Shedding some northern light on happiness

24th August 2007 at 01:00
Norway and Scotland have much in common so why are Norwegian children much healthier and happier? Henry Hepburn reports

THE NORWEGIAN teacher was dumbfounded: "A wet bell?" The Scottish concept was alien to her: that pupils would be summoned indoors by the bell should rain start to fall.

There is an old Norwegian phrase that there's no such thing as bad weather only bad clothes. That mentality plays out in schools, even in the far north of the country, where the Arctic Circle creeps across the border. It is not unusual for children to spend more than half of every school week outdoors; only when the mercury drops well below zero will they be called in.

When eight leading figures in Scottish education and children's services visited the Norwegian county of Nordland late last year, they found themselves in a setting that was at once highly familiar and profoundly different.

Nordland's scattered communities, sea-battered coastline and industrial reinvention (from centuries-old farms and fisheries to aerospace ingenuity) suggest a kinship with rural Scotland. Yet, through the eyes of a child, Nordland and Scotland could scarcely be more different. Nordland youngsters enjoy far more freedom, influence and locally relevant education. They are also less likely to die in infancy or live in poverty, to get drunk or have babies in their teenage years; in 2001, the county was voted the best European region for young people to live in.

The aim of the Scottish delegation was to find out why so many things were so much better for young people in Norway. This led to Northern Lights, an engrossing new publication from Children in Scotland.

Nordland has a population of just 237,000 about the size of Aberdeenshire. Remarkably, the county is divided into 44 "kommuner" (or local authorities). Even the smallest Norwegian communities have considerable autonomy, right down to the smallest of the country's 431 kommuner, Utsira, with its 214 inhabitants.

The autonomy extends to children's services, as seen in the Nordland kommune of Bodo. In 2002, local politicians set themselves the goal of making their kommune the best place in Norway for children to grow up, an aspiration built upon an "upbringing plan". These plans exist in about a third of Nordland's 44 kommuner, and are a commitment to plan for all aspects of a child's life, from birth until the age of 20.

"We expect every employee who has contact with children and families to be aware of the plan and take ownership of it," says Henny Aune, who is responsible for the Bodo plan. "If they cannot provide what a child needs, they have to alert me and we will work together to ensure the necessary support is in place. We follow the child and the family. If the system can't help, we have to change it."

Bodo's plan led to the Morkved Family Centre for children aged up to 12, and parents from the stage of pregnancy onwards (the centre has a midwife). A nurse visits every mother after childbirth and tells them about the centre, which is open 12 hours a week on a drop-in basis.

"We see all kinds of parents," says Emmy Votvik, centre leader. "Rich or poor, they all need support of some kind at some point, whether this be from professionals or other parents they meet, as they bring up the child."

At the centre, various professionals such as pedagogues, family guidance officers and physiotherapists work under the same roof. The most striking result is that this gathering of services has led to earlier identification of children's developmental problems.

Children themselves play a far more direct role in local decision-making in Norway, upbringing plans included.

In Bodo, 2,050 secondary-age pupils completed a questionnaire about life as a young person. That led directly to free transport for young people into town during holidays, as well as discounts on sport and leisure, after children complained about poor bus services and a lack of things to do.

From an early age, Norwegian children learn about democracy by taking part in decision-making. Many kindergartens have twice-yearly talks involving children and staff, where the child is asked to volunteer suggestions on how things could be improved.

School pupils dress informally, sometimes call teachers by their first name, and are encouraged to challenge teachers' views from an early age. (Behaviour problems, however, are uncommon.)

"The balance of teacher authority and pupil influence is certainly a very fine one," says Wenche Ronning, a former director of the not-for-profit Nordland Research Institute.

Lobbying from older children led to Klara Klok (Klara the Wise), an online service where young people in Nordland can get confidential advice on issues from 34 health consultants, ranging from doctors to a priest to drug and alcohol consultants, while two full-time employees read and edit questions. There are 3,000 visits to the site a day, and an average of 120 questions answered daily.

The early introduction to democracy seems to work: well over half the children and young people in Bodo feel they can influence kommune decisions.

