The country that found itself without any schools

3rd May 2013 at 01:00
The bizarre tale of Denmark's month-long teacher 'lockout'

Since the time of the Vikings, the small Nordic nation of Denmark has kept a low profile, with a few forays into the limelight thanks to a certain gloomy television detective. However, a somewhat farcical turn of events in its previously calm education scene has flung the country into the international spotlight.

For an entire month, local government employers banned 52,000 teachers from working, after it reached a deadlock with the Danish Union of Teachers (DLF) over radical changes to the way working hours are decided.

Neither side would budge on the issue, so schools for children aged up to 16, as well as adult and vocational institutions, were closed for four consecutive weeks. But this week - after an unprecedented intervention from the Danish government - 600,000 children and 300,000 adult learners finally had their teachers back.

Whether staff will be happy is another issue: the emergency law passed on Friday will force teachers to accept fundamental changes to the way their working hours are decided. A 25-hour cap on teaching time will be lifted and decisions over hours will be placed in the hands of principals. A reduced timetable for teachers over the age of 60 will be abolished.

The body representing local teacher employers, Kommunernes Landsforening, said it had been forced to take the unusual action of "locking out" members of the DLF because the union would not agree to the changes. Currently, all working hours arrangements are negotiated between local employers and the union every four years.

Line Aarsland, a spokesperson for the employers, said teachers' special rights to negotiate their contracts had been in place since 1922, and had become a barrier to reform.

"Experts have said that if the Danes want to improve the school system, they have to change the very rigid system where the union controls everything," she said during the dispute. "You can say we don't have any school leaders in Denmark at the moment because they are just managing a contract negotiated by the union. Everyone is saying you have to make it more flexible, you have to let the leaders lead.

"This time (by imposing the lockout), we are trying to go all the way to say we need to get rid of this special right to negotiate everything."

But the DLF - led by Anders Bondo Christensen, described by one blogger as "Harry Potter with elbow patches" - refused to change its position. The union claims that the plans are a way of extending the school day while saving money.

Henrik Viftrup, a teacher of 10-year-olds at Ny Hollaenderskolen in Copenhagen, said that every teacher would have to enter into negotiations with their principals about working conditions. "Those who scream the loudest will maybe be the ones who get the best terms," he said.

Mr Viftrup added that the government and public often did not understand how much work teachers have to do outside the classroom - preparation, for example, and meetings with parents and colleagues.

Even teachers in private schools receiving state subsidies were locked out. Kelly Draper, a British science and maths teacher who was forbidden from working at her school in Jutland, told TES: "If I tried to go into work, the employers could call the police to stop me. It's a bit embarrassing for Denmark that the country didn't have any schools. Where else would this happen? You could imagine it in some Third World country."

She added that the local government employers have saved millions by shutting out teachers and not having to pay them, although experts have said that the loss of tax revenue could balance this out.

The authorities' desire to wrest power from unions and place it in the hands of individual schools mirrors recent events in Britain, where education secretary Michael Gove wants to give schools independent decision-making powers over pay and conditions.

Mr Gove claims that ripping up national pay and conditions agreements will help principals to appoint good teachers of subjects that have a staff shortage to difficult schools, and to manage their affairs efficiently. But unions are concerned that it will mean that schools can work teachers into the ground, and cut their salaries and holidays at will.

Meanwhile, back in Denmark, one of the biggest headaches of the forced school closures was childcare. High-profile businesses, such as Lego, Carlsberg and shipping company Maersk, were invaded by a shadow juvenile workforce as children traipsed into work with their parents.

To their joy - or perhaps dismay - the government intervention meant that these students were finally back at their school desks on Monday after a very long Easter holiday. And the roads were once again choked with cars during the school run.


A week into the lockout, 30,000 protesting teachers formed a 22m-long (35km) human chain from Danish capital Copenhagen to the town of Roskilde. This demonstration was the most striking of countless events held by teachers during the dispute.

Teachers also ran a public information campaign, trying to put the message across that they were not afraid of hard work and wished to return to the classroom.

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