“Nicolas, we need a plan B”. Eduardo, the president of the school’s board called me the day before Christmas 2019. “I have been talking to some people who are involved with the Ministry. We need to be prepared for a totally crazy decision.”
Since October 2018, we had been undergoing an extended audit by the Danish Ministry of Education. The audit was originally triggered by a “mistake”: On October 4th 2018, the municipality of Copenhagen had reported an issue related to one of our vulnerable families to the Ministry, a case that had been officially resolved and closed four months earlier.
When they first came to observe the school, we were confident. Our children perform significantly above average on all relevant parameters: the test scores at the national 9th grade exam have until now been in the top 1% in the country (grade 9.55/12). Since the school is young, we have only had two pupils graduating, so it wouldn’t be significant in itself, if it wasn’t for all the intermediate national tests pointing in the same direction as well as our own continuous testing system. The annual inspections, carried out by an inspector certified by the Ministry, have been consistently excellent throughout the life span of the school. Interestingly, the Ministry never addressed the results of the school, even though those are parameters they by law are supposed to prioritize.
Scoring high on the national tests is however, perhaps surprisingly, not a priority for us. The reason is that it as a performance indicator would work directly against a fundamental principle of the school: that we want to include a wide variety of pupils, from different social backgrounds, with or without special needs, vulnerable families etc.
And we succeed tremendously. Whether they suffer from hyperactivity, autism, OCD, learning disabilities and more, we manage to get them included in such a way, that the unwarned observer doesn’t even perceive their traits, even though 10-20% of our kids wouldn’t fit in a normal school. Some parents call it “miracles”. Our secret sauce: authentic relations and engaged, attentive and skilled personnel.
And our STEM program is world class.
Eduardo happens to be a Supreme Court lawyer specialized in the defense against ministries. As a stroke of fate, he joined the board in June 2019. I told him that first of all, running without subsidies wasn’t something new for The Franco-Danish School, we had done so during the first four years of its existence. The school was indeed smaller, but so was the supporting group of parents and we back then had no fact-based narratives, only promising but untested ideas. We agreed that the threat was significant: experts had advised us to “just lie down, give them what they want – you just want to continue running your school”. Still we chose not to follow that advice, since we considered it to be against our core values of justice and freedom. We were also aware that over the last years, the Ministry had closed a number of Muslim schools. They could plausibly be motivated by an urgent need to balance the picture in order to not appear as unconstitutionally discriminating against a minority. Also, the party in power, the Social Democrats, are overtly acting for the public schools and against the free schools, which they consistently call “private” schools. Even though they are politically completely isolated in that venture, the Ministry is expected to act according to those political winds. We reasoned that a small, bi-cultural school like ours, with a slightly alternative pedagogy would represent the ideal easy kill.
When we got the letter from the Ministry on January 13th 2020, it was, unsurprisingly, as bad as it could get. As a Danish free school we are entitled to a grant that covers ~70% of our funding. The Ministry cut this grant with immediate effect and no prior warning and asked us to reimburse kr. ~1.8M (€ 200k). The disposition is illegal and would for most schools be a lethal blow. For us, much less so. We knew what we were doing and saw it coming, but someone had to take this fight in spite of the odds. We are currently securing alternative funding and anyone interested in helping is welcome to participate.
In brief, the Ministry is criticizing that our teaching processes are not sufficiently structured and are incomplete w.r.t. the curriculum they are supposed to cover. We consider our processes to be well-structured around modern management principles such as Kaizen, Kanban, testing and the definition of Done. Those concepts may indeed sound uncommon in a school context, but if you think of it, schools exist to essentially provide a quality service and need to continuously improve over time.
They are criticizing that we speak French. The law states that the teaching language must be Danish, which we already complied with long ago (in 2011).
They are criticizing that our children with special needs are not getting enough support. They obviously don’t consider the results as being more important than following the manual, that managing special needs, conflicts and crises is not optimally done on a fixed schedule.
They are suspecting me of indirectly controlling the school and are insinuating that I might have benefited financially from the arrangement. That is indecent. The efforts and funds my co-founder and I have donated to the project are quite a bit above average: €250k in cash and 10 man years of unpaid work. And counting.
They overtly state that they distrust the board and the school, because we “have prioritized building a good school for the children and considered compliance with formalities a step-wise process” and that “the school has defended its approach to teaching and management”. That is just insane.
The document they have provided has been a smorgasbord of contradictions and facts that they provably know are wrong and it has been a child’s play for an experienced lawyer as Eduardo to completely shred it apart. They have obviously never tried that before. All the documents can be found here.
We are sure to win the case, expectedly within 10 months via the Ombudsman. That could reshape the landscape of the Danish free schools for the next many decades.
We ran the school in the period 2010-2014 without subsidies. It was a fantastic period of passion, freedom, engagement and innovation. Adrenalin and idealism. Making a difference.
That’s where we are again. And this time, we come in numbers.