13 November 2019

In 2018, more than a million people participated in courses and study circles arranged by folk high schools and study associations. Louise Malmström and Henrik Nordvall both work at Linköping University with questions concerning non-formal education. They emphasise how it has played a major role in how society has developed, and that it continues to do so.

Coffee break in the school
Louise MalmströmLouise Malmström“Popular education (also known as “non-formal education”, in Swedish: “folkbildning”) receives far too little attention in societal debate, given the central role that it plays and how many it affects. We barely get a mention when problems in schools are discussed, and our teachers are forgotten when others are the target of special initiatives and further education”, says Louise Malmström, who arranges the programme for folk high school teachers at LiU, the only one of its type in Sweden.

The first folk high school in Sweden was started 151 years ago, as a reaction to the fact that higher education was reserved for society’s elite. There are now 155 folk high schools and ten study associations, with different ideological focus, in Sweden. Together, they offer a wide range of courses and activities: everything from vocational education and advanced courses in music and art to general courses for an upper secondary leaving certificate, establishment courses for immigrant academics, Swedish languages courses for newly arrived people, other language courses, and study circles.

Arena for political discussion and visions

Study group Photo credit Björn Larsson Rosvall/TTOne supporting idea within popular education is that it promotes democracy, culture and commitment from citizens. Henrik Nordvall conducts research into popular education at LiU, and describes how not just the folk high schools but also the study associations continue to play important roles in this context.

“The study associations form a sort of supporting infrastructure for people involved in clubs and societies, and in civil society. By arranging study circles and other activities, the study associations are also an important arena for political discussion and visions. And in contrast to the political parties, where membership has been falling rapidly for a long time, popular education attracts extremely many participants”, says Henrik Nordvall.
The study associations, not least in the large cities, take up current questions and promote debate about ideas in society.
“ABF in Stockholm is a good example of that”, says Henrik Nordvall.
Louise Malmström adds: “And the folk high schools can have an amazing significance for the countryside. They provide a place where people, culture and commitment can meet.”

Gives people a second chance

Linda Sundregård teaches in Marieborg Folk High School in Norrköping. She originally studied environmental sciences, but chose then to take the folk high school teacher programme at LiU in 2016, looking for a more socially directed career.
Linda SundregårdLinda Sundregård Photo credit Anna Nilsen“Two of the most important aspects of popular education today are that it gives people a second chance, and that it opens the possibility for good communication”, says Linda Sundregård.
She points out that the folk high schools use different, less rigid, teaching methods than those used in conventional schools, and suggests that this is one reason that many are more successful in such schools in, for example, completing upper secondary education.

“We don’t have national course syllabuses and grading criteria, but instead give a study assessment. Grades are based on what a student has achieved. A study assessment does not have the same focus at all, but on the study skills of the student and what he or she is expected to achieve in the future. We don’t have exams, but discussions, oral reporting, and hand-in assignments.”

Schoolphoto from the pastShe has found that the difference in teaching methods has an effect on the participants. They don’t feel the same pressure to perform as many of them experienced in the traditional school, and relationships between teachers and participants are more relaxed.

A mix of people

As teacher at Marieborg Folk High School, Linda Sundregård meets participants older than 18 years, all with different experiences. Some of them failed to complete upper secondary school, and are now getting a second chance at the folk high school, based on a different idea of what knowledge is, and using different teaching methods. Others are immigrants to Sweden. They need to learn Swedish and gain insight into Swedish society and the way of life, in order to obtain an education and develop a career.
“In general, all folk high schools have many courses designed for immigrants to Sweden. But on the profile courses, such as those in music, art, theatre and dance, the majority of participants are Swedish. The mix of people brings a broader perspective for everyone”, Linda Sundregård says.

She continues:
“People with different opinions meet. In a time characterised by polarisation and an inability to appreciate the opinions of others, the exchange of ideas, listening to each other and affirming each other are so incredibly important.”

Humanity and knowledge

PencilsGerhard Holmgren is general secretary for RIO, an umbrella organisation for the 112 Swedish folk high schools owned by civil society organizations. He has previously taught at folk high schools and has close contact with LiU’s researchers working with popular education and the folk high school teacher programme.
“Measured in the number of participants, the folk high schools are larger than ever before. This is a high point in our history”, he says.

Around 40% of the participants taking general courses at the schools are of non-Swedish background.
“The folk high schools are incredibly important for integration. And they also have major significance for people with disabilities and neurodevelopmental problems. There has been a large increase in these groups during the 21st century”, Gerhard Holmgren comments.

Throughout his career, he has heard many testimonies from people describing how the years at a folk high school changed their life – how people started to take them seriously, how they achieved confirmation, and were allowed to take the education at their own pace.
“The soul of popular education contains something that brings out humanity and a desire to support, together with acquiring knowledge. LiU and the folk high school teacher programme play important roles in the continuous improvement of this form of education, education that is so different and has miraculous effects for people.”

Translated by George Farrants

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