School Structure in Norway

Schools in Norway are typically divided into an elementary level, which goes through grade 7; a “junior high school” that goes from grade 8 to 10; a “high school” (sometimes referred to in Norway as “college”) that goes from grade 11 to 13; and then university. At age 15, before moving on to high school, students have the opportunity to choose whether to attend the three-year general high school or attend a vo-tech training program consisting of two years of high school plus two years of an apprenticeship in a trade. If students go the vo-tech route, they are not eligible to apply for university unless they return to school and complete an additional one year of high school.

University in Norway is essentially free, but there are limited spots at each university and it is competitive to get accepted, based on your grades and on exams that you take upon completion of high school. You are responsible for about 1500 NOK (Norwegian Kroner; equal to just under $300) in expenses each semester, plus your books and living expenses. You can get a scholarship from the government to cover your living expenses while at university, but if you do not pass your final exams, you must pay back that scholarship money, so there is extra incentive to do well and concentrate on your studies while at university.

Folk High Schools

Many Norwegian young people choose to attend a folk high school (folkehogskole) in between high school and university (most young people choose to take off between one and three years before attending university). These folk high schools offer students the opportunity to live in dormitories and experience life away from home on their own, all within a small, closely knit community setting. There are classes but no grades and no homework at these schools, many of which focus on specific topics that might be of interest to students to pursue during their university studies. The schools are often grounded in experiential education.

Vagan Folkehogskole, Kabelvåg

For example, the school in Kabelvåg, in the Lofotens, has a focus on outdoor/environmental education and photography, and caters to about 100 students. The common living areas in the school are filled with photographs the students have taken.

These folk high schools are not cheap, costing around 80,000 NOK (approximately $15,000) per year, including living expenses (housing, food, etc.). There are 78 folkehogskole throughout Norway and you can read more about them at


Nordland, the county in which the Lofotens are situated, has the lowest level of education among its population of any of the counties in Norway. It is also suffering from increasing dropout rates among high school students, a fact that the county government is working to try to alter. For example, there was no university in the county of Nordland at all until extremely recently with a new university just instituted in the city of Bodø.

What roles do and should universities play within communities? Can they influence the quality of life within a community?

Not so long ago, many students didn’t finish high school in the small fishing villages in the Lofoten Islands and elsewhere, leaving school early to work on ships in the fishing businesses of their families. Communities used to be more class-based as well, and entry into high school was not guaranteed; there were a limited number of spots and it was competitive to be accepted. Nowadays, everyone is guaranteed the right to go to school, even those youth wishing to go into the fishing business because they need a formal education in order to learn about the regulations and new technologies involved in the fishing industry today.

Small, Rural Schools

There are numerous schools scattered throughout northern Norway that are very small, including some set apart on islands. On one island, Helligvær, located off the coast near Bodø, the entire school for grades 1 through 10 has only six students.

A beautiful fjord scene near the town of Digermulen, which is home to a small school that has a creative partnership with a local salmon farming company.

In the Lofotens, the school in Digermulen currently serves 12 students in grades 2 through 9. Four of the students travel to school by ferry each day from the tiny island of Storemolla. This small school has had to fight to stay open, and works creatively to incorporate local traditions and culture into its curriculum. For example, Pundslett Laks, a salmon farming company located in Digermulen, works closely with the local school. A student organization at the school buys salmon from Pundslett, smokes it in a school smokehouse, vacuum packages it, and sells it. The Earthducation team will be visiting this school in Digermulen and learning more about their creative curriculum and successes.

There is debate within Norway — as within many other countries around the world, including the United States — about how to deal with small rural schools. Some of these schools are being closed and merged with larger schools in neighboring districts, but this can mean long commute times for young students as well as have devastating impacts on small communities.

An interesting report on small rural schools in northern Europe was published in 2005. The report contains information about the history and current-day curriculum and education in Norway, both rural and urban, along with lots of data about the role played by small, rural schools and how these schools can be sustainable in the twenty-first century.

When you have an island set apart from any neighboring communities, shutting down the school and merging it with another may simply be logistically and practically not possible. On the small island of Røst, for example, which is situated over 60 miles out to sea from the mainland, the school has about 65 students, scattered from grades 1 through 10, and there are 12 teachers, several of whom work only part-time. Due to the small overall population on the island (about 600), students have to travel elsewhere to complete grades 11 through 13, which means they’re living on their own starting at age 16. Living away from home can be very hard on some of the students, especially after being raised in such an isolated environment on an island in the Norwegian Sea and living in such a small community. The school district tried keeping the older students on the island and working with them via distance learning programs online, but it was unsuccessful.

