Oxfordræða - in English

Reform of Education in Iceland
Oxford Round Table on Education Policy, Pembroke College
August 1997

Iceland is a small island state in the North Atlantic. The island was first settled from Norway by the Vikings some eleven hundred years ago. At the year 2000 we plan to celebrate the discovery of America by an Icelander, Leifur Eiríksson, in one thousand AD. Our island is around 103.000 square kilometres of which only 13 per cent is arable land. The Icelandic population only consists of about two hundred and seventy thousand people. We speak Icelandic which is like Latin to Danish, Norwegian and Swedish and it is the same language that was spoken at the time of the settlement of Iceland and the language of the famous sagas. On a world scale, the standard of living reaches the top echelons of OECD countries, with Gross Domestic Product reaching 26.400 US dollars per capita in 1996. Iceland is a republic with a parliamentary democracy and a nationally elected president as a head of state, albeit not retaining any political powers. In general, the political situation is very stable, the level of unemployment hovering around the 3.5 per cent mark, inflation is below 2 per cent and an annual economic growth 3 per cent. In 1944 Iceland became an independent republic after having been under Norwegian and Danish rule since the mid-thirteenth century. Iceland is a founding member of the NATO and has a bilateral defence agreement with the United States. We are also members of the Nordic Council, comprising the five Nordic states in addition to Greenland and the Faroe Islands. In the economic sphere, Iceland has entered into trade agreement with the European Union as a member of European Economic area with Norway and Liechtenstein. Iceland also takes part in research, science and education programmes of the European Union.

I have indulged in these simple facts so that you can more easily understand my account of educational reforms in Iceland and put it into context with your experience of education and personal view of education policy.

Iceland has always had a special challenge in trying to prepare its young people for a full and enriching adult life but that difficulty has almost certainly been accentuated by the heightened economic competition among nations and by the need to diversify away from resource intensive economic activities in order to provide citizens with satisfactory real incomes.

This requirement can certainly be said to fall in full force to the educational system which is responsible for developing the human capital of the nation. Ten years ago, an OECD report on the Icelandic education system advised increased differentiation from other educational systems in the OECD countries. However, much has changed since. Having more skills may be a greater competitive advantage than before, given the increasing emphasis on continuous improvement, flexibility and variety in today¹s high-technology world and the new environment of higher unemployment. But as much as greater skills, it could be said to be different skills that are most needed for Iceland¹s future development, including technology related, decision-making and other more general ‹ and therefore better transferable ‹ thinking skills. In the future, one can envisage that irrespective of the nation¹s resource advantages, economic success will more than ever rely upon the ingenuity of the inhabitants and their ability to adapt to rapidly changing needs in a global market place.

A number of features distinguish our formal education system from those of other countries. First, at all levels there has been a tradition of "home" or self "teaching" ‹ more or less extinct now ‹ but which meant that public responsibility came late, and schooling became compulsory by law in this century. At the pre-school level, teaching and education are carried out with clear goals in mind under the guidance of specially trained personnel. The main purpose of compulsory schooling (for the ages 6 to 16) is to prepare pupils for life and work in a continuously developing democratic society. At the upper secondary level, which normally includes the sixteen to twenty year age group an effort shall be made to give pupils a choice of subjects and forms of instructions in accordance with their needs and wishes. The primary aim of upper secondary education is to prepare students for life and work in a democratic and a competitive society by offering them suitable opportunities to learn and develop individually, and to prepare them for employment through specialised studies leading to professional qualifications, or alternatively, for further study. Universities are charged with the task of carrying out research and offering higher education programmes in different subjects as stipulated by the legislation governing each institution.

Second, since the inception of public responsibility, the system has been fairly centralised, both in terms of curricula and finance, albeit financial centralisation is also a characteristic of public service in other small states. However, several governmental measures regarding education in the last years have focused on the decentralisation and devolution of responsibility in the education system in order to enhance its efficiency, dynamism and flexibility.

The third distinguishing feature of the Icelandic educational system is that public spending has never been as heavy in relation to per capita income levels as it has been in some other countries: the school year is considerably shorter than the OECD average and teacher pay is therefore comparatively low. However, access to post compulsory education has been guaranteed to those who complete compulsory education, as fees have only been nominal.

