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Education and Schools

Iceland - Education and Schools


Education in Iceland is controlled by the Icelandic Parliament (Alþingi) who have the legal and political control of its framework and objectives. Education is governed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. They are the body that assigns the National Curriculum guidelines. The state subsidises all levels of education. An example is a parent sending their child to playschool/day care and this is subsidised by the state paying 30% of the costs. It is compulsory to attend school from the age of 6 in Iceland as this is when a child finishes pre- school and begins their primary education. Students must remain in school until they finish their studies in lower secondary school aged 16. Education itself is divided into pre-school which is attended by children aged from 12 months and finished aged 6 years, compulsory education from 6 until 16. After 16 students move to upper secondary education which apart from degrees such as medicine finishes at the age of 20.

All children have the right to education in Iceland and schools and classrooms are very much inclusive. Children with special needs and disabilities are mostly included in mainstream education with staff trained also to look after their requirements. Out of the 169 compulsory schools in Iceland, only 3 of these are special education schools. The enrolment rate for compulsory education is 100% as home schooling is not allowed. The education system in Iceland follows a similar structure to other Nordic countries and is as follows.

Pre-school education (leikskóli) or Day Care

The Municipalities operate day care in Iceland. Pre-schools or nurseries can be attended from the age of 12 months to 6 years. They are defined as the first level of the educational system. The majority of Icelandic children attend pre-school and the fees are heavily subsidised by local councils. Pre-school is overseen by local authorities who implement the guidelines and regulations and is governed by the Pre-school Act No. 758/ 1994. Pre-schools themselves concentrate on learning through play and an all-round developmental approach. Children attend the schools/day care for 4-9 hours per day. Over 80% of 3-5 year olds in Iceland are enrolled in fee paying education.

Compulsory education (grunnskóli)

Icelandic law dictates that education is mandatory for children between the ages of 6 and 16. Compulsory education is organised in a single structure system, where primary and lower secondary education form a part of the same school level. There is no tuition for compulsory education. Compulsory education is overseen by local authorities who implement the guidelines and regulations. It is governed by the Compulsory School Act, No. 66/1995. Compulsory education in Iceland is democratic with Christian values instilled in school life aiming to prepare students for life and work. All children are accepted into compulsory education. The school year consists of 9 months of learning between the dates of 21st of August and the 1st of September and ending between the 31st of May and the 10th of June. Classes are held for 5 days a week. The average size of classes is 18-19 children. The National Curriculum Guidelines have now applied a new special instruction to teachers for learners who are deaf or hearing impaired and those whose first language is not Icelandic.

Upper secondary education (framhaldsskóli)

Upper secondary education is not compulsory, but anyone who has completed compulsory education has the right to enter a course of studies in an upper secondary school. Students are usually 16-20 years of age. Upper Education is overseen by the state. It is governed by the Upper Secondary School Act, No. 80/1996. Any student who has completed their compulsory education has the right to study and choose specialised subjects which suit their abilities and interests. Study is conducted in a democratic environment with opportunities for the student to develop as an individual. The school year is comprised of two terms which account for 9 months of study with 32-40 lessons a week and each of these lessons can last from 40 minutes to a double lesson of 80 minutes. Statistics show 90% of the students who finished their compulsory education studies entered upper secondary education, with some going on to vocational colleges too. The Upper Secondary School Act states that the four types of study should be the following: artistic programmes, a general programme of study, vocational programmes and academic programmes leading to matriculation(Stúdentspróf).

Such schools offer programmes of study which get the students ready for specific routes of employment. Students decide whether they will choose vocational training or skilled trade training. Vocational education can also be offered in local comprehensive schools and industrial vocational schools which take four years to complete. Skilled trade courses take 3 to 4 years in specialised vocational schools. Students who wish to study to gain their matriculation (Stúdentspróf) exam at the end can enter a grammar school. Courses such as these gain the students the legal certification which enables them to follow specific areas of employment. Students pay for a percentage of the materials used during their upper secondary education.

