Firda Upper Secondary School implements a so-called Open School Programme aiming at students taking ownership of the school and thus their own learning. Their students, coming from a very rural area of Norway, most of them boarding in the municipality for weekdays, are prepared for university using arts as an important part of the curriculum.

Narrative, origins and objectives of the initiative

What kind of project is this? Please give a short description (summary) of it.

Open School in Firda Upper Secondary School literally means that the students have a key of the school building at all times, in order to have free access to the school whenever they need it. Music, drama, dance and sports play an important role in the local curriculum, together with special classes preparing students for university. Soft skills developed while doing arts and sports are a major asset for these students coming from rural areas so that they can cope on tertiary level. As most students are boarders in the local municipality (the school is not a boarding school), away from their home, they keep their equipment at the school, and have access to it at all times.

Please tell us why, in general, this project is considered a successful one?

The best indicator of success is university intake. The programme has been ongoing for 20 years. On the one hand they still have the same level of attractiveness, while there is a major competition between upper secondary schools for students. On the other hand, they have an ever growing percentage of students going on to university.
Their work was awarded the Queen Sonja’s School Award in 2018 as a school that has demonstrated excellence in its efforts to promote inclusion and equity.

And why would you consider it a grass-roots initiative?

This special programme the school offers is part of their local curriculum, developed within the framework of school autonomy in Norway. It is the result of constant communication and cooperation between the school, its students and the local municipality – although the school is financed and supervised by the county.

What challenges needed to be solved in this project?

The main challenge for the school is to convince parents that arts (music, dance, drama) and sports play an important role in preparing students for university and life, rather than offering an academic subjects heavy local curriculum. Another challenge depends on the fact that 50% of the 16-19 year-old students spend the week away from their families and a high percentage of them need psychological and psycho-social support.

Is this initiative based on any particular theoretical framework? Which one?

It is rooted in the ‘folk high school’ tradition of Nordic countries (Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden). It is a special boarding school where students often go after finishing secondary school, before going on to tertiary education.

(Appendix) Is your intervention standing on its own or is it a part of a bigger and more holistic approach?

The Open School initiative within the school is part of their holistic approach to supporting students in their successful learning journey. The school cooperates with local and near-by primary and lower secondary schools ran by the local municipality, and also offers adult learning for locals.

Please describe the group(s) intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

Why has this group (have these groups) been chosen?

Ever since the school was established in 1922, it has attracted students coming from rural areas from a relatively large radius, from families living on nearby islands or isolated villages. The programme, when it was established 20 years ago, was rather an answer to the changing needs of the given student population.

Could you please tell us something about the relative size of the (of each) target group, within the school/university population, region and/or country?

Most of the North of Norway is rural or very rural. The current population in the area in this age group is estimated to be about 100.000 (total number of people in the 16-19 cohort is about 260.000)

Which social characteristics are taken into account and what is the geographical area covered?

The school covers Sogn of Fjordane Fylkeskommune (county) in the North-West of Norway.

About 50% of the students come from fairly isolated areas both in the fjords and on islands. There is a clear brain-drain from the area with students leaving for upper secondary and tertiary education and not returning to their local communities, so it is a task for schools to orient them towards returning and serving their original community. In recent years there has also been some immigration to the area: about 5% of students are newly arrived migrants who also need linguistic support.

On which level is the project implemented?

School level

Please describe the political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Did the initiative have political support?

Local municipality and county support has been present, especially by offering the necessary financial resources for a relatively expensive school (the teacher-student ratio is lower than it is in less rural or urban areas).

How did it fit with local, regional or national policies?

As it is an important policy goal to keep young people close to their home as long as possible, the initiative fits local, regional and national policies. Inclusive, individualised education has been high on the Norwegian political agenda. Their good cooperation with both the county (Folk) and local municipalities ensures that the school serves local policy priorities in the field of inclusion. One element of this is offering adult learning for newly arrived migrants in the school.

Who are the stakeholders supporting the initiative?

Apart from committed school leaders and managers, the most important stakeholders are the teachers, who need to subscribe to the idea of Open School. Cooperation from parents is also needed, and keeping a live relationship with those who are far from the school (some students have a 4-5 hour travel between home and school). Primary and lower secondary schools in the area are also important cooperation partners. Municipalities, especially the one hosting the school premises, is another important stakeholder for work success.

Are there particular demographic changes present that are influencing the project?

The two main changes are the flow of young people to more urban areas and the slow influx of migrants. The latter has a minor impact on the programme, not a major one, but these need to be taken into consideration when fine-tuning the programme year-to-year.

