Today many parents, especially the resourceful, choose private schools rather than the local public schools in Bispebjerg and in other disadvantaged areas of Copenhagen. This leaves some schools with a large group of disadvantaged pupils; creating a socio-economically homogenous student composition and a tough school environment. The primary goal of the Parental Association Use the Public School is to convince resourceful parents to enrol their children in the local public school. As the pupils will thus attend school in the neighbourhood they live in, positive effects are expected for the social cohesion of the neighbourhood. An additional goal is to support the social mobility of the less resourceful pupils of the local areas, as more mixed schools can ensure better education. The strategy of Use the Public School is thus to make the local primary and lower secondary public schools the natural first choice for all parents selecting a school for their children, and thereby to ensure a non-segregated school system.. The main challenge to this is rumours about the student composition being problematic and the academic level too low in the public schools. The strategy is thus to provide information and foster a sense of security. This is to be done by making parents of pre-school children more familiar with the local school and by trying to establish contact between the local families before their children start school.
Use the Public School is organised as a parent organisation. It was initiated in 2003 by a group of parents who felt that the public schools in their neighbourhood (Nørrebro) struggled with a range of problems regarding for instance quality of education. Furthermore, they found that the Municipality of Copenhagen seemed indifferent to the disadvantaged public schools. Today the organisation has grown to become a secretariat with three employees, 60 volunteering parents and projects in various areas of the city. The arrangement has thus moved from a neighbourhood to a city-wide level. The organisation had projects on two schools in Bispebjerg in the years 2009 to 2011. Over the years, the organisation has been granted resources from different actors such as the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Affairs and private funds. Despite the organisation being initiated as a critical reaction to Copenhagen Municipality, today its funding comes in fact from the municipality. The arrangement has thus evolved from being a grass-root organisation to a public arrangement. The target audience is resourceful parents, who are about to decide what school their children should attend (as parents are in general unwilling to remove their children from a school, where they have formed social ties). Thus the most important activity is parents talking with parents, getting them to share their experience of the local schools and circulating the notion that the local school is a good choice. Parents, who have chosen the public school, function as ambassadors, making presentations and functioning as good examples and informal advocates of the local school. The ambassadors are both of Danish background and of ethnic minority background, as an increasing number of Muslim families in Copenhagen choose Muslim private schools for their children. Other activities of the organisation are: a headmasters’ network, spreading information about public schools (handing out leaflets and booklets), and local school teachers doing outreach work in kindergartens.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
A general objective in the Danish welfare system is that public institutions should reflect the surrounding society (Danish Ministry of Education, 2014). Use the Public School aims at this by making diversity in public schools a declared goal. As the project manager states: “When everybody is different, nobody is different from the others”. A diverse composition of pupils consequently creates equality among them. However, when about a fourth of the children in Copenhagen attend private schools, public schools do not reflect the neighbourhood they are located in. Use the Public School has a pluralistic approach to diversity, and identifies social integration as a dualistic effort which both affluent families and disadvantaged families are responsible for (Syrett & Sepulveda, 2012). This entails resourceful parents not opting-out of the public schools. Use the Public School has a positive attitude towards diversity, and they highlight the benefits of it. For instance, the project coordinator describes how the schools should become better at using ethnic diversity and bilingualism in a positive way in teaching, stating that it is a resource to be different rather than a disadvantage. The organisation does not explicitly address hyper-diversity, as the main focus is on ethnicity and socioeconomic situation. However, the goal is to work for ‘a socially and ethnically mixed’ public school (Forældreforeningen Brug Folkeskolen, 2014), thus pointing to a broader understanding of diversity.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The main external success factors are linked to the networks in schools and kindergartens. A well-functioning collaboration with such institutions, getting permission to arrange info-meetings etc. is necessary for the success of the organisation. The most important internal success factor is the bottom-up approach: The organisation is based on the group of ambassador parents, and they are a very important part of the success of the project. The parent-to-parent structure is the core of the successful work. According to the project coordinator, actions speak louder than words:
“When parents themselves have chosen to enrol their children in this school, other parents listen and think ‘Hey. If she can [choose that school], then it probably isn’t such a bad school’”
Three external failure factors can be identified: Firstly, public schools in Copenhagen are often depicted negatively in the media. This amplifies their bad reputation and complicates the work of Use the Public School. A second factor relates to the funding of the organisation, as the amount of resources received varies a great deal. And finally, but perhaps most importantly, the concentration of disadvantaged families in Bispebjerg is very high. Therefore, it became difficult to create networks of resourceful parents who could work as ambassadors and convince other parents to choose the local school. Despite extensive networking, this obstacle is the main reason why the project in Bispebjerg turned out to be less successful than projects in other districts. Out of necessity, the Bispebjerg project consequently ended up taking more of a top-down approach. Along these lines, the main internal failure factor also concerns the socio-economic composition of parents in Bispebjerg. The parents participating in the project were for a large part socio-economically marginalised. This made them a fragile resource, and as a result the parent networks in Bispebjerg struggled with stability.
Considering local public schools a cornerstone of the social cohesion of Danish society and a key element in preventing negative social heritage, Use the Public School works against a segregated school system by advocating that the local public school be the primary choice of all parents in Copenhagen. Focus is especially on resourceful parents, as they are the most likely to send their children to private schools. Use the Public School takes a bottom-up approach where parent-to-parent contact and communication is the outset for fighting prejudices and negative assumptions about public schools. The organisation is thus innovative in that it utilises ‘the good example’ in the local community and the mutual trust and social network between parents. Thereby, the organisation avoids being perceived as part of the municipal propaganda and can create results that the public authorities are unable to. However, the dependence on engagement and commitment from local parents has proven a potentially fragile construction in disadvantaged areas such as Bispebjerg.