After Denmark’s parliament passed the Act on Municipal International Schools in 2015, the law allowing municipalities to establish their own public international schools sat on the books unused for six years. Columnist Sarah Redohl investigates.
Text: Sarah Redohl
This fall Lolland International School in Maribo opened its doors. Although it may be Denmark’s first public international school, it’s unlikely to be the country’s last. In its inaugural year, the school enrolled twice as many students as anticipated and captured much attention from other municipalities across Denmark.
“There’s a misconception that expats can afford to send two or three children to private school, but a lot of times that’s not the case,” said Thomas Mulhern, administrative director of Globally Local, the Copenhagen-based consulting firm that assisted in the establishment of Lolland International School. Public international schools, which are free to students, would remove that barrier for international families and help attract and retain the international talent that is vital to Denmark’s economic growth, he said.
“During the past decade, international labour has been a key factor in the constant improvement of the Danish labour market,” said Søren Kjærsgaard Høfler, political consultant in global mobility at Dansk Industri (DI), an organisation representing approximately 18,500 companies across Denmark. According to a recent report from DI, the number of full-time foreign employees in Denmark has almost doubled in the past decade.
“We know how important foreign labour is for Denmark’s economy, so it’s understandable that municipalities have also seen that attracting internationals is good business,” Høfler said. “Public international schools are one way to attract and retain foreign labour.”
That’s why Globally Local aims to expand the public international school model throughout Denmark. “One municipality had to be the first to take that step,” Mulhern said. “Now other municipalities are saying, ‘If it can succeed there, why can’t it succeed here?’”
Currently, Mulhern is engaging with municipalities in every region of Denmark. He estimates three to five municipalities will establish public international schools of their own in the next five years. Globally Local is also working with Denmark’s Ministry of Education on the possibility of a broader strategy for public international schools.
“There’s a misconception that expats can afford to send two or three children to private school, but a lot of times that’s not the case.” - Thomas Mulhern, administrative director of Globally Local
Municipalities with a large existing international population are an obvious market for public international schools, Mulhern said, especially if private international schools in the area are full. However, there’s also the possibility of public international schools attracting foreign talent to other parts of the country.
Since the establishment of Lolland International School, Principal Dominic Maher has fielded calls from prospective parents abroad and across Denmark. “We’ve seen four or five families move to Lolland from other parts of Denmark, and the international school was a key motivating factor for them,” he said.
According to Mulhern, there is a third category to consider when a municipality decides whether or not to invest in a public international school: Danish families. “When the law was written, a lot of municipalities weren’t sure they’d have enough internationals to justify the cost,” Mulhern said. “They weren’t thinking about the Danish families that could benefit.”
In fact, that mindset may be integral to expanding the model throughout Denmark. Maher has experienced the politics of establishing a public international school firsthand. Although the town council in Lolland voted in favour of the school, Maher said he could see it being a point of political debate.
“There is the question of whether or not this takes focus from Danish schools,” Maher said. “That political discussion needs to happen, though, to understand the benefits such a school might bring.” For example, Maher added, the improved problem solving, critical analysis, communication, and openness to new situations that research shows can result from bilingual education.
“With a bilingual model, we’re promoting internationalisation and integration at the same time,” Mulhern said. The public international school model may even impact Danish workplaces in the long term. “If you grow up with a diversity of languages and cultures as the status quo, that will carry over into the workforce.”
“I think everything changes once you see that there’s a narrow and a broad focus to this question,” Mulhern said. “The narrow version looks at expats and foreign workers, but the broad focus could change the entire education sector in Denmark.”