7 March 2023

Do rules at folk high schools make sense for young people - What we learned from COVID-19


In June 2020, the University of Copenhagen's Global Health Section, Statens Serum Institut and Folkehøjskolernes Forening collaborated on a study that investigated how staff and students reacted when folk high schools reopened under new COVID-19 guidelines.

The Danish Johan Borups Højskole in Copenhagen.
The Danish Johan Borups Højskole in Copenhagen. Creator: Malthe Folke Ivarsson. Copyright: @Maltphotography

What have you investigated?

In dialogue with Højskolernes Forening we agreed to investigate how staff and students at Danish folk high schools reacted to being at a folk high school under new COVID-19 guidelines that were intended to prevent outbreaks and new lockdowns. It was a highly unusual situation for everyone to have to combine the free folk high school environment with rules for social interaction and enhanced hygiene routines.

How did you do it?

We conducted a digital questionnaire survey where 16 folk high schools participated with a total of 1834 student responses and 679 staff responses. In addition, we conducted a focused qualitative study at 5 selected folk high schools. In the questionnaire we asked among other things what students and staff thought about the rules and what could motivate them to follow the rules. In the qualitative study, we interviewed and observed staff and students in order to understand how folk high schools worked on implementing COVID-19 guidelines and what challenges they encountered in dialogue with students.

What is the most important thing you have found out?

We have published a scientific article entitled ‘Making sense or non-sense’ (find the article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health here). It could also have been ‘Does it make sense’? And that summarizes our findings: For rules to work at Danish folk high schools, everyone must feel that they make sense in the folk high school life that is lived. We found that this requires folk high schools to engage everyone in a meaning-making process where staff and students through dialogue, democratic conversation and good narratives ‘make sense of it all’. If young adult folk high school students think the rules are nonsense, there is a great risk that the rules will be broken.

Young adult folk high school students reacted particularly strongly to the distance rules; they made many feel emotionally and socially isolated. They missed the small physical distance and close bodily contact from ‘normal’ folk high school life.

On the positive side, we found that increased focus on hygiene was positively received by most students and especially by foreign students. In fact, students expressed that more hand washing, better cleaning and more focus on clean facilities gave a boost to the feeling of well-being at the folk high school.

How can other folk high schools or the folk high school movement use this knowledge?

As researchers with a background in health, it is really a positive finding for us that folk high schools can relatively easily improve the quality of life and well-being for staff and students by keeping hygiene standards high and at the same time preventing the many infectious diseases that very easily break out in a folk high school population living so closely together. We would definitely recommend that all folk high schools stick to the new hygiene routines. This also applies to other schools and association formats where we are close together, such as boarding schools. Here hygiene routines can help improve the quality of life and health for everyone. Our study also shows that rules for hygiene can easily and quickly be taken out of the drawer at Danish folk high schools and implemented in future epidemic situations. Because those rules can be accepted by everyone.

Our study shows that folk high schools get the most out of involving students in processes to introduce rules - even though it is difficult and takes time. The study showed that the use of creative learning methods such as music, behavioral design, and democratic conversations are good tools. Without involvement and dialogue, there is only resistance. We think it is an incredibly positive finding that Danish folk high school tradition for democratic formation and dialogue can be used as a tool in future epidemic management: We see that folk high schools can play a significant role in helping young adults find meaning and adapt to uncertain times and changes.

This article is a direct translation of an article published for “Højskolerne” on their website www.ffd.dk and in their newsletter FFD NYT which is sent out to folk high school employees and other interested parties.


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