Motivating young people for education – The role of folk high schools

In most European countries Lifelong Learning has become a political priority. However, already at early stages in life it has proven difficult to motivate people for learning. A common problem across Europe is the many young people who have problems completing an education programme at upper secondary level and due to increased demands of flexibility


In most European countries Lifelong Learning has become a political priority. However, already at early stages in life it has proven difficult to motivate people for learning. A common problem across Europe is the many young people who have problems completing an education programme at upper secondary level and due to increased demands of flexibility and higher skills in the labour market they are at risk of social exclusion. A trans-European political concern is how to motivate this group of young people, often categorised as “disadvantaged”, “marginalised” or “residual”, for completing an education programme.

This is also the case in Denmark where it has been a major political goal since the 1990s to make 95% of a youth cohort complete a youth education programme. Succeeding governments have initiated reforms of youth education and financed pilot projects aimed at finding ways of motivating young people for education. However, the objective has after more than 15 years of various reforms still not been attained. Motivating young people for education remains a question and it is important to identify good practices.

In the following, I shall look into an example of good practice and contextualise it within the Danish youth education policy in order to explore the issue of motivation in policy and practice. My argument is that the folk high schools and the tradition of liberal education offer a learning environment where a number of psychological needs are satisfied among the young people leading to a motivation for learning whereas policy is based primarily on controlling forms of regulation counterproductive to the 95% objective. Liberal education may in other words be a case of good practice worth emulating in youth education policy.

Methodological considerations

Empirically I draw on an evaluation project (hereafter called the Bridging Project) that Aarhus University has carried out for the Association of Folk High Schools in Denmark (Folkehøjskolernes Forening i Danmark). The aim of this project is to motivate young people for youth education and training by bridge building between folk high schools and vocational education and training (VET) colleges.

The young people participating in the Bridging Project were between 16 and 25 years old. 60 % of them had dropped out of a youth education programme, 1/3 out of two programmes. Many of them were tired of school and had bad experiences from basic schooling, i.e. a feeling of inadequacy or social exclusion. Many of them seemed to lack the motivation that would ensure them a sense of direction in life and the energy to engage in education (Cort, 2012).

The Youth Guidance Centres (Ungdommens Uddannelsesvejledning) are responsible for referring the young people to the project which finances (partly) the stay at a folk high school. In the project, 47 students and 24 supervisors from respectively folk high schools and youth guidance centres have been interviewed about the role of the folk high schools in motivating for youth education. Field visits to nine folk high schools have been carried out (Lundberg, 2011 & Cort, 2012). Furthermore, two follow-up surveys were conducted among all the students after they had left the folk high school.

Theoretically, I draw on the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) developed by Ryan and Deci (2000). The theory provides a framework for understanding the extrinsic and intrinsic factors regulating motivation and provides a framework for analysing how motivation is constructed in policy and practice. Furthermore, the theory stresses that learning environments have to meet the psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness (a sense of belonging) in order to facilitate learning and promote intrinsic motivation.

The basic assumption behind SDT is that human beings are intrinsically interested in learning. This basic motivation is defined as a “behaviour which is not driven by external incentives, but which is interesting and pleasant in itself [own translation] (Ryan & Deci, 2000 in Niemic & Ryan, 2009). Intrinsic motivation finds its expression when we play, investigate or take part in activities which we find interesting, challenging or fun. The theory operates with a continuum of regulating motivation from amotivation to intrinsic motivation (see figure 1 below).

Motivation can be regulated externally through punishment/reward systems or ego stimulation via praise or the avoidance of shame. External and introjected regulation forms work as a kind of external pressure where the individual is motivated by the response of the surroundings and be characterised as social control. Further along the continuum, we find identified and integrated regulation. Both are extrinsic but they are more autonomous forms of motivation in so far they are driven by identification with values and role models and the integration of values encountered in learning processes. The theory stipulates that in order to create a learning environment which facilitates deep learning (see Biggs & Tang, 2007), emphasis has to be put on the autonomous and intrinsic forms of motivation.

Figure 1


Motivation in youth education policy: the context

§ 2 a. 15 – 17-years old have a duty to education, employment or other activities, the aim of which is that the young people complete an education programme. The education plan, cf. § 2 c, has to include a description of how a young person fulfils his duty according to article 1. (From the law on education)

Policies are meant to bring about change and in terms of achieving the 95 % objective various policies have been implemented since the 1990s in order to change the behaviour of young people between 15 and 25. A central idea driving many of the reforms has been that the educational offers should be more individualised in order to meet the different needs of young people. In the 1990s, the main mechanism was to create individualised alternatives to the existing education programmes.

