Some things you just can’t learn in school. Like how to catch rock ptarmigan in the Arctic snow and cook them over a primus. (Sneakily, they’re coloured white for camouflage purposes.) Or how to tell safe ice from unsafe, and gauging the risk of avalanche. Not to mention how to dig a snow hole in case your tent disappears in a gale.
On a two-week polar trek with limited food supplies, you learn a lot.
It’s a far cry from the “positive destinations” familiar to school leavers in Scotland. But I’ll hazard a guess that two 19-year-olds learned more about teamwork, resilience, problem solving and self-reliance trekking across northern Norway than they would spending a year in an office placement.
This is exactly the kind of experience that a Norwegian folkehøgskole, or folk high school, prides itself on. Polar expeditions aren’t standard – 20-year-old Andreas, who described the trip to me, and his friend conceived and organised it themselves, with the school’s backing. But all these schools have a very strong emphasis on practical, community-based activities that encourage students to follow their interests, challenge themselves, and develop skills they will carry into whatever they do next. The folkehøgskolene have been part of Norwegian culture for 150 years, established so that local communities could learn about their history and folk traditions. The activities may have changed, but the premise – offering learning that the formal system doesn’t or can’t provide, to anyone who wants it – remains the same.
There isn’t an age limit: the oldest student in recent times was 45, though the vast majority are between 17 and 25. And these schools are thriving. More than 10 per cent of school-leavers enrol every year in the 80 schools across Norway, alongside students from all over the world.
The term “school” is misleading: each folk high school is an independent, not-for-profit enterprise that decides for itself what its focus will be. So while many have a strong programme of outdoor activities, others specialise in theatre, music, technology, water sports, and a host of other opportunities including work experience and trips abroad.
Some tailor their programmes for people with disabilities, others are fully inclusive and seek specialist advice as required. There are no entry requirements and there is no formal teaching programme – although instruction in the activities is available from beginner level upwards.
The appeal is clear: with no leaving qualifications hanging in the balance, the pressure is off. Plenty of Norwegians believe that the education system is becoming overly academic and exam-focused, pointing at increased stress levels among young people and a rise in school dropout rates. Many welcome a breathing space before committing to a course, apprenticeship or job.
And for those students who have additional support needs, for whom the school system itself can be the biggest barrier to learning and achievement, the folk high schools offer an opportunity to be part of a learning community that focuses on what you can do, not what you can’t. Sometimes it’s the first chance these students have had to be valued by their peers on completely equal terms. As one staff member put it, the dogs in the sled team don’t care if you’re dyslexic.
Options like these don’t appear on many pupils’ radars in Scotland as they prepare to leave school. But maybe they should. With schools under pressure to record “positive destinations”, perhaps it’s time to ask if what’s on offer can realistically meet the needs of every young person – or are we in danger of forcing them to make the best of what’s there, whether it works for them or not? That’s practical, but hardly aspirational. And I’m not convinced it serves young people, or the rest of us, particularly well.
Academic qualifications are the gateway to employment, higher education and training – but it’s no secret that the keys to success lie elsewhere. Resilience, self-confidence, ability to work with others, flexibility, problem-solving: without them you’re at a disadvantage, however highly qualified. If you didn’t thrive in the school system, these qualities are doubly important, because they may be all you have to rely on. And not all school leavers are ready on their 18th birthday to take on the pressures and responsibilities of a less structured, more adult environment.
Some may need another year or even more, especially if they have learning difficulties or had a disrupted education.
Wrong decisions in the years after school can be difficult, and costly, to undo. Some never get back on track, with a long-term impact on their earning potential, health and ability to live independently or with greatly reduced support. So offering more flexible provision and individual choice at this stage could be crucial. In Norway, folk high schools go some way towards bridging the gap between school and the adult world for those who aren’t ready, for whatever reason, to make the leap themselves.
They are regarded as further education and students apply for funding accordingly, making them widely accessible. All are residential, which staff and students I spoke to saw as key to their success: this is a small, informal but structured environment that creates the perfect setting for learning essential life skills, social responsibility, and respect and value for others. Also, crucially, individualised programmes are possible for just about every student.
Andreas has Asperger’s syndrome. He’s highly intelligent and articulate, very knowledgeable about the natural environment, reflective and great to talk to. His difficulties mean that he’s struggling to find work and he’s not, currently, in a “positive destination” (as we would define it).
But his year at the folk high school has given him something valuable at this stage in his life. He’s lived away from home. He’s shared accommodation with people he didn’t know. He can look after himself. For the first time, he has friends and a social life. And he’s equipped with the skills and qualities that he needs to survive in the most hostile of environments. Sounds pretty positive to me.
Tracey Francis, from Edinburgh, has been funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to study post-school experiences of ASL (additional support for learning) pupils in Norway, Italy and the Czech Republic. Applications to join the Norwegian folk schools can be made at bit.ly/FolkSchools