ICELAND: Education reforms to tackle drop-out rate

Iceland is planning to tackle high levels of post-secondary school drop-outs by shifting emphasis away from a narrow focus on preparing students for university entrance.

Katrin Jakobsdottir (pictured), the North Atlantic island's education minister, hopes that implementation will begin soon of reforms introduced three years ago but delayed by the financial crisis that triggered the collapse of all three of its commercial banks.

Iceland's education system - a compulsory primary system for six to 15-year-olds followed by secondary school from 16 to 20 and university after that - is ripe for reform, the 35-year-old minister believes.

Talking with the European Training Foundation for the next edition of its Live & Learn magazine, Jakobsdottir said that with dropout rates for secondary education of around one in three, change is needed.

"Although in recent years we have seen an increase in the numbers of young people going to university, we still have around one third of the population leaving school after finishing primary education," Jakobsdottir says.

Combined with a relative lack of short, flexible vocational courses and problems with work-based apprenticeships and training schemes, tackling the issue is a key priority.

"We need more pluralism in the system; more choice after primary education for those who want to train for a vocation, particularly since the secondary education system is focussed on preparing students for further academic studies," says the minister.

Iceland is due to join the European Union in 2012 if a planned referendum gives accession a green light and, although its overall education spending at 8% of GDP is high, spending on higher education is lower than the OECD average.

Education reforms introduced in 2008 allow for more flexible study programmes that offer the possibility of the sort of short and intermediate courses that have been adopted across Europe for vocational studies. But the financial crisis, which forced budget cuts of up to 15% across the system, has frustrated implementation.

"The law laid the grounds for building up an apprenticeship system based on cooperation between the labour market and vocational training but with 10% cuts in secondary and 15% cuts in university spending over the past three years we have been unable to do that. Hopefully, we are now seeing an end to the cuts."

The reforms will not change Iceland's long involvement with European higher education. Icelandic students have long studied overseas - many go to universities in Scandinavia and North America and as a full participant in EU policies such as the Bologna process, education is one of the areas where Iceland has no EU accession issues at all.

But with a secondary system that until now has concentrated on preparing students for further academic study, the country is likely to be looking to Europe for lessons on how to introduce a broader range of choice for its young people.