To conclude, despite modest spending levels, outcomes have generally met objectives. Nevertheless, it is clear that past perceptions of success do not justify complacency, and the case for a serious revision of the Icelandic educational system, in terms of structure, content and finance is strong.

Turning to the main theme of this presentation ‹ when we discuss educational reform it is of paramount importance to keep in mind that formulating and phrasing a sensible educational policy is only a partial achievement, the implementation and execution of that particular policy, traditionally being significantly more difficult.

When I assumed the office of Minister of Education, just over two years ago, our parliament had recently passed new laws, pertaining to the primary education, with decentralisation as one of the predominant themes, i.e. the transfer of primary schools to the local municipalities. It became among my first duties to implement this bill by negotiating its execution with the Teachers Union and the local authorities. Finally, in August, 1996, this historic transfer took place in a peaceful way. Since then, the primary schools in Iceland have been run by the municipalities which now bear the operating cost of the school as well as the cost for the pre-primary and lower secondary schools. Thus, the nation¹s 167 municipal governments have taken over full responsibility in exchange for 2 percentage points of taxable personal income. In addition, special fund has been set up with further half a point in order to offset the effects of different per capita income levels and school sizes. The government has also allocated money to enable municipalities to build new schools in order to go from two shifts to one shift primary and lower secondary schools. Representatives of local government are confident that they can do a better job of running schools than when responsibilities were divided.

The most sensitive issue regarding the transfer was to assure and guarantee the rights of the teachers which initially felt threatened by this action. In the end a satisfactory solution was found. Focusing on the political aim of this transfer, I want to emphasise the following:

1. With decentralisation, we intend to enhance the service of schools by moving both the capital and the responsibility closer to those who the school system should be focusing on, i.e. the pupils. Similarly the new legislation dramatically increased the influence of parents and other interested groups, encouraging all to follow and participate in the operation of their respective schools as well as regularly gauging the school¹s comparative performance. I intend this only to be a first step towards giving parents, who play a crucial role in their childrens´ education, still more influence in the general running of schools. Even more importantly, informing Icelandic parents of this role and the importance of education to their children is a task that may soon pay dividends in terms of clearer priority in favour of education over other governmental issues.

2. Reforming the education system means making responsibility in its various branches real and transparent to all concerned by introducing a clear division of labour, for example between municipalities and the national authorities, between local authorities and individual schools, between teachers, school administration and pupils etc.

3. However, a decentralisation of the school system which on the whole leads to more liberty within the sector, may lead to confusion and even anarchy if educational authorities do not formulate and enforce a framework for standards and quality within which individual schools can manoeuvre ‹although still taking advantage of their special circumstances and utilising their comparative advantage‹ based, for example, on their location, specialised staff, student population or connections with local firms to name just few examples. It does, however, fall upon the state to maintain minimum standards in education and erect a system of quality control to ensure end-user benefit in the educational system. By creating a system of standards, incentives, clear responsibilities andreprisals for under performance we hope to create a school system which simultaneously addresses the productivity problem and a system that focuses on personal skills necessary for the coming age and allows for the systematic cultivation of the multiple intelligences so vital in society.

4. One facet of the educational reform is the dissemination of information about examination results, leading to increased competition between schools and which will hopefully boost the overall performance of the system. Although many other countries have a relatively long history of publishing grades and school examination results, and therefore might not regard this change as dramatic, Icelanders, and especially the teachers have been very reluctant to disclose information about school performance to the public, and in the past fervently disputed any inferences to such initiatives. However, in my term as a Minister of Education, I have continually stressed openness in these matters as the prerequisite for enhanced performance of both pupils and schools alike. This spring, the results of each upper secondary school in the standard final examinations was published. Although a single act of such kind is arguably not an adequate indicator of school performance, especially because the so-called value added question, further publication of examination results, coupled with careful research will allow us to discern strengths and weaknesses in Icelandic education and facilitate proactive, problem prevention approach to the sector as a whole.

Finally, my ministry has decided to employ a three pronged strategy to increase attainment in each curricular subject and to raise the general level of the education in conjunction with the law. First, we have embarked upon the total revision of the national curricula for both primary and secondary education which now for the first time are being revised simultaneously in order to achieve continuity and coherence between the two levels. As it is, we are half through this 27 months project and expect to publish the new curricula in the autumn of 1998. Second, the curricula revision will be followed up by a revision of study materials, which in some instances is badly needed and in other quite timely. Last but not least, new law, curricula and teaching materials call for increased teacher training or re-training.