Serving Several Languages and Cultures

The school in Drag serves about 100 students in grades 1 through 10, along with a special program for grades 11-13 that provides largely online learning for students at risk of dropping out of school. Students in grades 11-13 otherwise attend school in a nearby town. The school in Drag is unique in a number of ways, primarily for its merging of Sámi and Norwegian language and culture. It is the only school in the district that offers Lule Sámi language classes. It serves both Sámi and Norwegian locals, and serves as a model for other schools around the country.

This is an issue many communities around the globe are facing: How can schools best serve students from multiple backgrounds and languages? The Earthducation team is interested in learning from the school in Drag the ways in which they are succeeding in this arena, and what struggles they face.

Multiple Written Languages

There are two official Norwegian written languages: Nynorsk (“new Norwegian”) and Bokmål (“book language”). The predominantly used language is Bokmål, with less than 30% of the municipalities having Nynorsk as their official written language. However, Norwegian classes (like English classes in the U.S., teaching language and literature, etc.) at schools must offer written exams in both languages.

Spoken Norwegian varies greatly by region, even within such a small country. Mari explained to Jeni during her pre-expedition trip that even within a three hour drive, you may find dialects so different from each other that two native speakers may have difficulty understanding each other!

In addition to Norwegian, the Sami language is also considered an official language in parts of Norway. Norway declared the Sami language to be on equal standing with Norwegian in 1990, and Sami is recognized as an official language in several districts in Norway, including districts within the counties of Nordland and Troms through which the team will be traveling.

Røst is comprised of more than 365 islands situated over 60 miles out to sea from the mainland in Nordland county.

Interview with Local Elder

Olaf Pedersen, Senior, was born and raised in Røst and is the former director of Glea, one of the oldest Fiskemottak (fish-receiving business) on the island. His son, Olaf Junior, now runs Glea. Olaf Senior spoke with Jeni during her pre-expedition research trip about the history of Glea, growing up on Røst, the importance of education in today’s fishing industry and much more. You can listen to some of the audio clips from this conversation or read some excerpts from the audio below.

Listen to Olaf Pedersen, Senior, talk about how things have changed on Røst over time, with the exception of education.

Listen to Olaf Pedersen, Senior, talk about the importance of education, and whether he believes government regulation helps maintain sustainability of fish in the sea.

When Jeni asked Olaf about what it was like living on an island so isolated from the rest of the world, he laughed and said, “We’re not isolated, the rest of the world is . . . we have to say to ourselves that we are center. The rest of the world is outskirts. For example . . . we have to figure things from our situation, not from the other people’s. As long as we focus on that, I think it’s much easier for us to stay in such a place.”

Olaf went on to note: “We have fiberoptic cables into every house here . . .I’ve seen the world from being a very big thing until going into a very small thing. Last year, for example, I was in China, in Beijing, Shanghai. When I was young, going to China, never in my life I thought. So the world is shrinking due to good communications in every way.”

When asked how education in Røst has changed in his lifetime, he said:

Education in Røst hasn’t changed very much. Because when I was young, I finished school when I was almost 14 and to have more education, I had to leave for another place in Norway. It’s the same now because we are too few people to have high school here. Six hundred people total is not much.

The kids today still have to travel away from Røst and live on their own if they want to continue on to high school, though they’re a few years older than Olaf senior was, leaving now at age 16 instead of 14.

Olaf Senior also noted how crucial he feels education is for young people today, whether they plan to run a fishing business like Glea, or to work on a fishing boat as a skipper or crewmember: “It’s extremely important because we see that the companies that are growing, they have people with good education, very good education . . . and if you’re not good with computers, you’ve got no chance.” The computers are used not just in business today, but on the boats as well, which have become highly sophisticated equipment-wise.

Olaf Senior’s emphasis on the importance of education here in northern Norway brought to mind a statement by Matthew from Pangnirtung, from Earthducation expedition 0: “It opens up the world when you have education, especially up here in the north . . . I think it’s a key to everything.” You can view Matthew’s video interview and others, from Pangnirtung and Burkina Faso, at the Earthducation vimeo channel at