What is the institutional strategy and culture of the (educational) organization?

The basis of strategy and school culture is that students have to take ownership of the school and thus also their own learning. It is similar to the approach required for teachers, who receive training and mentoring, both when joining and during their service. Apart from professional cooperation within their subject areas, they are also required to act as ‘form teachers’ being responsible for whole student development, and therefore they also cooperate across subjects.

To what extent does the initiative have an influence on institutional policy (or potential influence) of the (educational) organization?

This approach has been the basis for the school's operation for about two decades, so their institutional policy has been based on the Open School approach. The most important recent development has been a stronger focus on mental health and well-being, as the whole student approach required this as a response to the growing number of students with mental/psychological problems.

(Appendix) Is there public support for your initiative and the issue it addresses?

The school works closely together with the local municipality that hosts the school building, and they have an appreciated status. There is a major competition between upper secondary schools, and although they sometimes struggle to convince some parents of the benefits of their arts-based approach, they have been successful attracting enough students. Public recognition has been boosted by their Queen Sonja Award, too. Still, there is a lot more to do on public appreciation of soft skills development and the role of arts in it.

(Appendix) What other factors do you think have been important for the success of this initiative?

-Teachers dedicated to the Open School approach
-Students’ engagement in design and leadership
-Strong support from parents
-The county’s political and policy support.

It must be mentioned that a fully open school may only be possible in a small settlement, not in larger ones. This is for security reasons.

Please describe the overall initiative design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Please describe the specific activities carried out.

Teachers receive initial training as well as continuous in-service training every year, to be enabled to offer students what they need with a whole student approach. Teachers collaborate within and across subject areas. Class teachers are responsible for the personal and scholarly development of certain groups of students. Apart from covering traditional school curriculum, the school offers extensive tuition in the fields of music, drama, dance and sports. There is also a special programme within the local curriculum that explicitly prepares students for university. The school is open all day, students can access the building at all times. At the same time, special after school programmes are organised three times a week from 5 pm to 10 pm. Special staff is employed for this. After school programmes are offered to the whole local community, and they also come to performances of students. Teachers also invest time and effort in cooperating and regularly communicating with parents, that is especially challenging in the case of parents living far away. Some smaller projects offer extra activities, e.g. in the field of environmental protection.

What were the key roles (teacher, student, management team etc.) within the project?

-Management: offering the framework for the open doors policy, necessary staff and suitable programmes
-Students: take ownership of the school and act as good owners
-Teachers: dedicate time and effort to implement the whole student approach, continuously develop their professional skills and competences

What ideas, tools, theories, models, methodology (etc.) have been used to reach the goals?

Folk High School traditions and programmes

Whole school / whole student approach

What are the final revenues of the project?

As it is an ongoing programme, it is more suitable to say that the main outcome of the programme is student preparedness for university

Please describe if your project ensured its sustainability

If so, how did you ensure the short-term impact of the project?

Commitment of the school’s leadership is the basis of success. Short-term impact is ensured by professional approach by teachers and full engagement of students.

And how did you ensure the long-term impact of the project?

It has become the core of the school in the past two decades, the key to long-term sustainability, the basis of long-term impact is a school management that recruits suitable staff. A strong cooperation with the local municipality and opening up to locals is also a success factor for long-term impact.

Has your project been replicated elsewhere?

Not that they are aware of.

Please tell us about the resources used in this initiative

What was the budget for the initiative?

The programme is within the regular budgetary framework of the school, so it is not possible to define a budget for it. However, the school has had some smaller projects during the years to introduce some new elements, such as their recent environmental programme.

How much did the initiative depend on volunteers?

Volunteering is mainly that teachers are ready to work after and beyond their regular hours.

How were the costs perceived by the public/the sector/other stakeholders?

As the programme has no special budget, this question is difficult to answer. However, funding has been ensured for a school with such a special programme, so it can be assumed that it has been considered worthwhile.

To what extent did the initiative achieve its objectives?

Please describe the evidence to support the success of your initiative.

-A 80-90% acceptance rate at university
-Sufficient number of new students each year
-Recognition by local communities as well as partner schools

Queen Sonja Award

Did the intervention lead to any unintended (positive) outcomes?

Nothing specific

What indicators (quantitative and qualitative) have you measured to demonstrate success?

  • enrolment numbers
  • acceptance rate at university

(Appendix) How did you evaluate/monitor this intervention?

Teachers invest in monitoring each and every student’s learning pathway, achievements and academic success. In recent years mental health and well-being have also been important agenda items in teachers’ monitoring work. Otherwise regular evaluation methods are used for measuring academic success.