The Nordic Folk High Schools

The Nordic Countries and the Nordic Cooperation

The Folk High School (Folkhögskola) movement is a characteristically Nordic phenomenon which started in the middle of the 19th century in Denmark followed by Norway, Sweden and Finland. Folk High School operate in the field of voluntary and general adult education. The goal of the Folk High School mainly is to offer general education both to young people and adults, and their courses cover a wide spectrum of subjects. In some cases, they also provide vocational education.

Although the Folk High School in each country have, during the decades, developed traits of their own they have, however, many common features. One such feature is that the majority of the schools are residential schools, and thus social life at school is seen as an important part of the educational programme, promoting, amongst other things, a sense of personal awareness, social responsibility and providing training in democracy.

Unlike the ”normal” school Folk High School are not bound by centrally standardised curriculum’s – each Folk High School determines its own activities in view of the ideological and educational profile of the school. Folk High Schools are mainly run by private organisations, foundations and popular movements, some of them are run by country councils and municipalities. In each country these schools receive financial support from the state; in addition, the students can receive a state grant.

The Nordic Countries from an area of five separate states and a population of more than 23 million people. The countries are often regarded as a whole, since they are very similar. They all have a solid parlamentary democracy, a fairly high standard of living and a certain level of social solidarity. Culture, history and language have, from time immemorial, brought their inhabitants closer to one another. Still, every Nordic Country has something unique in itself, in its historical background, and these characteristics give them their special profiles.The Nordic Countries have a long tradition of democracy. They also have a tradition of popular enlightenment which is still today considered as a guarantee for democracy as it safeguards basic cultural values.The Nordic Countries have a long time ago agreed upon the importance of discussion and dialogue where free and equal citizens are able to meet with the problems of their own time. They believe that living democracy is dependent on voluntary popular movements and the work of the non-governmental organisations. In spite of an often dramatic history, the Nordic Countries have reached the point of being able to foster differences whilst at the same time exercising a high degree of inter-Nordic cooperation. This cooperation consists of a number of official committees, steering groups and permanent institutions as well as informal contacts e.g. between different voluntary organisations.


The idea of the Folk High School can be traced back to Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, a Danish priest, historian, poet and public educator (1783 – 1872). He presented the vision of a ”School for Life” as opposed to the formal, rigid secondary and higher education of his own time. It was Grundtvigs intention to dissolve the gap between the elite and the common man, but this should be brought about on the premises of the common man. His dialectics are universal and the means of transmitting them, ”the Living Word”. Thus reading is not the primary method of obtaining knowledge at a Folk High School, but dialogue, not the lecture, but debate and discussion. The first Folk High School were founded by people inspired by Grundtvig, but original and independent. First in Denmark, Grundtvigs own country, in 1844, then in Norway in 1864, in Sweden in 1868 and in Finland in 1889. Folk High Schools have also been established in Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and in the Åland Islands and among the Samic peoples, as agents in the struggle to maintain the cultural identity of the area or the minority.


There are about 400 Folk High Schools in the Nordic Countries. The Nordic Folk High Schools claims to be pedagogically the freest school in the world. It is a unique educational set-up, evidently the only great pedagogic-philosophical idea ever born in the Nordic Countries that has proved almost a universal success. The recognition of ideological freedom as a characteristic feature of Folk High Schools continues to be the basic resource in present-day Folk High School activity. In this way, and with government support, Folk High Schools in our democratic society carry out a special task not allocated to any other branch of educational system.

Today, a certain interest has been directed also towards groups with special educational needs, e.g. people with short basic education, people with various disabilities and immigrants. Folk High Schools are voluntary and available to everyone whatever their educational background. Each one of us, as a unique individual, has personal experience and therefore has something to offer in conversation. It is this deeply democratic view of mankind that is the basic principle of Folk High Schools.

There is not any uniform Folk High School system in the Nordic Countries, but each country has a Folk High School system of its own and, not even in the same country are Folk High Schools exactly similar, because every school has its own characteristics. The mission of the Folk High Schools in the future Europe is the fight for democracy, for the rights of the minorities, and for discussion and dialogue of equal men for building up a more righteous society.

The Nordic Folk High School Council
The Nordic Folk High Schools have a long tradition of cooperation. Within the Nordic framework, the Council works for the Folk High School ideology, pedagogical practice and experiments and exchange of ideas. The Nordic Folk High School Council also works for giving the Nordic Folk High School ideology a profile in the Baltic and European context. The Council holds meetings yearly and it also arranges Nordic conferences.

Adult education in the Nordic Countries
The Nordic Countries are convinced of the importance of education. Approximately eight million adults in these countries participate annually in adult education. Adult education is looked upon as something specifically Nordic in view of our history and traditions. The late 1800’s gave rise to voluntary popular movements and the adult education organisations. The initiators were the temperance and labour movements, followed by cultural, sports and other non-profit making voluntary organisations. The Folk High School movement started in the middle of the 19th century in Denmark, followed by Norway, Sweden and Finland. This is the tradition we in the Nordic Countries call popular enlightenment, general adult education, developed and passed on by Folk High School and adult education organisations. An important characteristic of general adult education is that education is seen as a value in itself. People are offered knowledge and experiences that can change their way of thinking. It is a general premise that one should be an active agent in social change.

Related websites

Højskolernes Sekretariat – Danmark:
Informationskontoret for folkehøgskolen – Norge:
Informasjonskontoret for Kristen Folkehøgskole – Norge:
Finlands folkhögskolförening: