This is an outline summary with personal perspective of the report The Norwegian Unified School – a paradise lost? by Anne Welle-Strand and Arild Tjeldvoll for the Journal Education Policy 2002.

Norway prides itself on being a leader of equal opportunity and this value has been the central element of the Norwegian Education System.  Universal schooling for children was introduced in Norway 250 years ago.  From 1889, seven years of compulsory education was provided, in 1969 this was increased to nine years and in 1997 to 10 years.  For over 80 years Norway has employed the ‘Unified School’ model for its compulsory education system (today grades one to 10).  This has meant that compulsory school, high school and tertiary education is free of charge not only for residents of Norway but for anyone with the opportunity to study in Norway.  This schooling model became stable from the socialist ideals that sprang out of post war Europe.  It was designed to ‘equal’ peoples education no matter their situation in life.


Above: Public school in Aksershus before 1922

However, in the last quarter of the 20th century reports from the model started to indicate serious problems.  Continuous research showed that the model did not progress with the competitive culture that globalization was introducing.  It indicated that the Unified School System, in fact, was creating unequal opportunities and learning conditions.  The Norwegian education system, governments and public opinion have battled it out since the 70s whether to stick with an education that is based on the ideals of Norwegian culture and society, ‘the quality of equality’, or to adopt a new system, Quality School, that would enable the people to have a competitive future in the globalized world, ‘the quality of competence’.  The Unified School model won out up until the Age of  Technology.

The Unified School system proclaims that a person is entitled to a teaching adapted particularly to him or her, also called ‘student adapted teaching’.  This meant that all levels of education had a fixed syllabus of knowledge – a learning that was directed by the teacher.  This type of learning was well suited in the 50s and 60s where most education could only be obtained in school.  The Unified School, gave people access to further their education who would not have had the opportunity based on class.  School offered the next generation better opportunities in life.

As the length of compulsory schooling increased to include lower high school, and with the implementation of two major reforms in the 1990s, student motivation began to decrease.  This meant that only the motivated students continued to upper High School level.  However, because more students had the opportunity of a senior education, upper High School education now needed to be curved to the Unified School model as well to accommodate ‘equality’.

Critism has always followed the Unified School model but by 2000, it was stated that the Unified School was turning into a ‘depository school’ where social and academic quality was declining.  It also caused an increase in problems such as violence and bullying amongst school students.  Research continually showed decreasing achievements in Maths and Science.

The Unified School directed teachers to spend more attention on the academically weaker students.  This ironically showed that a model designed for equality encouraged unequal attention towards different abled students.  It was found that ‘adapted teaching’ was not possible for a class of 30 students.  A class that size can only learn according to the academically weaker students.  This is where justice and equality collided in the Unified School model.  Offering ‘equal’ education for all no matter the socioeconomic differences provided just a minimal education for all.

In 2001 the OECD program, PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), conducted a study where 15 year-old Norwegian students were tested on their knowledge of Maths and Science, ability to read, and classroom behaviour.  Norway’s reading score was average, however, the large span of reading competences was odd considering Norway used the Unified School model for learning.

When it came to classroom behaviour PISA measured that Norwegians were the worst at classroom behaviour than the other Scandinavian countries, and surprisingly was at the bottom of the international scale in classroom behaviour, only second to Greece.  PISA summed up their study stating that Norway was not up to standard in the ‘international picture of academic achievements’.  Few countries spend more on education per pupil in school than Norway and considering Norway’s financial resource (oil in the north) OECD researchers declared that Norway’s education is ‘unsatisfactory’.

One of the reasons the Unified School model was popular amongst the Left Parties, since the war, was that it was meant to ‘achieve equality by socialising student groups to the values of an equal society’.  Now, in hindsight, it is evident that it is difficult to achieve both quality and equality education simultaneously.  Introducing a Quality School model no doubt would increase the quality of education, appreciate individualism and nurture competition – everything that Unified School model is not designed achieve.