Thus a number of individualised schemes were established in 1993/1994 (basic vocational training, (erhvervsgrunduddannelse) (EGU) and individual youth training programmes (den fri ungdomsuddannelse) (FUU). The aim was to make offers flexible and tailor-made in order to meet the needs of young people falling outside the formal education system. The main principles of the alternative programmes were mainstreamed in 2000 where the ideas of individualisation and flexibility were introduced into VET. Hereby, the VET system became a major key in the inclusion of young people otherwise in risk of not completing a youth education programme. Since 2007, all vocational colleges have had to draw up a strategy for retention of students resulting in numerous projects such as mentoring, sports activities, bridging initiatives etc.

In 2010, the Law on Guidance for Education and Employment was revised and one of the main and controversial changes was to introduce “a duty” to education and employment (Bekendtgørelse af lov om vejledning). In the law, emphasis was put on a mixture of compulsory guidance, continuous monitoring of young people’s participation in either education or employment and the right of the municipalities to take away the monthly youth allowance if a young person does not follow his educational plan; a plan which has been laid down in cooperation between the youth guidance counsellor and the young person (and his parents). The guidance counsellors are now to assess young people’s “readiness for education” (uddannelsesparathed) and refer them to suitable schemes if they are not ready for an ordinary programme.

If we take a closer look at how the policy is operationalized in practice, the individual education plan has played an important role as a steering mechanism. With the adoption of the new the Law on Guidance, the educational plan became compulsory for all students. Whereas the students who continue in youth education the education plan becomes a matter of form, the education plan tends to become a control mechanism for the students who do not keep to the formal track as they have to update their education plan in cooperation with a youth guidance counsellor when they are not in education or in employment. In terms of motivation, it is an external regulation of educational choice and in terms of feeling competent, the education plan is based on a “gap thinking” i.e. on identifying the deficits of the young people which act as a barrier to entering youth education.

The political strategy to motivate young people for education has been through individualised offers. It has stressed the importance of a feeling of autonomy and the right to choose. However, the students’ needs for belonging and feeling competent have not to the same degree been stimulated.

Indeed the need for being part of a community has been undermined through the high degree of individualisation. Lately policy has emphasised the external motivational strategy of sticks and carrot in the Law on Guidance. In terms of motivation, the policy has gone from an idea of intrinsic motivation by adapting educational measures to the individual student to an idea of extrinsic motivation through financial sanctions in case the young person does not continue in education or find employment. The education plan strengthens the element of extrinsic motivation and makes the educational choice a matter of conforming to external rules and pressures. The failure of the various strategies is reflected in the completion rate which has decreased since 1995, from 80.9 to 79.6 in 2010 (AErådet 2008 & Danmark i Arbejde, 2012).

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Motivation at a folk high school

At the folk high schools young people have the opportunity to gain a belief in themselves and in their own abilities. They are challenged through the social interaction with others and in a safe environment. The liberal education aspect is in focus, and the establishment of self-esteem and self-confidence gives them more courage and a belief in education. (Coordinator in a Youth Secretariat in FFD, 2012)

The learning environment at a folk high school differs in many respects from the learning environment that the young people in the Bridging Project have met in the Danish basic schooling system (folkeskole) and in youth education (primarily vocational colleges). There is no fixed curriculum for folk high schools and there are no exams or tests. Folk high schools draw on the Danish tradition for liberal education and are closely connected to the cooperative movement in the 19th Century and the ideas of N.F.S. Grundtvig. Many folk high schools specialise in arts, music, sports and philosophy i.e. subjects which have been downsized in the education system. Most of the schools are residential schools i.e. the students live at the school for a period of 8 weeks to 16 weeks (it is possible to extend the stay for more semesters).

This provides possibility for another kind of interaction between the participants and the teachers and also between supervision, teaching, learning and “lived life”. It melts into one and transcends traditional borders between school and spare time and between the individual and the collective. The fact that the students are not assessed and have to take exams creates a haven where the perpetual demand for performance is abandoned.

The evaluation showed that the learning environment at the folk high schools motivated the young people for education through the factors described in the SDT: The young people became motivated through the fulfilment of their psychological needs for a feeling of autonomy, competence and belonging. In the following, I shall briefly outline how this came out in the participants’ narratives about folk high schools.