To sum up, after the transfer of primary and lower secondary schools to local authorities, government is left with the duty to prepare, publish and lend text books at this level free of charge to the pupils, who then are obligated to hand them back after use. The Ministry of Education is responsible for the assessment and evaluation of schools. The Ministry sets the standards and conducts standard examinations.

Althingi ‹which is the name of our parliament and, incidentally, is said to be the oldest legislature in the world that is still in session‹ passed new laws in 1996 on the upper-secondary education which form the foundation on which present reform of the secondary level is based.

Again, the reform of the upper secondary education is directed at achieving better standards, more flexibility and diversity in Icelandic post-compulsory education. Below I shall attempt to briefly recount the main elements of the new legislation.

First, the new Act on upper secondary education lays it upon the state to finance the operating costs at this level, but construction cost and initial capital investment for equipment will be divided 60-40 between the state and the respective municipalities.

Second, the law calls for the construction of a new secondary education system built upon increased subject specialisation according to programme choice, increased variety of educational options ‹catering for a wider group of students than the present academically oriented system‹ and well defined entrance requirements for each programme. As Icelandic pupils have to sit, but not necessarily to pass their final examinations at the end of compulsory education, technically no one fails primary school. Therefore, all students have the right to enter the upper secondary stage. Overwhelming majority opts for secondary education and as vocational education has unfortunately not been considered very prestigious in Iceland, most enter gymnasium. There, many experience difficulties and drop out given the heavy work load, especially in the traditional grammar schools. On the whole, around third of each year drops out. Although this number is not wholly indicative ‹ as many return and finish school later or enter other programmes ‹ this high proportion is considered unacceptable. The main strategy being devised to attack this problem is increased variety in secondary education programmes which is now being designed allowing students to choose their point of entry into secondary education, however, without the danger of a permanent relegation to a certain path. Each path, whether vocational, a remedial course, short vocational or academic will contain passages into other programmes if a student changes his or her mind and is qualified to enter. One could argue that with this system, coupled with the clear entrance requirements that it necessitates, Icelandic education is headed for a hitherto unknown elitism, moving against the flow of modern social development. My rejoinder is that quite contrary to elitism we are creating a system that really caters for all ‹ different as we are ‹ moving away from an organisation that claims to cater for all but in reality does not. Aristotle wrote that there are two types of injustice ‹when you treat equals unequally and when you treat unequals equally. Education for all does not necessarily mean the same education for all, and the true essence of equality is equal chance of education but not necessarily the same path. With this restructuring and re-tailoring of the upper-secondary system, in conjunction with the changes being implemented at the primary level, we might be able to give more education of more quality to students earlier on.

My last point on the upper secondary level is that similarly to the decentralisation trend at the primary level, the new law solidly places the responsibility for administration of upper-secondary schools in the hands of individual head-masters.

Touching briefly upon the university level, the Icelandic state runs three universities. A reform of the law pertaining to the tertiary level has been conducted in the Ministry of Education and now there exists a new bill on the matter which will be debated and hopefully passed when Althingi comes together in the autumn. The main novelties of this bill are threefold:

First, the new law will carefully lay down the criteria and standards to be fulfilled by institutions seeking state recognition as providers of university level education.

Second, the bill proposes that special laws or acts be enacted for individual university level institutions laying down the modus operandi for each institution but which will also be based on the main law.

Third, a funding formula allowing for a better determination of the financial obligation of the State to each university level institution is being put together. Incidentally, this effort applies to the financial reconstruction of the upper-secondary school system as well. This new funding formula will also make it easier to negotiate with private parties who either want to establish an university or an upper secondary school.

To conclude, I want to briefly mention the debate over student fees. Icelandic university students only pay a nominal registration fee of around £200. In an recent OECD report on Icelandic education higher fees are recommended. I had, by the time of the publication of the report, already voiced that this idea needed to be discussed.

I want to stop here, although not having mentioned many other important issues, such as distance learning, information technology, life long learning etc. which all are important ingredients of a progressive education policy. However, for all general information about Icelandic education I would like to point you to a paper which covers these issues in more detail and some copies of which are available at the conference desk.