Exam season has begun at Norwegian high schools. Thousands of students have gotten to know about their written exams, which will take place over the next two or three weeks before oral exams begin in mid-June. The author himself is finishing up his second year, and will only have an oral exam (the second year has a 50/50 division between oral and written exams). Third-year students in the college preparatory program, meanwhile, have been picked for written exams in three subjects – namely their primary form of Norwegian; and two of their elective subjects (or one elective subject and their secondary form of Norwegian).
The Norwegian school system can be said to attempt to do as much sorting of students in three years as the Dutch, French and German school systems give themselves between six and ten years to do. After ten years of obligatory and comprehensive education, where students are hardly given any choice of courses and where the network of advanced courses in various subjects is patchy at best and up to the discretion of individual teachers, students are given twelve different programs to choose between at the age of 16. While most students choose the college preparatory program mentioned above (studiespesialisering), it is also possible to choose programs like “music, dance and drama”, “electro subjects”, “design and crafts” and “service and transportation” (the latter program seems to have been made as an arbitrary mix of whatever was left). For their second and third years of high school, students outside the college preparatory program are able to pick between dozens of other courses, and will in all cases be able to switch over to an intensive college prep program (among other things involving ten classes of Norwegian a week, something many find very hard to stomach.)
The system seems ideal on paper – students are given a much greater degree of choice than in other countries, and are given the right to choose at an age where they are far more mature than, say, in Germany where the choice has to be made at ten. In practice the system poses as many problems as any other educational system. For one, there is a deep divide between the various vocational programs and the college prep. This divide has its roots in the old system that existed until 1994, where vocational schools and “gymnasiums” (traditional secondary education) were two separate institutions. With the 1994 reform of the educational system; in the interests of traditional Norwegian equality principles, everyone had the right to a place in a secondary education institution and the two institutions were theoretically merged. The result would ideally have been a reasonable amount of vocational schools and a reasonable amount of theoretical schools; instead there is a large surplus of college preparatory students. Many of them would likely have been both happier and better suited in a vocational program, but the counties funding secondary education in Norway have discovered that college prep courses are much more cost-effective and therefore massively invested in them. The result is that Norway now has to import practically every kind of craftsman – from plumbers and electricians to painters, bus drivers and chimney sweeps.
Another result of the high amount of choice is a serious lack of students specializing in natural sciences. In the college preparatory program, students are in practice allowed to drop math after their second year and are only required to take a generic natural sciences subject in the first year (naturfag). Students are allowed to pick three elective subjects, and many now choose to fill these with things like philosophy, marketing and sociology. While it is true that many students (including the author) do not exactly excel in natural sciences, numbers from the welfare office (NAV) suggest that the Norwegian economy is short 16 000 engineers at the present time, and will require many more in the future. Unless there is a sudden and dramatic change in the future, or Norwegian companies open up for more engineers from abroad (there should certainly not be a shortage of unemployed engineers in the EU, with stories of Portuguese engineers moving to Angola for work), the Norwegian government and economy faces a grave crisis.
Fortunately, there are exceptions. The author himself attends a school where there are no fewer than five physics classes in a year of around 160 students, where 21 students are taking an extra math course exclusively for fun, and where more than half of the year is likely to end up in Trondheim at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Such schools exist in practically all counties, and will likely be important contributors to Norwegian society in the future.