Swedish Folk High Schools [December, 2016]

Biskops Arnö 2016

[Biskops-Arnö a Swedish folk high school. Photos: Erik Sjödin]

Biskops-Arnö is a Swedish folk high school with courses in writing, photography, documentary filmmaking, song writing, global justice, and natural medicine. It’s located on a small island on the countryside outside of Stockholm and Uppsala.

Swedish folk high schools began to appear in the late 19th century, mainly on the countryside, to provide education to farmers and other folks who didn’t have the same possibilities to receive education as privileged city people. Folk high schools are initiated and run by one or several principal organisations. Biskops-Arnö is run by The Nordic Association which promotes cooperation between the Nordic countries. Other typical principals are unions, liberal education associations, churches, and sobriety organisations. The majority of the funding for folk high schools comes from the state and the schools principals. However, there is increased pressure for many schools to earn their own money, which is forcing them to develop businesses in addition to their core educational activities, for example by renting out their facilities for conferences.

Folk high schools provide basic highschool education as an alternative to the regular public school system. In the folk high school system this education is called the “common course”. The common course is less rule oriented and freer in terms of pedagogy than the regular public high school. There are fewer exams and no grades. However, students are supposed to gain the same level of knowledge as in the regular public high school, and the education gives university accreditation within a special quota.

Monday meeting at Biskops-Arnö. Photo: Erik Sjödin

[Monday meeting at Biskops-Arnö. Photo: Erik Sjödin]

In practice the common course often caters to people with special needs, but it can also be an option for people who just don’t thrive with the pedagogy in the regular school. Since many schools are located in relatively isolated locations they provide accommodation for students and can be alternatives for people who want to live and study away from home.

At folk high schools there is, comparatively, a lot of focus on letting students express their own creativity. Many teachers promote the “exploded classroom” i.e. that students learn outside of the class room. Students work thematically, are thought to learn by researching and exploring, and are encouraged to become active co-creating citizens.

Many folk high schools try to maintain a community feeling with little hierarchies between teachers and students. At Biskops-Arnö a flat culture is supported by a public school meeting on Mondays and activities which are open for everyone, such as yoga, floorball, and pottery classes. There’s also a school kitchen and restaurant, and a pub which is open on the weekends.

Global justice course at Biskops-Arnö. Photo: Erik Sjödin

[Robert Norman at the global justice course. Photo: Erik Sjödin]

In addition to the common course most folk high school have “special courses”. These can range in duration from a few days to several years, and they can be on a very basic level or on levels that are equivalent to university education. Sometimes, like in the case of Biskops-Arnö, schools are even labeled as elitist. However, they themselves would dispute this, arguing that there isn’t an elitist culture promoted by the school, but that students push themselves because of the school’s or a course’s reputation.

The special courses at folk high schools are often intended for the students personal development and enjoyment, which often means that they teach skills which are difficult to sell on the job market. This can be anything that has to do with art and other cultural production, but it can also be for example traditional wooden ship building or skills for ecological living.

However, there are exceptions, such as the global justice course at Biskops-Arnö. The course builds on an international perspective that began to appear among folk high schools with the 1968 movement, and has a focus on spreading core values like democracy and gender equality. Students at the course often already have university degrees in fields such as agronomy, engineering, or journalism. During the course they do internships abroad at NGOs and afterwards many go on to get jobs with international aid.

Song writing class at Biskops-Arnö. Photo: Erik Sjödin

[Mattias Björkas teaching a song writing class. Photo: Erik Sjödin]

On Biskops-Arnö the special courses are run almost as if they were independent schools. The course staff decide how they take in students, they appoint their own staff, and they develop their own curricula. However, courses share administration and there is formal or informal exchange between courses in one way or another.

For example the song writing class, which is relatively new, is set up pretty much like the schools well established writing course. Students are selected based on what they write and the teachers who do the selection strive to put together a diverse group where they look for unique artistic expressions and not for particular skills. The course focus is on developing the students existing practices and create identities as song writers, and not on shaping students uniformly. The course is centered around disciplined songwriting and group conversation. There is very little focus on technology and the program commits practically all of it’s resources to bringing in guest teachers. Students regularly write songs based on themes that teachers suggests, or they write freely. When the songs are done the students come together with a teacher to play the songs and read their lyrics. Everyone then gives feedback on what they have heard, with the teacher talking after the students, and lastly the student who wrote the song. This way the students learn to analyse their own and others work, and hopefully become their own teachers.