Pearse Cooke saw the advert In the Guardian in March last year. “Are you Interested in a year’s challenging experience in educating young people in an unusual residential school in England or Denmark?”
At 29, having just spent two years working as a care assistant with disabled children, the idea sounded appealing. In July he attended a weekend introductory course at the Red House School in Norwich and liked what he saw.
“They showed us around the school and spoke in detail about their aims. They were espousing leftwing views similar to my own so I thought that’s pretty cool, I’m up for that.”
He was offered and took a position at the Juelsminde Friskole on the coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. Most of the 40-odd pupils, all boarders had been placed there by social services departments and the eight teachers were Danes.
At £100 a month after tax, the pay was low but Mr Cooke was puzzled when he received his first pay slip to find instead of the 120 hours he estimated he worked that month, it showed just 18 – but at a much higher pay rate of about £20 an hour. “I raised it and they just gave me some piffle-paffle. Then I found out they did it like that to satisfy the Danish government they paid the minimum wage.”
Although impressed with the school’s facilities, he became increasingly uncomfortable about a number of other aspects of life there. All the maintenance and cleaning was done by teachers and pupils, who were often offered cash or other incentives to do extra work. “I thought to myself ‘my God, the health and safety would have a field day here’,” he recalls. Then there was the curious task assigned to him on Wednesday mornings; burning two sacks of paperwork on a nearby beach.” A lot of them looked like old bank statements.”
But pupils and teachers were constantly told their work was helping the poor in Africa and South America, and during regular “charIty weeks” they worked hard to meet specified DAPP/Humana fundraising targets.
An unwritten rule was that students and teachers should not read newspapers. But after returning from his Christmas holiday, a mature student from a nearby Tvind school told him of reports that only a tiny proportion of DAPP/Humana income went to charitable causes.
“I began to ask about how much was going to the Third World and they would say all of it bar administration costs.”
Another source of irritation was a drinking ban on staff even off school premises. Once a senior teacher caught him drinking in a Juelsminde bar and ordered him back to the school. Then in May, the school found he and some mature students had been drinking beer in his room. The beer had been stolen by a pupil from a supermarket, but Mr Cooke insists he did riot know that.
He was called before senior teachers and questioned at length. “They used police-type tactics, three of them interrogating me at once. They were very enthusiastic that I should grass on anyone.” When he refused to name anyone else involved he was asked to leave. “I moved to Aarhus and met two pupils who told me the headmaster had announced that anyone who spoke to me or acknowledged me would be expelled.” Another staff member told him he too had been banned from talking to him.
In retrospect, Mr Cooke believes the school had many characteristics of a cult. Volunteers were constantly encouraged to join the four-year Necessary Teacher Training College, after which they were expected to pledge 70 per cent of their earnings to the “joint economy”.
Much emphasis was placed on symbols of the Tvind organisation, such as the great windmill at Ulfborg. Entertainment at the weekly coffee and music nights came strictly from the Tvind song book and there was the rationing of information that is a familar feature of many cults.Â “A teacher once said to another volunteer ‘The longer you are in the organisation, the more you will find out.’ I thought ‘About what —where the money goes?’.”
Now back in Britain, Mr Cooke is establishing an anti Tvind organisation similar to those In Norway and Denmark. “It’s not political, it’s not religious, it’s financial.Â Â These people would put capitalist factory owners to shame”
Original title: ‘They would put capitalist factory owners to shame’