Higher Education (háskóli)

Stemming back to 1911 when The University of Iceland was founded, higher education in the country now comes in the form of 7 Icelandic institutions which have popped up due to demand over a thirty years’ period. Higher Education in Iceland is overseen by the state. It is governed by the Universities Act, No. 136/1997. Adult education in Iceland aims to offer opportunities to study regardless of gender, age, previous education or occupation. Universities in Iceland are expected to make higher education programmes in different subjects available and set by each governing institution and their legislation. The types of higher education institutions are listed as Universities (Háskóli), Academy of Arts Listaháskóli, Agricultural Universities Landbúnadarháskóli and Universities of Education (Kennaraháskóli). Students pay an enrolment fee and also pay for their textbooks although tuition fees are part of the expenses for the student. Distance learning is possible at most institutions. Plenty of higher education institutions provide adult learning evening classes too which are comparative to the daytime courses. 3 of Iceland's Universities and some colleges too, offer courses in physical education, technology, agriculture and the arts.

Types of schools in Iceland

International schools

There are an increasing number of International schools in Iceland which offer education to non-Icelandic children. There are also some Icelandic children who attend these International schools. Compulsory education is usually taught in French or English although it can be in other languages, with multiple languages taught. They follow the curriculum from either France, US or the UK. Some International schools study for the International Baccalaureate and other diplomas in Iceland. International schools are available from pre-school ages to upper educational institutions.

Private Schools

Private schools account for less than 2.5% of the children enrolled in education and recent data has shown there are only 10 privately run schools out of the 169 compulsory schools. Whilst parents will pay for the education of their children there, nearly all private schools still receive local state funding. Private schools are independently owned and run and because state run education is of a very high standard they do not hold the usual prestige that private schooling does in other countries in the world. When it comes to costs for example, a private pre-school can have fees which are 10%-20% more than state institutions.

The Icelandic National Curriculum

The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture sets the National Curriculum Guidelines and each institution has the materials it requires provided and published for no additional cost, by The National Centre for Educational Materials. There is one examining board called The Educational Testing Institute. The National Guidelines are assigned to all compulsory education in all subjects and grades. Each school is required to write their own working school guide using the National Curriculum as a basis. It is planned around the ten subjects listed in order of the percentage of lesson time dedicated to learning each subject: Icelandic, mathematics, natural sciences, social and religious studies, physical education, arts and crafts, modern languages, home economics, IT and life skills.

The UK education system is divided into primary and secondary learning and the same applies for the US with elementary school and middle school/high school. Iceland does not divide primary and secondary education and all age groups are taught in the same school environment. When it comes to assessments in Iceland, methods tend to vary amongst schools and individual teachers whereas the US and UK must follow strict standardised assessment criteria such as A-F grading and or percentage achievements per term with little room for a teacher's individual approach. Whilst the US and UK have geography in their compulsory educational curriculum; they do not have such a specialist subject as the Icelandic natural sciences course. The US carries out regular standardised testing in compulsory education with the No Child Left Behind act as does the UK with standardised testing throughout all key stages. Iceland however is only just starting to use more forms of standardised testing after previously not taking this approach to learning.

Children are enrolled in the school nearest to where they live which are local state run schools. It may not make sense for a child whose first language is English to attend a local school as the curriculum will vary from their own and much will be taught in Icelandic. There are no enrolment specifications for a child to join a local school as it is their legal right to have an education and they are always accepted. Passports and residence permits plus Icelandic identity numbers may be required. Competition to get into the best performing state schools does occur with locals.

If parents desire their child to be taught in English then the International School of Iceland (ISI) is a good way for children to continue their studies without too much disruption. The ISI offers enrolments in either the English stream or Bilingual stream which the parent must decide on. Applications are done online with the downloadable New Student Form. Documentation required will be report cards for the past two years, a copy of their standardised test results and if the child has special needs, documentation affirming this. An Icelandic identification number is needed for the child and parent. An application fee of 20,000kr must be paid immediately with the application. Child and parent will be contacted by the school in order to arrange an interview and after this interview a decision is made. Passports may be asked to be seen by the administrative staff of the school and the residence permits of the parents if they are non EEA/EU citizens. As ISI is a school that delivers good results in a multicultural and well-funded environment; then competition for enrolment can occur.

Extra-curricular activities are undertaken by most children and have boys and girls together in a wide range of sport, teams and clubs. Examples of these are handball, football and gymnastics. Swimming is offered plus joining the scouts and martial arts.


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