Autonomy and belonging

One of the central values at the folk high schools is civic education and to teach the participants to engage in and take responsibility of being part of a democratic community. It is an individual learning process within a collective learning process. The young people who were interviewed in the project described how the stay at a folk high school had taught them to be part of a community and take responsibility for themselves and for the community. This narrative was set against a narrative of previously having problems with social exclusion and fear of other people. The proverb, “freedom with responsibility”, was commonly encountered during the interviews:

“You see, the community is obviously the most important here. Well, it is probably the best thing about this place: you have freedom with responsibility, towards the community and towards yourself and the teachers.” (Student)

The students have an experience of being treated as adults and also being expected to be able to behave as adults and contribute to the community.
The teachers support the development of autonomy and belonging by making the students take responsibility for teaching and practical activities at the folk high school. One of the students told how the teacher in outdoor life let the students take responsibility for solving different tasks and when it did not work,

“…then the teacher takes over and says, “try and look, this is why it does not work”. Then we have the chance to do it again and well then we learn how to do it ourselves.” (Student).


Many of students contrast their experiences from the folk high school with their experiences from basic schooling. In the narratives about basic schooling, one of the common features is that it has left the students with a feeling of not being competent. One of the students said it this way:

“No, I didn’t really feel that I was good at anything […] in school and […] I had some learning problems, which I had to struggle with and so … I gave up, you can say.” (Student)

The narratives about basic schooling are in this group of young people negative and one of the factors which have contributed to their feeling of failure is the priority given to academic subjects and the lower priority given to creative subjects. Many of the students start at the folk high school at different stages of demotivation but gain a sense of motivation though the teachers whom the students describe as committed and dedicated to teaching.

During the stay the students acquire a sense of competence. They learn new things and are able to create a new narrative in which inadequacy and failure are substituted with an awareness of being competent:

“Before I came here, I really wasn’t the kind of person who would get up and like tell a lot. And then I choose choir-singing. At the visitors’ day I stood alone and sang in front of the entire audience. So you can say that this has given me strength. I’m fully aware that this is what I have to do: like fight for it this time.” (Student)

At the folk high school, the young people are motivated by their interests for music, sports, writing and painting.

The students tell that they acquire different competences during their stay: personal, social and professional. Strongest is the story about self-esteem and finding out that they are capable of much more than they thought.

From the SDT perspective, the learning environment at the folk high schools facilitates autonomous and intrinsic motivation. Through the identification with committed teachers and the core values of “freedom under responsibility” and “community spirit” the young people become motivated for learning. They experience how learning can be free of external pressure and regulation. That it is an aim in itself (Cort, P., 2011).


In the Danish youth education policy, emphasis is placed on regulating young people through external factors, primarily through the threat of sanctions and continuous control through guidance and education plans. These factors curb the students’ intrinsic motivation and instead prioritise external and introjected motivation (Guay, Ratelle & Chanal, 2008). The education system has become increasingly individualised and may thus meet the psychological need of. However, in individualised systems the need of feeling part of a community (relatedness) is undermined. As to feeling competent, basic schooling has left a group of young people with an innate feeling of being incompetent and this feeling together with the external pressure of having to choose an education programme seems to be counterproductive to the 95 % objective.

In practice, at the folk high schools, the ideals and principles of liberal education support young people in their motivational work. They experience the feelings of belonging, being autonomous and not least of being competent and hereby a motivation to engage in education is developed. The telephone surveys in 2011 and 2012 showed that approx. 2/3 of those interviewed had continued into a youth education programme (Nielsen & Koudahl, 2011 & Cort, 2012). These surveys will be followed-up be a survey based on civil registration numbers in autumn 2013 due to the fact that it was only possible to reach 35 to 45 % of the project participants in the telephone surveys.

A major difference between policy and the practice in the Bridging Project is that the folk high schools focus on the process and on supporting the young person during a process of personal growth. Education policy is focused on results. The education plan is basically a management tool based on the rationality of project management and hereby the educational choice is turned into a strategic process whereby the young person “just” needs enough information in order to design the pathway from no education to completed education. To the young people in the Bridging Project this was not feasible: they needed time to reflect and to figure out who they were before taking the (for them radical) decision of educational pathway.


What is a folk high school?

Folk high schools are adult education institutions mostly associated with the educational tradition of the Nordic countries, Germany and Austria. Their educational philosophy rests on principles of personal development, lifelong learning, ethics and democracy and are derived from the work of the Danish N.F.S.Grundtvig, the “father” of the folk high school (pictured).

Typically these institutions do not grant academic degrees but studies may prepare a student for further education or offer a chance to try out a particular field of study. Study periods vary from months to a whole year. Individual folk high schools often have a speciality, such as arts or media. Nordic folk high schools are usually boarding schools, where students form a close-knit community.


Pia Cort argues that folk high schools could be ideal for remotivating youth for education. The ball is now in the policy makers’ and folk high school advocates’ corner. Elm asked around in Finland, Germany and Austria –also countries with long folk high school traditions – whether the Danish model could work in local folk high schools.

