Opposition wants to stop plans for universal free choice of schools in Norway

Guri MelbyPhoto: Terje Bendiksby / NTB

Some parties in the Norwegian government want to introduce free school choice all throughout the country. But opposition parties are strongly against it.

Norway currently doesn’t govern school choice at a national level. Instead, admissions procedures are administered at county level.

For example, in some counties, students and parents can choose any school to attend in the county where they live. In other counties, children must attend specific schools based on defined zones within the county.

Now, measures are being planned to bring free school choice to a national level. This approach has both strong proponents and opponents.

Choosing schools in Norway

Some Norwegian counties are broken up into defined catchment zones, which serve to allocate students to specific schools based on where they live in the county.

Other counties allow pupils and parents to freely choose where to attend, no matter how far (within a county) they might live from the school they wish to go to.

Let’s take Oslo, the first district to introduce free choice, as an example. In 1997, Oslo County brought in the free choice model. Within a few years, other counties followed suit – though some still haven’t.

Right from its beginning, the free choice model became a topic of hot debate in Norway.

Proponents argue that free choice pressures schools to increase their quality of education, facilities, program, staff performance, and so on – so as to be as attractive as possible to students. In effect, and in accordance with economic theory, this competition would serve to make schools the best they can be. This supposed increase in quality was, in fact, the main reason free choice was introduced.

Opponents argue that this sort of competition leads to schools being divided into upper-class and lower-class schools. Some say it can also divide on other levels, such as merit and ethnicity. Studies have shown that such segregations can indeed happen with the free choice model; in fact, it did in Sweden.

The topic remains controversial. It’s still hard to determine if one effect outweighs the other.

So, what’s the new plan?

“The government wants students to have a greater opportunity to choose which upper secondary school they would like to go to, a choice many don’t have today,” Minister of Education Guri Melby (V) noted in a press release on Sunday.

Last autumn, the government put up two models of implementing free school choice across all of Norway for public consultation – and received a lot of input in return. 

Based on these, a new model will now be created, which the Directorate of Education has been commissioned to prepare, in close dialogue with the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS) and the county municipalities.

“The Directorate of Education will also look at what consequences free choice of school will have for, among other things, costs for transportation, need for student housing, and school structure,” Melby said. 

She aims to finalize the model in the spring. It could be implemented from the autumn of 2022 at the earliest.

Strong reactions

The oppositional parties reacted strongly to the proposal of universal free choice.

“We have a government that’s going to war against its students, businesses, and small communities throughout the country. 

“Despite massive opposition to the proposal, the Conservative government is still forcing its model of grade-based admission throughout the country,” Torstein Tvedt Solberg, the Labor Party’s (AP) school policy spokesman, noted.

He calls the proposal a serious mistake which must be stopped.

Socialist Left Party (SV) leader Audun Lysbakken calls the proposal “meaningless and unrealistic coercion.”

“This can lead to segregation in the cities and closure of schools in the districts. 

“I expected this from the Conservatives, but it is very disappointing that it comes from the Liberal Party,” the SV’s leader said, promising to scrap the proposal if the party comes to power next year.

© NTB Scanpix / #Norway Today

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