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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of general upper secondary education


6.Upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary Education

6.1Organisation of general upper secondary education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Types of Institutions

Upper secondary education starts at 16 years of age and can last from three to five years, depending on the programme. Out of around 50 schools offering upper secondary education in Iceland in 2020 around 30 offer a comprehensive education leading to matriculation, which normally lasts three years. Vocational education and training (VET) last between one and five years, depending on the programme.

The main types of schools offering upper secondary education (general and vocational streams) are as follows:

  • Class based schools for general education (Icelandic: Menntaskóli), which offer three-year general academic branches of study concluding with the matriculation examination. Pupils who complete the course satisfactorily are entitled to enter higher education institutions (universities).
  • Credit-based schools for mixed general and vocational education (Icelandic: Framhaldsskóli).  Some schools also offer additional level for specialised post-secondary non-tertiary VET and journeyman qualifications. There are currently over 80 VET programmes available to students. VET students do not have an automatic access to higher education, but they can complete an extra matriculation exam, alongside their vocational studies. 

The upper secondary education is funded and managed by the central government. Some upper secondary (and higher education) institutes are government dependent private institutes. Schools create their course descriptions and make proposals for programmes that have to be approved by the central government. The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture may grant general upper secondary schools with special educational tasks based on the school curriculum. These specialised general upper secondary schools emphasise their instruction in accordance with their special educational task, but they always offer the opportunity to complete also a basic study programme. Specialised upper secondary schools primarily function in the following fields: music, arts, technical studies and sports. Several general upper secondary schools offer non-traditional instruction or International Baccalaureate (IB).

For adult learners, several upper secondary schools have the permission of arrange  upper secondary education in the after-school hours, leading to matriculation examination.

Geographical accessibility

Accessibility of upper secondary schools in Iceland but there are some demographic challenges, especially for the smallest municipalities as schools vary considerably in size; the largest having around 2,000 pupils and the smallest fewer than 100. It is not uncommon for pupils who live out in the country to attend schools in the capital area. Many of the upper secondary schools that are located outside the capital area have boarding facilities and offer school transport. In some cases, general upper secondary studies can be accomplished via distance learning, but in all such cases, the distance programme complies with the National Core Curriculum (Icelandic: Aðalnámsskrá framhaldsskóla).

Admission Requirements and Choice of School

All pupils who have reached the age of 16, have a statutory right to get an offer upper secondary education, regardless of their results in the nationally coordinated examination or results of compulsory schooling. This right to be offered a place in an upper secondary institution, lasts until the pupil reaches the age of 18.  There are no restrictions for the choice of general upper secondary schools, but it is the educational institutions that select new students to general upper secondary schools and VET studies and each school may make specific demands for enrolment in individual branches of study in the upper secondary school regarding preparation and study results.

International Baccalaureate (IB) is included in the joint application system. The Directorate of Education is responsible for the admission process. All relevant information about the application process may be found on:

Age Levels and Grouping of Students

Students in general upper secondary education, are usually between 16 to 19/20 years of age. Only a few upper secondary schools are organised with a division into grades, most are without division into grades where teaching is not tied to year classes but to credit-classes. The scope of the matriculation syllabus is three years, but the studies may be accomplished in two, three or four years. There are no national regulations concerning the students/teacher ratio.

Organisation of the School Year

In the legal framework on upper-secondary education, there are specific provisions on the number of working days for pupils (180 working days) during the nine month school year. Teaching must be organised within the period from 22 August to 31 May, including short holidays such as for Christmast and Easter. The exact dates of schoolwork and holidays are established by the education provider. Similarly, education providers are free to decide the number of weekly hours but education must be organised in such a way that the students may complete the studies included in the upper secondary school syllabus within three years.

Organisation of the School Day and Week

School is usually attended five days a week. This means that both Saturdays and Sundays are free. A lesson usually lasts 40 minutes but lessons and timetables vary from one institution to another and according to individual students' choices.  Lessons in general upper secondary schools are usually held between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Education providers are free to decide the starting and finishing time of lessons as well as the time at which lunch breaks are held. There are no central regulations.

There is no specific regulation regarding out-of-hours provision