Copenhagen is a small city and so, inevitably, has a smaller range of schooling options for expats than some of the larger European capitals, although both IB and British curricula are on offer. Smaller schools are often full and be aware that the largest school is also Denmark’s most expensive.
If the school you really want is full, the best advice is to join the waiting list, find a space in a school where you can and be prepared to move schools – and possibly, even fairly likely, the curriculum - part way through your posting; none of this is unusual in Copenhagen.
Rygaards International School and Bjorn’s International School, both in Hellerup, are currently the only schools offering IGCSEs, so if you are going to be returning to the UK in the future or if your children are already several years into their education, these are likely to be your first choices.
Rygaards is a selective school - even for reception - with children sitting an entrance assessment to determine if they will be given a place. This is not because it’s intensely academic - it isn’t - but because the school wants to weed out any child with potential SEN. There’s often a waiting list and, having an older child in the school, is no guarantee that a younger sibling will get a place. Although pupils sit IGCSEs, A levels are not offered.
Bjorn’s International School will admit non-Danes for a maximum of four years and takes pupils from the age of six to IGCSE. The brand new Viking International School in Ballerup has opened, offering the International Primary Curriculum. If you are prepared for a longer school run and live in the north of Copenhagen, there is also North Zealand International School.
There are two IB schools in the city, Copenhagen International School (CIS) and the International School of Hellerup (ISH), and a large number of expats choose these. CIS is significantly larger than ISH - 2020 saw CIS field 61 diploma candidates compared to ISH’s eight - so is more likely to have spaces available. Both achieve results above the global average. Further afield, but offering boarding, is one of the oldest schools in Denmark, Birkerod Gymnasium Boarding School.
Also available are the European Baccalaureate at the European School Copenhagen in Carlsberg; French curriculum at the Lycee Francais Prins Henrik, in Frederiskberg; a Danish curriculum taught in English at Bernadotte School - The Little House in Hellerup; and a mix of Danish and British curricula at the bilingual Institut Sankt Joseph in Osterbro. There is also a new Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner School, Waldorf International School Copenhagen.
For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Copenhagen considered by expats'.
If you’re settling permanently in Denmark and want your children to speak Danish, a local Danish school could be a good choice. The kommune (borough) where you live will assign your children to a school. All Danish residents are entitled to send their children to local schools and there are classes specifically aimed at getting children up to speed, in Danish, before they transition into local school. You’ll be able to find information on your kommune website.
It’s normal in Denmark for both parents to work and so there are many full time nurseries (vuggestue) and pre-schools (bornehave) in Copenhagen. Bornehave take children up to the age of six (school starting age in Denmark), so this can be a great way to get young children learning Danish.
Vuggestue and bornehave children spend the majority of their time outside, all year round. Expect a lower staff to child ratio than in the UK and to hear that your infant has been on outings and trips, only after they have taken place. It’s normal to see big pram-loads of toddlers out and about and to see very young children walking for playtime, on the beach or at a local park.
There are plenty of international (ie English speaking) pre-schools too. Pre-school childcare is subsidised by the state but you will need to pay the balance of the fees above the subsidised amount. Because most adults work in Copenhagen, there are often waiting lists for vuggestue and bornehave.
It’s not like the UK…
So, the Danish view of education for primary age children is that the key goal is learning to cooperate and work together, both in schoolwork and in resolving problems. This means that a lot of time is spent in lightly supervised play. This approach carries through into international schools too, and with schooling beginning a year later in Denmark compared to the UK, you will definitely see a difference in the academic standard in primary schools, with more material covered at a later age in Denmark.
If you know you’ll be returning to a UK primary school, or early on in secondary school, you will want to consider how best to narrow any gap between content covered in Denmark versus the UK. Some expats take the “little and often” approach, using UK curriculum apps to keep maths etc ticking over, whilst some hire a tutor for their last six months or so to give a bespoke gap-filling service.
On the flip side, your young child will be adept with glue guns, whittling knives, and all kinds of equipment usually kept well away from children in the UK!
Copenhagen International School is the only international school really catering for children with learning differences. There is a fully-staffed department of learning support teachers and children with additional needs are given bespoke learning programmes. On-site speech therapy and occupational therapy is also available. The Bridges programme at the school caters for children with more significant needs, who cannot manage a mainstream school environment.
The school run
It’s usually possible to choose to live within biking distance of your school, so with a fabulous cycle-lane network, cycling is a popular choice. Parents with small children might invest in a cargo bike to ferry their offspring to and from school. Older children (anywhere from about seven and above) tend to cycle by themselves.
There are buses, metros and trains within walking distance of all the international schools, so public transport is also an option. Just like in the UK, parking around schools is not usually easy, although that doesn’t stop people from driving, particularly in the cold, dark winter! We’re not aware of any of the schools having car-sharing schemes, so it would be up to parents to find local friends at the same school for this to be viable. The majority of schools do not run school buses.
Meeting Danes and speaking Danish
Generally, international schools run two separate schools-within-schools, one international and one Danish. Danes are generally not admitted to the international stream and vice versa except at Copenhagen International School, which, currently, only runs an international stream. This is the option usually chosen by Danes who’ve lived overseas and want an international education for their children.
Your child’s best chance of making local Danish friends, is most likely to be through clubs outside school, such as swimming or football. Often sports clubs will run English-speaking teams, but the vast majority of teenage and adult Danes speak amazingly good English and will happily add instructions, in English, for a non-Danish player in a Danish team.
At school, your child will learn Danish. In primary school, this is thematic and based around Danish culture and traditions (you’ll soon know all about Festelavn and Nisse (check out your folklore!). Teaching becomes more formal at an older age. It’s unlikely that your child will have the option of learning other languages until secondary school age. French, German and Spanish tend to be the choices.
Sport in schools
Schools in Copenhagen (both international and local) do not have big playing fields, which means your child won’t be playing rugby or field hockey at school. There are lots of after-school sports clubs - some of which are school-specific - so if a particular sport is very important to you, you may want to consider their locations when choosing where to live.
If your company will pay for school fees, so much the better as, just like everything else in Denmark, school fees are expensive. Copenhagen International School is the most expensive, with fees similar to a London day school.
The benefits of a Danish-style education
Helicopter parenting doesn’t exist in Denmark; the youngest babies are left outside cafes in prams whilst parents enjoy a coffee and pastry inside. With the majority of children starting nursery by the age of one, children are expected to thrive in a social setting, that is often primarily outdoors. Independence is expected at a much earlier age in terms of, getting to and from school and activities, resolving problems in peer groups and looking after possessions.
All-in-all, it feels a lot more like childhood in the UK forty years ago, where children had less academic pressure and more freedom. This can reduce anxiety in children and boost their confidence, which can be a real gift.