To try and solve the problems of the Unified school, in the early 1990s the government started to introduce student-learning.  Instead of the teacher providing all the information to curriculum, students were now to develop their knowledge through project work.  The custom of marking students work was devalued and even abandoned by schools.  This first meant that a teacher didn’t need to require as much knowledge in their subject resulting in lower qualified training teachers.  There was no proper monitoring of student progression and learning and there was no countable level of achievement obtained by students.  This suited Norway’s educational ‘popularism’ ideals which has a reputation for anti-intellectualism.  Now ‘local’ knowledge was more important than general knowledge.  By 1992 learning for ‘real work’ was prioritised and academic achievement for higher education took a back seat.  Schools did not want to appear ‘too academic’ and did not encourage individual academic achievements.  Some schools even stopped sports days because it was believed they were too competitive.  Just so any ‘looser’ didn’t feel bad, winning was not celebrated.  In 1999 an OECD study found that Norwegian education was a ‘generation behind’.

By 1993 a new idea was developing in Norway about ‘service’ and ‘customer’.  The movement is referred to as the New Public Management (NPM).  The idea of ‘choosing according to preference’ enabled individualism and choice, however, the Labour Party joined with the Socialists, Christians and Farmers to disregard this new way of thinking in schools.  This coalition instead introduced a new Unified School policy to combat the mediocre education of Norwegians.  Now students no longer needed to qualify academically for high school – the policy gave the right for everyone, even the uneducated, to enter upper high school.

However, it was only after 2001, when neo-liberal ideas on NPM were gaining popularity among the public, that the Conservative government announced new ‘competitive’ education policies.  The three pivotal changes were in making school principals ‘managers’ of their school and therefore decentralising education even further, private schools were to receive financial support from the government (though schools for profit are still not allowed) to make schools more competitive and students’ school marks at the end of compulsory schooling would be published.  These three changes were designed to start the process of shifting Norwegian education from the Unified School model to the Quality School.  In 2002, the Minister of Education made a memorable ‘farewell to the Unified School’ speech.  She stated that ‘quality, flexibility and freedom of choice’ were necessary to modernize Norwegian education.  And so thus started Norway’s first step into Quality Reform.

In the new Quality School, knowledge and competence needed to be a priority in order to make the nation competitive.  The previous PISA observations and comments were still plaguing the minds of policy-makers.  So the new system placed higher importance on the academic subjects – Maths, Science, Technology and Economy.  Modern languages, especially English, became more important also.  The Arts suffered greatly and were even defunct in some schools.  Because of this new Quality School model, ‘students, parents and teachers that are neither born, nor culturally socialized, to be ‘competitive’ are to face a tougher environment’ than they would have in the Unified School model.  As such, schools are hypersensitive to the ‘losers’ of the Quality School.  Even today a great amount of management and resources is invested to retain the old Unified School ‘equality’ ideals.  This has fed the societal understanding that Norwegian school does not encourage students to excel above average.  As yet, the Norwegian education system has not found a way to balance its new competitiveness with the Norwegian cultural value, equality.

Norway is one of the last Western countries to modernise its school system for globalization and the Age of Technology.  This has meant that policy makers have tried to fast track Norway’s progress to catch up on the ‘one generation behind’.  In doing so many mistakes have been made over the past 20 years in creating the new Quality School.  Because of the fast implementation of policies without appropriate prior ‘testing’, only hindsight has been able to trace the faults in the developing system.  Norwegian compulsory edcuation is steam-training into the ravine of incompetence and the only way out is to cut its loses, start at the base and walk up.

There are many overlapping studies, policies and reforms in the Norwegian education system.  Unified School verses the Quality School is just one element.  Over the next few months I will present various ideas and studies on Norwegian education.

To read the original report please visit: http://www.bi.no/upload/Info-avdeling/_nedlastingsfiler/AF%20Filer/The%20Norwegian%20Unified%20School.pdf