The Norwegian Nomads Start School


It's the first day of school after Christmas break in Norway. I have packed my three kids into the back of the car, and we're staring out into darkness. The roads are icy and the wind freezing, our ratty rental car struggling to clear the windows. I'd have loved nothing more than surrender to the weather and spend my day on the sofa and I'm pretty sure the kids feel similarly, shivering in their too-new-for-comfort winter outfits.

Half way down my quiet residential street, I spot the first little Teletubby; a small child, bundled up in a red winter suit, sporting a headlight, a reflective vest and a massive backpack. He seems determined, this little guy, waddling into the chilly wind. As we approach school and 8.15 am, they're suddenly everywhere - little reflective bundles, headed for the local elementary school. I look at my sleepy three, trying (and failing) to imagine them braving the cold and dark morning hour. "Little grasshoppers," I think to myself, "it seems we have a lot to learn."

It has been two months since our family of five repatriated to Norway after 15 years as high mobility expats. School is perhaps the major player in the game for families on the move, and our family is no exception. Local school or some form of international school? In which language are the children educated? Are curricula transferable? Will a move cause them to lose academic credits or halt their progress? The questions are many, and the answers often hard to find.

The Norwegian School System

School in Norway is mandatory from age 6 and public school - taught in Norwegian, following a Norwegian curriculum - is free for all residents. While you can in some areas of the country chose which public school to send your child to, the norm is to attend your local catchment area school. Elementary (grade 1-7) and middle school (grade 8-10) are compulsory while high school (grade 11-13) is not.

Private schools are usually an option in urban areas. Where we live, private schools range from various international schools, through alternative curricula schools such as Waldorf/Steiner, to religious schools like Stavanger Christian Elementary School.

Planning for our repatriation, we looked at all options except religious schools, and landed on a public primary school in a middleclass area hosting 350 students.

Our three kids transferred from a multicultural, multilingual English medium international IB school hosting 1200 students from K1 through high school in Oman. They were used to long sunny days, limited outdoor and play time, and for the oldest one, a crippling amount of homework. They took the fleet of mummy-driven cars at drop off and pick-up for granted and accepted the limited independence their days held because they knew no alternative. As parents, we were used to a seemingly endless stream of information, signed disclaimers for every trip out of school and frequent requests for volunteer parental involvement.

Norwegian school, it turns out, is like nothing we've ever experienced before; but in a good way.

The Kids are All Right

"Mamma, stop coming in to pick me up at school!" The littlest one is adamant, stomping her wellie-clad foot sternly, mud flying up my leg. "None of the other kids' parents come to school to collect them. Unless they're (she pulls her nose up weirdly, making a grimace and a snort) first-graders!"

In Norway, the norm seems to be for kids, even young ones like my littlest one, to tackle the school route unsupervised. Most families live relatively close to school and while some children are dropped off by parents, the vast majority at our school arrive on foot, scooter or bike - even on cold and wet days. There is no pick-up system and once school is finished, the children are free to go; no adult needed to sign off on taking responsibility for them.

For us, this is a brave new world indeed. My kids love the freedom of movement this new norm represents and have embraced 'taking responsibility for arriving at school on time' wholeheartedly. It's fair to say that we ran into some trouble with return from school during the first weeks in our new house, mainly related to poor sense of direction (the littlest one) and shaky hands from high caffeine intake to ward off shaky nerves (me) but teething troubles aside, the kids are all right, and we love it.

Fresh Air and Free Play, Short Days and, well, Fun!

"Mamma, look out!" He flies past me, grinning, sending up a spray of grey water as his feet hit the ground. "Sorry I'm late! I'm just getting my shoes! he yells."

His shoes, it turns out, got drenched during second break's muddy football match and he is now running around in his socks. I feel bad for the dentist we're about to visit, as well as whoever cleans the dentist surgery floors, but decide to simply let this go because I haven't seen him coming out from school looking this energetic in years.

Norwegian school days are short. Ours start at 8.15am and end at 1.10pm or 1.55pm, depending on the age of the child. In those 5-6 hours, the children have three breaks; one for lunch and two for fresh air and running around. Being outside during break time is non-negotiable and a wide range of activities are provided, ranging from playgrounds and open areas through football pitches and basketball courts to ping-pong tables and giant chess boards. Young kids commonly have weather appropriate clothing in their bags or simply hanging at school, since 'bad weather' does not qualify as reason not to spend breaktime outside. Sadly, by age ten 'cool' seems to trump 'dry and warm' and drenched shoes, socks and jeans now litter my floors.

Occasionally, the teachers decide to take the kids for excursions; so far, the middle one has visited the ice-skating rink (twice) and a dance studio. As parents, we are informed that the trip will take place, but that's it. Parental assistance is rarely requested, no disclaimers are signed, and the kids bike, walk or make use of public transport.

Some of my non-Norwegian friends cringe when I tell them about the Norwegian school day. They struggle to understand how the students manage to learn anything at all, given that they seem to spend more time getting dirty than memorizing times tables and are finished at an hour that is, frankly, remarkably early. I get that, really, I do. Sometimes, we compare our kids' current academic progress to what we are used to, and we cringe a little too. The middle one seems to be redoing grade 2 math and the oldest one wants to know what happened to science. But life is short, childhood is shorter, and they're so very happy. Muddy, stinking, and grinningly happy. Once upon a time, a wise preschool teacher reassured me that my son (aged three at the time and to my distress, still in nappies) would not get married in nappies. I should relax, because there is a time for everything. I take that to heart now, that my children are nearing their teens. This may be their last chance to run in mud - so I let them.

This story first appeared on Life in Norway. Header image, Pixabay