THE ICELANDIC EDUCATION SYSTEM: A PRIMER - The Reykjavik Grapevine

THE ICELANDIC EDUCATION SYSTEM: A PRIMER

THE ICELANDIC EDUCATION SYSTEM: A PRIMER

Published September 5, 2011

The Icelandic education system resembles those of Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. There are four levels of education: day-care for children aged 2–6 years old (sometimes younger), compulsory education for children aged 6–16, followed by ‘secondary school’ (akin to high school), which is usually four years, followed by higher education provided by Iceland’s universities.
Iceland does not have a tradition of private schools, although there are privately owned and operated institutions at all levels of education. Generally these do not carry any higher prestige than the public institutions, and compared to other developed countries Iceland has a very low level of students attending private schools. All levels of education are subsidised by the state, including day-care. The day-care and the compulsory schools are managed or overseen by local authorities, while the menntaskóli and universities are managed or overseen by the state.
There is not much parent involvement in the schools’ work and parents are generally not offered many opportunities to volunteer or otherwise participate directly in the daily operation of day-care centres or primary schools. Of course the level of parent involvement varies very much from school to school, and from class to class, and it is very much up to the parents themselves to participate and get engaged. There is usually a shortage of parents on parent boards, so anyone willing to invest time and energy will usually be greeted with open arms. Parents who are used to American style involvement in their children’s education will be disappointed and frustrated at the general level of disengagement of other parents.
Most children engage in some extracurricular activities, especially sports. The local sports team usually offers handball and soccer classes that are popular with both boys and girls. Some also offer swimming and gymnastics and other sports or martial arts and even chess! Enrolling in sports or such activities can be an important step towards finding friends and gaining acceptance in the world of Icelandic children—a world that can often be very competitive. The scouts are also a popular choice.
While arts and music education are subsidised by the local authorities, they are generally rather expensive to attend. The local youth centres might offer clubs or some classes, and schools similarly offer some after school clubs. Finding extracurricular activities for your children can be challenging and parents are encouraged to engage in research, ask other parents what their children are doing, as well as contacting your local school, sports team and the municipal authorities for information.
THE FOUR LEVELS OF EDUCATION
Day-care
In Iceland, all children aged 2–6 have the right to day-care. Day-care institutions are operated by the municipalities. In 2010, there were 277 pre-primary institutions in Iceland, with an average of 68 children per institution. Day-care is subsidised by the state, although parents pay day-care fees. Children eat breakfast and a proper lunch at school.
Privately operated day-care centres have grown rapidly in number in recent years. At year-end of 2009 there were 39 privately run day-care institutions in Iceland. Most of these are organised around a specific educational philosophy, including ‘Waldorf education,’ which is based on the principles of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. There is also homegrown educational philosophy ‘Hjallastefnan,’ which also emphasises fostering children’s imagination and connection to nature. Hjallastefnan operates ten day-care centres and three compulsory schools that serve children 5-8 or 9 years old.
Day-care centres are legally obliged to accommodate all children, including disabled children and children with special needs, including special support (although the reality does not always meet these ideals). Despite day-care staff having long been underpaid and certain austerity measures that have hurt the system, the day-care system has held up very well, and is extremely ambitious and admirable. Icelandic day-care centres are very multicultural, as both students and staff represent the rapidly changing face of Icelandic society.
Compulsory education—Grunnskóli
In Iceland, school attendance is compulsory for all children aged 6-16. Home schooling is not allowed, and parents are legally obliged to send their children to an accredited school. In 2010, there were 172 compulsory schools in Iceland. Out of these, ten were private schools. Less than 2% of students attend private schools, fewer than in most OECD countries. At public schools education is offered free of charge, while most private schools charge student fees.
Compulsory education is largely standardised, and when children finish the “standardised tests” at age sixteen most have gone through the same educational experience. The education is focused on academic subjects, and although there is some opportunity to take elective subjects at older levels children who wish for an academic experience consisting of arts or music must take these subjects at arts or music schools, and these are far from cheap. There are very few schools that offer any kind of vocational classes for children younger than sixteen.
There are no schools for gifted children, and schools that serve children with special needs, physical or learning disabilities are proportionately rare. The Icelandic educational system has tried to emphasise equality and mostly attempts to serve children with special needs within the regular school system. The average size of classes is 18-19 children, which is low in international comparison. Compulsory schools are also small on average, a third of schools having fewer than 100 students. The largest school, Árbæjarskóli, has fewer than 800 students.
