Political point scoring threatens folk colleges

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Kenneth Steven defends an unusual school system which values social awareness more than exam scores.

The Norwegian people may have voted to stay out of the European Union, but the policies of their socialist-led government seem increasingly influenced by an EU mentality.

Rural colleges, once the recipients of generous handouts from Oslo, are now under threat. The education ministry appears intent on closing all establishments which are not economically viable.

This is also true of the folk high school network. This system was first introduced into Denmark in the 1830s by a country priest, Nikolai Grundtvig. The schools spread quickly, the first Norwegian one being established in the 1850s.

Folk high-school philosophy is governed by a concern first for the needs of the individual, and then for the community as a whole. Pupils attend for an academic year, living on campus.

Almost all of the 80 or so Norwegian schools are deep in the countryside, because the outdoors and environmental awareness are fundamentally important to this system.

The folk high schools - whether Christian or humanist in outlook - are renowned for taking on problem cases, students other parts of the education network have effectively disregarded. The "success" rate is tremendous; few leave unchallenged after living alongside individuals with disabilities and foreigners who are often from deprived backgrounds. They also encounter many new ideas about society, culture and belief.

But the folk system is in jeopardy. In Norway, academic institutions are awarded points by the department of education according to their status. These points are accumulated by each individual during his or her academic career and the tally influences their value in the job market.

Folk high schools have controversially been given no points, partly because they do not run formal examinations at the end of the study year. In an increasingly competitive working environment, young Norwegians are voting with their feet and opting for colleges and schools which will increase their total of points.

As a result, folk school attendance has dropped by between 30 and 50 per cent. Many are now facing almost certain closure if the government will not agree to change its policy.

The folk school model is too precious to be put at such risk by the shortsightedness of the education department. The "points" this system gives in terms of opening young people's eyes to social responsibility, awareness of community, and personal fulfilment beyond material gain cannot be measured.

As a stepping-stone between secondary school and college or university, it has been shown to be invaluable. In Britain, where our children all too often walk straight from the classroom to the lecture theatre, we could have much to learn from the Scandinavians .

Kenneth Steven is a journalist specialising in Scandinavia

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