Things you can’t learn in school

A version of this article about Norwegian folk high schools appeared in TESS on 26 February 2016: Thanks to Andreas for the photo!

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. They’re sneaky: white, obviously, for camouflage. I’d include telling 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 2-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 the UK. But I’ll hazard a guess two 19-year-old students learned more about teamwork, resilience, problem solving and self reliance trekking across northern Norway than spending a year in an office placement.

This is exactly the kind of experience a Norwegian folkehøgskole, or folk high school, prides itself on. Polar expeditions aren’t standard practice – Andreas, who described it to me, conceived and organised it with a friend, with the school’s backing. But all the schools have a strong emphasis on practical, community based activities that encourage students to follow their interests, challenge themselves, and develop skills they’ll carry into whatever they do next.

The folkehøgskolene have been part of the Norwegian tradition for 150 years, established so local communities could learn about their culture, history and folk traditions. The activities may have changed, but the premise – offering learning 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 they are thriving. More than 10% 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 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 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 some students with 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 the UK 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 obliging 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 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 conveniently 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.

A course in which they have no interest, work experience that doesn’t appear to lead anywhere, and support that doesn’t meet their individual needs, is a long way from the positive next step we all want for our young people.

Wrong decisions in the years after school can be difficult, and costly, to undo. Some never get back on track, with 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, folkehøgskoler 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 – a small, informal but structured environment that creates the perfect setting for learning essential life skills, social responsibility, and respect and value for others.

Their biggest strengths are undoubtedly diversity, offering a huge range of choice, and flexibility, making individualised programmes possible for just about every student.

Andreas, who undertook the polar expedition, has Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s highly intelligent and articulate, reflective, knowledgeable about the natural environment and great to talk to. His difficulties mean 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 just as 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 he needs to survive in the most hostile of environments.

Sounds pretty positive to me.


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