Jyrki Ijäs, Secretary General of the Finnish Folk High School Association

“The Danish model would fit Finland very well. In fact, it is not just a Danish model -I would call it the Nordic model where civic education -or “bildung”- fills the gaps left by formal education, “ausbildung”!

We have repeatedly lobbied policy makers to use this Nordic model as part of the so called “Youth guarantee”. The Guarantee is one of the Finnish government’s top priorities: it aims to guarantee work, training or other support within 3 months to all unemployed under 25-year-olds and recently graduated 30-year-olds. Remember that the EU Commission has started has its own Youth Guarantee, as does the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Finnish folk high schools have the potential to fulfil the whole of the Youth Guarantee, reinforced with more funding and cooperation with other actors active with vulnerable youth. There are still problems with validation, though. You can get extra points from folk high school studies for further study but they should actually be credited as part of formal studies, like in Denmark.

It vexes me that Finland lags behind other Nordic countries in making folk high schools part of the solution to youth unemployment and exclusion.

Kirsi Lähde, Counsellor of education, Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland

“First it must be remembered that in Finnish liberal adult education it is not possible to decree by law the content of education or to whom it is given.

This is the second year the state has funded adult education to put the youth guarantee into practice. The youth guarantee means that the state guarantees every under-25-year-old unemployed or under 30-year-old recently graduated person a job or training within three months.

2 million euro have been earmarked for liberal adult education to fulfill this aim.”

Dr Hans Amendt, Director and general manager, Akademie Klausenhof, Germany






“Danish research has showed that the folk high school is an ideal learning environment for vulnerable youth to remotivate them to further study. The boarding school environment and free curricula without exam stress bring about positive learning experiences, increase self-esteem and community skills.

In our point of view this research exactly reflects our experiences. But the reasons for the positive effects are, on one hand, the appropriate learning environment, the pedagogic approaches and the good individual support by the teachers. On the other hand the boarding training centres give a clear frame of life to the youth: rules for everyday life, getting up in the morning, coming to the workshops and lessons in time, eating right and so on. Very often the young people in our particular establishment have had no chance to grow up in a “normal” family that gives the opportunity for good development. In a boarding training centre they can often concentrate the first time in their life on their personal aims like vocational training or second chance school certificate.

We, the Akademie Klausenhof, have a long experience in this approach. We are a big boarding training centre in Germany with 220 staff members, 580 boarding facilities, and appr. 700 attendances (per day). We offer, for instance, vocational training and preparation, school courses for young migrants, training for unemployed, re-training for adults, and language courses.

This place is structured in a Grundtvigian sense: we provide for example a library, leisure facilities, an international community of learners and workshops. But since ten, fifteen years the public support for this kind of learning has decreased dramatically. The German employment agency and the government supports more training and learning on-site – because it is cheaper. Vulnerable young people need special and effective support. Otherwise the risk to be dropped out is very high.”

Dr Gerhard Bisovsky, General secretary of the Association of Austrian Adult Education Centres






“The Austrian labor market policy is very much focused on the dual system. The Employment Service is responsible for young unemployed people and is the biggest provider for adult education in Austria.Folk high schools are also working in the area of labor market policy, the main players are, however, organizations that operate primarily vocational training..

The Volkshochschulen offer a variety of activities for young people and can exploit its strengths well, like the broad provision ranging from general education over vocational education. Regional diversity is another asset. With currently 270 centres, Austria has a greater density than, for example, Germany. Thus, it is possible also to reach people who do not have an affinity to lifelong learning.

In their educational work the folk high schools build brigdes also to the formal sector. The importance of this bridging function is shown by the growing number of participants in “Second Chance Education” (Zweiter Bildungsweg) and the Volkshochschulen are responding to societal and educational needs, concerning for instance early school leavers, inclusion of unemployed young people, young migrants, young women, etc.

Some examples of this type of work are the project “Jump”  in Carinthia, which supports apprentices to perform better in vocational schools (Berufsschulen).

Another course, “BOK”  is a one-year job preparation course for young people which also offers sustainable job assistance for the participants after finishing the course. The course curriculum consists of school-related subjects like German, Mathematics and English and of health education, sports and ICT. The didactical focus is on personality development and on the development of knowledge, skills and attitudes for the labour market.

Basic education, compulsory schooling courses and access courses for apprentices are free of charge. In special courses mostly young people are prepared for exams which are mostly carried out together with accredited teachers from the formal system. Many participants have different migrant backgrounds. In many centres accompanying courses for young people are carried out to improve their performance in elementary and compulsory schools.

In many of these measures accompanying social work and socio-pedagogical support is offered. The aim is to improve the chances of young people in the labor market, reducing drop-out levels and to raise the educational level of the youth.”



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