WELCOME TO COPENHAGEN'S SCHOOL FOR REJECTS, MISFITS AND SCREW-UPS

Copenhagen’s Academy of Untamed Creativity is the alternative educational model we’ve been waiting for.

Imagine a place where higher education is free. Scratch that: a place where students actually get paid by the government to get their degrees. For the majority of the world, that place is a distant fantasy ­– but that’s the way it is in Denmark. Seemingly utopic, the Danish education system grants students the means to earn those coveted pieces of paper and pay rent in exchange for nothing but (admittedly high) taxes. However, even utopia puts up barriers ­– especially for those students who don’t fit into the structured box of the system. For students who’ve struggled to find their places in school and weren’t able to stick with their education, there simply aren’t that many options to learn in an alternative manner. However, there is AFUK School – or ‘The Academy of Untamed Creativity.’
 
Even before you step into the school on the western edges of Copenhagen, AFUK begins to live up to its name. Located in a cluster of buildings known for being a skateboarding haunt, the school is hugged by graffiti-adorned warehouses bordering indoor and outdoor skate parks. Most young Copenhageners are familiar with the area as a haven for late-night parties. Even the banner announcing the school distances itself from anything rigid: happily sloppy red letters spelling AFUK soar above the entrance, framing crowds of smoking students and skaters riding through the doors to class.
PHOTO: JOAO BOTELHO
 
 AFUK offers students eight year-long creative programmes to choose from, spanning everything from circus classes to skateboarding to musical theatre to the culinary arts. Its aim is to let students who’ve struggled learn through doing and find the confidence they need to re-enter a complete education system.
 
“The basic concept is to find your freedom by discovering what you’re capable of when you’re put to action,” elaborates Jan Hinnerk Petersen. Petersen runs the skateboarding programme and it’s obvious why: gracefully laid-back, honest and endearingly scruffy, he’s exactly the kind of guy you’d hire to gain trust with a bunch of skaters. “So you have these workshops where you’re immediately put to work on something that interests you; you produce something of value for yourself. Even though you don’t know shit about it, you’ll learn it hands-on in the old school style –like master and apprentice.”
 
As Petersen leads us through the school, the scope of the space becomes staggering. For an ‘alternative’ school with little funding, AFUK is massive, with a seemingly never-ending labyrinth of studios, workshops, theatres, comfy hideaways and hangout spots. “When people first step in our door, they feel there’s a certain vibe to the school,” Petersen explains. “You can be whoever you are and be recognised for it. There’s space for you here – no matter how fucked up you are, how many problems you bring with you or how weird you look. You can be sure that you’ll be loved here. Those places are pretty rare in the educational landscape.”
PHOTO: JOAO BOTELHO

“We pass through a gaping auditorium, silent except for the echoes of smacking feet as the circus students practice a routine inside. Petersen explains how the auditorium is a catalyst to get the students to work together. “It’s amazing ‘cause this has so many purposes,” he says. “If you need a conference we rent out this space and the students provide the food, set up the tables, the décor, actually build stuff and put together an entertainment programme during the conference. All the students somehow get involved in this.”
 

"WE’VE GOT KIDS FROM ALL SORTS OF BACKGROUNDS – THE REDNECK, THE LESBIAN PUNK, WHATEVER. THERE HAS TO BE SPACE FOR EVERYONE BECAUSE EVERYONE HAS TO MAKE THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE."


This emphasis on collaboration seems to run through the entire school ­– an admirable model considering the split in the students who make up the programmes. Six of the programmes are considered part of the ‘production school’: they’re free for students to attend and usually attract younger students burdened with darker baggage and rougher pasts. Two of the programmes, however, are considered ‘daghøjskolen’, or ‘the day high school.’ These are programs students pay to be part of, which often attracts older students, comfier in society and set on clearer paths in their internal and external lives. You’d expect this contrast between the haves and have-nots to cause some sort of turbulence, but Petersen explains it’s the opposite.

PHOTO: JOAO BOTELHO
 

 “The students provoke each other as well as learn from each other,” he explains. “The young teenager may act stupid so the older one is forced to rethink his or her own perspective and remember what it was like to be seventeen. This school has its hippie roots, so there are few politics here. That’s pretty important because we’ve got kids from all sorts of backgrounds – the redneck, the lesbian punk, whatever. There has to be space for everyone because everyone has to make their own experience.”

"I PUT MYSELF INTO THIS SCHOOL WITH MY WHOLE BEING, WHICH ALSO LEADS TO UNINTENDED REACTIONS. YOU GET WAY MORE FRUSTRATED ON YOUR STUDENTS’ BEHALVES, OR YOU GET WAY MORE EXCITED." 


As Petersen takes us through art studios and past an improv workshop, he greets the students we run into with magnetic warmth. You can tell that the students and teachers are on even grounds, sharing an energy much closer and much more compassionate than you’d see in a regular school. Yet in an environment that houses complex histories and emotional damage, that closeness isn’t something that everyone can handle. 

PHOTO: JOAO BOTELHO

“If you aren’t qualified to handle this, then sure, it will fuck you up,” Petersen admits. “It’s pretty common that we production school teachers aren’t educated as teachers – we’re here because we’re passionate about what we do. I put myself into it with my whole being which also brings with it unintended reactions. You get way more frustrated on your students’ behalves, or you get way more excited. You cross their lines without even realising. In my first year, I was close to mentally dying – but I always had the best intentions and learned by failing. That’s one of the most important values here and we try to motivate our students to do that, too.”
 
As our tour of AFUK comes to a close, a sense of sheer momentum solidifies as the overarching characteristic of the school. It’s clear that whatever AFUK is doing is working: although their educational model is considered niche and alternative, the energy in the place is open, genuine and motivated in a way you rarely feel in a regular classroom. Slowly but surely, this model is making its way through the rest of Denmark, too: Petersen is currently negotiating with a few schools to make skateboarding a legitimate subject in the high school curriculum.

PHOTO: JOAO BOTELHO

“There are so many troubled young people falling behind and there are so few places for them to go and find themselves,” Petersen tells us as he shows us the door. “With AFUK, however, when you fail at something, you gain strength through experience and figure things out for yourself the next time around. That’s why from the bottom of my heart, I’m pretty much convinced that this format of education is something our society needs very badly.”