-formal education focusing mainly on conducting projects and trainings that relate to the citizenship education in its broadest sense.
    • The fifth set of stakeholder are non-governmental organizations, who have shown some interest in citizenship education.
    • The sixth stakeholder is of course the Danish state, in specific The Danish Ministry of Education, and of course those municipal authorities, which to a large extent regulate and administer formal education.


    One challenge is that the concept citizenship is only used rarely within the legal framework and curricular guideline of formal education. This doesn’t mean that many of the themes and issues, often connected with citizenship education are absent from formal education. They are integrated into for instance civics and history. But, if ‘citizenship education’ are meant to signal something different from or an alternative to more traditional democratic education, the concept itself - ‘citizenship education’ - has to obtain a much more pronounced position as an integral part formal curricular guidelines or syllabuses

    And related to this, a good deal of theoretical and didactical clarification is still needed, if we have to avoid the danger that “citizenship education” becomes a hotchpotch for all kinds of normative statements and good intentions of education.

    A more concrete challenge is related to multicultural issues and immigration. In Denmark, as and in many other European nation-states, citizenship education has been closely related to, or more or less synonymous with, fostering identification and loyalty to the imagined community of the cultural homogenous nation. The latter has to be challenged in order to include the rising number of students with other ethnic and religious backgrounds than Danish.

    Also, an EU/European perspective have to be strengthened. At this point – it seem that education for some kind of European citizenship is mostly absent from formal education And lastly, there is a need to bring the citizenship education initiatives of informal education, and civil society organizations in closer contact with formal educational settings. An improved synergy between these two educational fields could be a positive step forward as it comes to strengthen the relevance of citizenship education.

  • Fußnoten

    The information in the paper is based on a comprehensive review of the existing literature in addition to a thorough examination of the past and present legal framework for citizenship education in Denmark. In addition to the literature below, see also i.e.: Korsgaard, O., Sigurdson, L., & Skovmand, K. (eds.) (2008). Medborgerskab – et nyt dannelsesideal; Mouritzen, P. (2013). The resilience of citizenship traditions. Civic integration, in Germany, Great Britain and Denmark. Ethnicities, 13/1, p. 86-109; Haas, C. (2014). Kulturelt medborgerskab. Men I /med hvilke forestillede fællesskaber. In: Browall, S. (ed.). Rum for medborgerskab.København, Statens Museum for kunst; Fiig, C. & Siim, B. (2014). Democratization of Denmark. The inclusion of woman in political citizenship. International Studies in sociology and Social Anthropology, vol. 22, p. 61-77.
    ”Formal education” are to be understood as those forms of education and teaching, which are accredited as part of the formal public educational system. ”Non-formal education” consists of forms of teaching and education that only to a limited degree are part of the formal, public educational system, requently based on private initiatives.
    Undervisningsministeriet (1975). Lov om folkeskolen 26. juni, 1975.
    Haas, C. (2014). Staten, eliten og ’os. Erindrings- og identitetspolitik mellem assimilation og livet i salatskålen. Aarhus Universitetsforlag. (The State, the elite and ’us’. Politics of memory and identity between assimilation and life in the salatbowl); Haas, C. (2008a). “Citizenship education in Denmark: Re-inventing the nation and/or conducting multiculturalism(s)?” I: London Review of Education, vol. 6, nr. 1, s. 59-70.
    Haas, C. (2011). Demokrati som kulturarv og erindringspolitik. In Haas, C. et al. (eds.). Ret til dansk. Uddannelse, sprog og kulturarv. (Democracy as cultural heritage and politics of memory); Haas, C. (2010). At spotte radikaliserede børn og unge. Demokratisk dannelse som sikkerhedpolitik. (To spot radicalized children and youngsters), Unge Pædagoger. No. 3, p. 55-62. (To spot radicalized children and juveniles. Demoratic education as poltics of security).
    Haas, C. (2008b). “EU på skoleskemaet. Flerkulturel kulturarv og/eller demokratisk medborgerskab”. In: Historie & Samfundsfag, nr. 4, s. 8-14; Haas, C. (2008c). ”EU’s identitets- og uddannelsespolitik”. I: Nordisk Pedagogik, p. 255-271.

    تكوين المواطنة في أوروبا وشمال إفريقيا

    تكوين المواطنة في أوروبا وشمال إفريقيا

    Here you can find the Arabic version of this Publication.

    Mehr lesen

    European societies, albeit at different paces, have undergone profound changes in the fabric of their populations due to EU enlargement, European Citizenship, globalization and migration processes. Traditional concepts of citizenship and citizenship education in Europe have to be revised in the light of these developments.

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    Associated Partner / Organisations / Projects

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