A single word is written over the entranceway of Bagsvaerd Kostskole and Gymnasium in Copenhagen: “Perseverando”. This, says Headmaster Jimmy Burnett Nielsen, is the watchword that represents one of his school’s central aims. “Perseverando means ‘through perseverance’,” says Nielsen. “And that’s what we preach here. Basically, your IQ is not relevant, because that’s what you’re born with. What you put in is what will be life-changing for you.”

Nielsen believes that praising children for their cognitive skills alone can result in them only attempting the things at which they already excel. “If you praise a kid for working hard, however, they will take on more challenges,” he says. “You learn an important thing from being knocked over – that’s to get up.”

BK, as it is known, admits pupils from primary through secondary education, as day pupils as well as boarders. The classification of “gymnasium” refers to a secondary school with an academic emphasis – comparable in many ways to a British grammar school.


Test control

BK challenges the culture of constant testing. “Schools that emphasise only getting good grades may foster a risk-averse culture,” says Nielsen. “In our high school, two thirds of the students are involved in some kind of intellectual or scholastic extracurricular activity – such as the poetry society or a talent workshop – that allows them to work academically without the danger of being measured or graded.”

Since embarking on this approach in 2010, the school has risen from a middle ranking to the top 10 in Denmark – and to first place among Danish boarding schools. The results are evident in the awards and accolades that BK has garnered in that time. These include the main prize for the Science School of the Year in 2014, and Science Teacher of the Year, which was awarded to one of BK’s teachers in 2016 – both awarded by Unge Forskere (Young Scientists), Denmark’s biggest national science fair. In 2016, former pupil Maja Louise Hansen was invited to address the 2016 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, in recognition of the three awards that she won in the Young Scientists competition as a BK student. And, in 2017, BK was awarded the Novo Nordisk Foundation teacher award, the highest distinction of its kind in Denmark.


Beyond the classroom

“I think the main reason for our success is having the kids working with academic subjects outside the classroom,” says Nielsen. “It trickles back with tremendous effect. You develop inquisitiveness in students, which feeds back into what goes on in class.” Nielsen and his team also recognise the importance of computer coding, which they regard as the new lingua franca – much as Latin and French were in past times. “We’re currently working on a programme to teach coding to all kids – from age five to 19,” he says. “I believe computer science skills will be essential in a very few years. We all know how to swipe a screen, but having an idea of what is behind that screen – understanding the way programs are being run – will be increasingly important.”

The underpinning ethos at BK is that learning is joyful because it is hard. “We always tell our kids: there are things you don’t know – but you only don’t know them now,” says Nielsen. “However, you will know them tomorrow – but you have to work for that.”