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Norway to beat skills shortages

Politicians are looking at Scandanavian ways of tackling underachievement in the 16 to19 age group. John Grove reports

More than nine out of 10 students on an education programme in Norway are expected to qualify for a new-style qualification launched in 1994 to help eliminate underachievement in 16 to 19-year-olds.

Reform 94 was launched to help run a skills audit of the post-compulsory school population when virtually all European countries were alarmed at falling standards.

It has attracted considerable attention from British ministers and college managers, looking at ways to improve the tracking of students after school, to stop them slipping through the education and training net.

The Norwegian follow-up service reports that there is a now almost complete take-up of school-based education and training at 16. There are hopes that more than 90 per cent of the first intake of Reform 94 will succeed at the two main qualifications, either academic or vocational.

The new follow-up service was established in each county to track the complete post-compulsory school age group, especially those who are not in the upper secondary system.

Anne Hoydahl, the service co-ordinator at Follo, one of the counties involved, says its database has become increasingly accurate. She says that the service will soon be able to offer interviews, guidance, and placements in firms and schools for all difficult cases.

"It relies on networking with the psychological service, social services and employment departments, which can be a frustrating and time-consuming process, " she says.

In another of the counties involved the follow-up service and the psychological service are combined under one leadership. The director Britt Hagar Alvestad says: "This joint approach makes it easier to consider the problems of young people as a whole." Special education is a top priority, though Erik Heier, the principal of Nesodden Videregaende Skole (upper secondary), prefers to talk of supportive learning, rather than identify any group as "special". His aim is to integrate everyone, regardless of the disability. As many as 85 per cent will gain the full upper secondary qualification, even if some have low pass grades, he estimates. He is concerned that at present, 80 students are based in a separate building.

A sophisticated support scheme for identifying special needs, documenting them and dealing with the learning problems has been developed. A targeted special needs budget guarantees teachers time for split classes, small groups and individual tuition. Students with special needs have a legal right to up to two extra years for the vocational certificate.

Individual learning plans are hammered out at weekly meetings for all with significant special needs - partial sight, deafness, physical disabilities, and learning difficulties - by a team of psychologists, teacher counsellors, special education teachers and senior staff. The local educational psychology department has the support of 20 national resource centres and also technical aid centres.

The integration of all types of young people into 16 to 19 education is an impressive result of the new legal right to education.

The national curriculum of the radical Reform 94, and its 14 coherent academic and vocational branches, all giving access to higher education, has become well-established. The most vexed issue concerns students who will only achieve a "part competence", not the full academic or vocational qualification.

Geir Sahle of the Norwegian Ministry is leading a national project in five counties dealing with part-competence. Started in l995, a final report is due in 1998.

"It is looking at alternative school-based models for students with special needs, identifying alternative facilities for the teaching process, and to develop the modular structure of the curriculum, particularly to enable adults to progress towards upper secondary certification."

Geir Sahle is concerned that the students only achieving part competence may prove to be a larger group than anticipated.

Geir Sahle said that a competence certificate will be available in June 97, and can be used as a foundation to continue towards complete upper secondary qualification in later years.

Alternatives to the Reform 94 experiments for education and training are being pursued. All are linked with an upper secondary school.

These are projects developing alternative school-based programmes that could lead to a certificate as a semi-skilled worker in different trades," Karl Skaarbrevik, a leading researcher on vocational education, said. He highlights the courses at Kjelle and Heroy schools.

His recent report said that at Heroy, for students having difficulties with full courses "an individual learning programme is designed for each student, and the school is working closely with the local fishing and shipbuilding industries to provide these students with the necessary practical training".

Other experiments are situated in different buildings from the normal school - as with the 80 separated at Nesodden - participating in one of the several national varieties of APE (work, production, and education), where there is a good mix of theoretical teaching and work experience out in firms for three days a week.

Marianne Lewin, one of the main project leaders, said this is the way to motivate certain kinds of young people. "Reform 94 may give our target group security, because this group is guaranteed an education plan and a certificate which tells what they have been doing."

At Skedsmo School, some students have constructed their own special-purpose buildings for a variety of modified vocational courses, including catering, car mechanics, electronics, printing and office administration. Kjelle School is unusual in having a mainly residential population of pupils with learning problems.

Per Grahn is one of the leading exponents of its philosophy of "consequential pedagogics" that informs the courses at Kjelle, which he says is designed to emphasise the students' own responsibility for their development.

Many questions about Reform 94 remain, such as the validity of final low grade passes, and the absence of active "special needs" policies in some schools, which is noted by Geir Sahle. He is also concerned that the emphasis on "part competence" is changed to the idea of a competence certificate or skills card.

A recent survey of business firms in Akershus County suggests that many firms are willing to accept new workers with a proper competence-based qualification.

The formation of a new special needs pedagogical team at the National Centre for Educational Resources in Oslo is another positive development, for it will increase the supply of supportive learning materials. It is a further demonstration of the national purpose shared by the government, teachers and business interests to see that the whole of Norway's 16 to 19-year-old population is fully educated and trained for the future.

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