Hellerup School in Copenhagen, Denmark is one of the most interesting schools I have ever visited. It is best known for its architecture; it was highlighted by Building Schools for the Future in the UK as an innovative school design. Architecturally, the school is astonishing. There are some classrooms – science, gym and woodwork are all in rooms with lockable doors – but apart from that, the school is open-plan. ‘Class areas’ are delineated by arrangements of furniture such as moveable room dividers, lockers, desks. No class area has a door and students can wander freely from one area to another. The school is located over three floors, all looking down over a central well and the famous ‘Hellerup stairs’ (copied in schools in Hull and elsewhere). The school design in itself is innovative, but it only makes sense in relation to the school’s pedagogy. The pedagogy came first; the architecture followed. Everything, including the acoustics, has been carefully designed so that even though the school is open-plan, it is remarkably quiet.
On initial impressions, Hellerup School looks like chaos: children everywhere, all in casual clothes; piles of coats, shoes and bags littering the floor. However, it is clear that this school is highly organised with six 45-minute lessons every day, each one started by an introduction in the cosy ‘base areas’. The curriculum, testing system and staffing rotas are all organised – it is the style of teaching and learning which is flexible and has the appearance of chaos. After being set a task (or learning objectives), children can choose how they want to learn. The building is explicitly designed around this pedagogy, and children are encouraged to move around and find a space in which they want to work. There are tables, chairs, sofas, beanbags, stages, steps. Children can work in small groups, in pairs, on their own. Within the school, there are dozens of quiet and cosy working spaces for children to choose to work in, including outside areas.
The school is for children aged 6-16. There are approximately 660 students on roll (with a waiting list). The three floors house ages 6-9, mid-secondary, and upper secondary (although there is some moving about between floors). Roughly, there are 70 students in each year group which consists of 3-4 class groups (23-25 per class). Sometimes they work in class groups and sometimes in year groups, which gives them a lot of peers to work alongside. Teachers are allocated to a class and year group, and they stay with this group for at least three years, which means that they know all students extremely well. Teachers do not move groups to teach subjects; the curriculum is project-based and incorporates a range of subjects. Students stay in the same class group from the age of 6 to 16. The school values building and maintaining good relationships with and between students, and it is this which guides the structure of the school.
The school has a commitment to ensure that the ‘learning styles’ of all children are accommodated. Although the school claims to start to identify learning styles in kindergarten, it does not appear as if these learning styles are used in a restrictive or prescriptive way. Rather, the school recognises that children learn differently and they want to give them freedom to find the best way for them. Children are actively involved in this process and can try out a variety of different ways of learning. The school day is organised in such a way that children have a wide variety of opportunities to engage in different ways of learning and of working alongside different children. Collaborative work is highly valued. All classes are mixed ability, although sometimes teachers will encourage particular students to work together – this relates to ability but also to motivation.
Hellerup School has to do the same national tests as other schools (the Danish system has apparently adopted some similar practices to the UK – national testing system, Her Majesty’s Inspectors). The school also has its own testing system for Danish and maths. The Head was clear that parents would only continue to send their children to the school if test results were good; although they value the ‘soft skills’, these are seen as extras. In addition to academic tests, students negotiate individual goals through dialogue with teachers. These can be academic, personal or social goals, and students are involved in self-assessing whether they have met these goals. These goals are taken seriously and are written into work books (and sometimes on walls, making them more public). It appears as if students genuinely self-direct these goals, although this process warrants further exploration.
Hellerup School was at one time named as one of the flagship schools for the charity Human Scale Education http://www.hse.org.uk/hse/ This school is not perfect and it certainly has its challenges – and these challenges seem to be increasing as the Danish education system closes in on freedom.
If you are interested in knowing more, then please come to the Freedom to Learn event in Oxford on 12 March 2015 – we are lucky to have been able to bring the Head of Hellerup to the UK to share his experiences and reflections on the school. The event is free, but places are limited. Book now at www.freedomtolearnproject.com