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01 October 2021

Denmark: Children with minority background achieve lower grades at school

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When comparing graduation grades from secondary school (9th grade) exams, for children who only speak Danish at home, with those of children who speak other languages at home, the attainment gap is quite disturbing: the average grade awarded to bilingual children is 6, and for monolingual children it is 8 (on the national 12 point grading scale). Danish newspaper Politiken recently described the situation.

Despite many years of active effort and massive investment from the Copenhagen Municipality to reduce this gap to a maximum of 1 point, the gap is actually growing slightly. It currently stands at 2, while in 2015 it was 1.9. According to the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) reports, this trend can be found all over the world and is not specific to Denmark.

Copenhagen has developed a special programme wherein children in some parts of the city are offered free transport to attend school in a district different from their own. Under this programme, 350 bilingual children voluntarily attend school in an area with a higher concentration of ethnic Danish children than the district they belong to. Among Copenhagen’s inhabitants, 30% have a foreign background - this is much higher than the national average of 9%.

The controversial Danish “ghetto-plan” includes a less voluntary version of this model for young children attending day care, in an attempt to move more children with minority background out from social housing projects. In areas categorised as “vulnerable” – formerly named “ghetto areas” by the state – all children must have a language test before starting school, day care is mandatory for children over the age of one, and kindergartens should be made up of no more than 30% bilingual children. This goal, however, is not possible to reach without moving small children far away from their home and tearing down “healthy” houses in an effort to attract other kinds of residents.

Children from ethnic Danish families clearly have better access to stimulation and support at home when it comes to the Danish language. But, according to senior researcher Sidsel V. Jensen from VIVE, Danish Center for Social Science Research, the gap in grades is not so much a question of language or culture, but rather a social and economical issue. The inequality in life conditions is simply reflected in the grades – issues of poverty, lack of education and bad health are much more widespread among ethnic minorities in Denmark.

School headmasters from two very different schools in Copenhagen: Tingbjerg Skole (with 85% bi-lingual children) and Øster Farimagsgade Skole (in one of the most expensive parts of the city) both agree that grades are affected by the city's policies for housing and employment.

The difference can also be seen in the schoolyard, where children from educated and wealthy families are better at expressing their emotions and their limits verbally, whereas children with parents reliant on social benefits have weaker language skills and will more often resort to solving conflicts physically. Children with a more limited vocabulary tend to be involved in a higher number of conflicts than others.

Last year, 75 children started in grade 0 at Tingbjerg Skole and undertook a language test. Among them, 22 did not have the usual level of Danish for their age. Further, the average graduation grade at the school was 5.2 last year - much lower than the Danish national average of 8.

Headmaster at Øster Farimagsgade Skole, Axel Bech, says it doesn’t make sense to compare the grades of bilingual and monolingual children. He says the main focus should be on teaching every child how to use their potential, and also to support those children who are not strong in reading and writing to have a good and meaningful life. As a solution to decrease the gap in grades he is calling for better education of teachers, saying to Politiken: “Our teachers are not competent enough to provide the best training to children with different backgrounds and different languages. Their education is too short and far from good enough”.

Of course, an average can cover a large difference between individuals within a group. Young Danes with refugee background have obtained top grades when graduating from high school in Denmark in recent years, for example Ardashir Sulaiman, who came from Syria to Denmark only 5 years ago and graduated this summer with an average grade of 11.6.


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Posted by
Michala Clante Bendixen
Country Coordinator

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