Secondary education—Menntaskóli
Secondary education is not compulsory, but anyone who has completed compulsory education has the right to enter a course of studies in secondary school. All teenagers who have finished their compulsory education are guaranteed access to the “menntaskóli,” although they are not guaranteed admission to the school of their choice.
Generally, secondary education is organised as a four-year process, leading to a matriculation examination that gives access to university level schools. The length of studies in vocational education varies, but four years is also the most common here. As a consequence most students in secondary schools are 16–20 years of age.
There are three types of schools within the secondary school system: grammar schools, comprehensive schools and specialised schools. The nine grammar schools focus on classic academic subjects aimed at preparing students to enter University and are in many ways similar to the Gymnasium in Denmark, deriving their origins from medieval cathedral and monastery schools. While students can in fact still study Latin at some of those schools, their curriculum has been thoroughly modernised and students can choose a line of study which suits their academic interests, languages, social sciences, or natural sciences, but generally have very little choice in which classes they attend, as they cannot freely choose subjects as students at comprehensive schools can.
The comprehensive schools offer academic studies as well as vocational training. There are currently 22 comprehensive schools being operated, and while only three of the grammar schools are located outside Reykjavík, most secondary schools outside the capital are comprehensive schools that offer vocational training. Students have a wide variety of subjects to choose from that are not offered at the grammar schools, from arts and theatre to plumbing and ship building. The specialised schools offer classes in subjects not offered in the comprehensive or grammar schools, such as music or arts, and most do not graduate students with a matriculation exam. Some of the specialised schools also offer classes at the university level, including the agricultural college at Hólar.
Some of the grammar and comprehensive schools charge school fees or charge students for materials, although these are reasonable in most cases. Classes at the specialised schools are more expensive. The governmental student loan system, LÍN, provides subsidised loans to cover fees and materials to eligible students, but these loans are very modest in most cases and students therefore continue to live with their parents and rely on family support.
For many students, the secondary school experience is less about academics and more about the active social life. Icelandic secondary schools do not compete in sports, but academic competitions are popular and there is considerable prestige attached to making the school debate team or the quiz team.
Higher education
Only those who have finished the matriculation exam at a grammar or comprehensive school, or a comparable education elsewhere, can be admitted to university (unless their circumstances are deemed ‘special’, say they have field experience). Most Icelandic students enter University at 20–24 years of age, and graduate in four to five years. In 2010 there were 12.699 students seeking a BA degree, 4.352 students seeking a MA degree and 482 students seeking PhDs at Icelandic Universities. In addition, there were 1.650 students seeking diplomas or candidatus degrees. The social sciences, business and law are the most popular subjects.
There are currently seven full universities in Iceland. The University of Iceland, the oldest and largest university, founded in 1911, is the only university with a full range of BA and MA degrees in academic disciplines. Reykjavík University, a private university, founded in 1998 offers degrees in law, business, computer science, engineering as well as sports science. Together the Universities of Iceland and Reykjavík, both of which are located in Reykjavík—at opposite sides of the downtown bog to be precise—account for over 80% of all university students in Iceland.
In addition to these two there are several smaller universities. The Icelandic Academy of the Arts has departments of Design and architecture, fine arts, music and theatre and offers various BA degrees as well as MA degrees in art education, composition and theatre. The University of Akureyri, situated in Akureyri, the largest town and the “capital” of Northern Iceland offers various BA and MA degrees in the humanities and social sciences, health sciences, business and natural resource sciences.
A second small university located outside Reykjavik, Bifröst University, offers BA and MA degrees in social sciences, law and business. Bifröst University can trace its roots back to the Cooperative College, founded in 1918 by the Federation of Icelandic Cooperatives, and operated as a grammar school until 1988 when it was turned into a University. The school was originally a kind of cooperative counterweight to the Commerce College, Verzlunarskóli Íslands, founded in 1905 and operated by the Chamber of commerce since 1922. In 1988, the same year Bifröst was reorganised as a university, the Commerce College founded its own University of Computer Science, which became Reykjavík University in 1998.
Finally, there are two small agricultural universities, The Agricultural University of Iceland at Hvanneyri, Western Iceland and Hólar University college in Northern Iceland, who both offer BA and MA degrees in agriculture, tourism and resource management.

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