In schools, children seem remarkably content: more than twice as many Norwegian children aged 11, 13 and 15 say they like school as in the UK. Yet it was not always the case in predominantly rural areas such as Nordland, where, in the 1970s, many children became disillusioned with what they saw as a national education system aimed at urban-dwellers intent on going to university. Schools in fishing villages, for example, experienced high absenteeism and under-achievement, particularly among boys.

"In the early 1970s, it was quite usual for people from our part of the country to feel inferior to people in the south," says Marit Ringstad, a Nordland teacher. "But then things started to change decentralisation led to the flourishing of local art and culture."

Since 1987, all schools have had the freedom to develop their own version of the national curriculum. This has led to "place-based learning", a concept about which Children in Scotland is particularly enthusiastic it is hoping to start a pilot project on the Norwegian model.

Norway is the only country thought to have made place-based learning a statutory requirement. The idea is that an equitable education system does not treat everyone equally, but allows for flexibility based on local differences.

Not all place-based learning has had a lasting impact, but Lofot-kvelden, in the Vagan commune, is one of the more successful schemes. It sees pupils at the lower secondary in the village of Kabelvag put on a play, based on local culture. Despite concerns that spending up to eight weeks on the play might interfere with other studies, Kabelvag pupils' exam results were the highest in a survey of 600 Norwegian schools suggesting the project actually helped other studies.

The Cultural Rucksack is a national place-based learning scheme that exposes pupils aged six to 16 to art and culture, helping isolated communities feel part of the wider world. This year, Nordland's Cultural Rucksack will take 48 productions round the county. The Scottish delegation admitted the costs were high Nordland receives pound;650,000 a year for the programme but described the benefits as "incalculable".

A preoccupation with nature, meanwhile, is not unique to rural communities it is integral to identity throughout Norway, and is embraced by educators.

At Mellomyra Kinder-garten in Bodo, children are outdoors all day for three days a week, whatever the weather. At Skagstad Farm in the kommune of Steigen, the Scottish delegation was impressed by the stoic attitude of nine and 10 year-old pupils from Laskestad School, who were working outdoors on an architecture project despite persistent rain.

"They possessed a no-nonsense attitude to life and death and to the necessary slaughter of animals and fish," the Scottish visitors recorded.

It was Marguerite Hunter Blair, chief executive of Play Scotland and a member of the Scottish party, who recalled that the "wet bell" had so puzzled their hosts. For her, this crystallised a gulf in attitudes.

"Our children are inside, playing Playstations because they might get run over or a stranger might take them away, and that's disproportionate," she said. "We have this misperception of risk, and we're actually putting them at greater risk by keeping them indoors."

For Ms Hunter Blair, Norway provides a vindication of long-held beliefs: "It makes you realise you're not being hippyish or leftish this is mainstream."

Norway's lack of restrictions for children is the abiding memory for Bronwen Cohen, Children in Scotland's chief executive, who co-wrote Northern Lights.

"Norway has a longer established practice of seeing pupils as citizens," she says. "I think that's something we've made a lot of progress on in the last decade, but we can still learn from what they're doing there, and from the way they use the great outdoors.

"We have resources and nature in Scotland that are just as good, but we're not making as much use of them. The effect is that children in Scotland do seem more constrained that was perhaps the overwhelming difference."

or copies of Northern Lights:


Government expenditure on pre-school services is 1.7 per cent of GDP, compared with 0.47 per cent in the UK.

Some 9 per cent of children aged 0-15 are considered at risk of poverty, compared to 21 per cent in Scotland.

The infant mortality rate is 3.3 per 1,000 live births, compared to 5.2 in Scotland.

Fewer than 0.5 per cent of children attend special schools.

The maximum parents can be charged for childcare is about pound;200 per month; this may soon drop to about pound;150.

Maternity benefits include full salary for 43 weeks or 80 per cent of salary for 53 weeks, compared to the UK's 90 per cent of average weekly earnings for six weeks followed by 33 weeks at pound;112.75.

School exclusion is almost unheard of. Pupils can be sent away for a maximum of only three days.

Some 86 per cent of 18-year-olds were in education in 2003-04, compared to 57.9 per cent in Scotland.

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