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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Teaching and learning in general upper secondary education


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

6.2Teaching and learning in general upper secondary education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Curriculum, Subjects, Number of Hours

Study programmes in the upper secondary school end at certain qualification levels. By classifying them according to qualification levels, different requirements for the students’ competence upon graduation are accented. Qualification levels form the framework for the different requirements upon graduation regardless of the programme being academic, artistic or vocational. Studies leading to matriculation are usually take six semesters, but may take longer.  

The National curriculum guide for upper secondary school  is from 2011 but has been adjusted several times since then, latest in 2015, but the overall approach and principles have remained the same. The national curriculum guide defines, among other things, the objectives of individual subjects and branches of study. Furthermore, as the legal framework for upper secondary schools stipulates that individual schools are to write their own school working guides which, among other things, are to specify what areas individual schools have chosen to emphasize, define the education they offer, and their teaching methods and administration, the national curriculum guide describes how each school should lay out their own working guides.  Even though the schools guides may vary, they have to offer courses on various levels of strength and skills. Under the national curriculum guide, the matriculation examination, which conclude the upper secondary school level, must include courses with various levels of strength to ensure deeper knowledge and skills. 

Most upper secondary schools operate according to a unit-credit system where the educational content of each subject is divided into several defined course units which last for one semester. At the end of every semester, the pupil decides on courses for the following semester according to certain rules and in accordance with his or her own study plans and results. Thus, each pupil is given his or her own personal timetable. Pupils in each course form a group for that course unit only, and classes or forms in the traditional sense of the word do not exist. Those schools that have traditional classes or forms operate around the form or the class as a unit and organize their education by discipline. In addition, all courses include elected fields according to the aims of the branch in question and a free selection i.e. fields of interest for the individual student.

For each level, the national curriculum guide illustrates the public education policy and study requirements; specifications which schools and are to follow in their educational planning. The national curriculum guide is the main prerequisites for the Ministry of Education to fulfil its assigned role in directing and supervising the quality and execution of education. The national curriculum guide is based on six fundamental pillars: 

  • Literacy in the widest sense
  • Education towards sustainability
  • Health and welfare
  • Democracy and human rights
  • Equality
  • Creativity

Key competence is to link the fundamental pillars to the objectives of student competence and all hoice of material and content of study, teaching and play should reflect these fundamental pillars.

Each upper secondary schools (alternatively one or more together) are to make a proposal for a programme description to the Ministry of Education for confirmation. Programme descriptions are to be organised consistent with the general section of the National Curriculum Guide for Upper Secondary Schools and the school curriculum guide of the school in question.

A programme description should include: 

  • A connection of education with the economy and/or other school levels. 
  • Organisation of studies, for example, final objectives, extent of studies, at what qualification level the final learning outcomes are defined, whether the studies end with upper secondary school leaving examinations, examinations for professional rights, matriculation examinations, other final examinations or additional education at upper secondary school. 
  • Enrolment requirements and requirements regarding student progress. 
  • Where and how the fundamental pillars of education and key competence are mirrored in the general and specialised education of the study programme. 
  • A description of learning, teaching and assessment. 
  • Definition of education at qualification levels and course unit descriptions.

Within any given academic branch of study, three groups of courses are offered: 

  1. Core subjects, which all pupils of a branch are required to take
  2. Elected fields according to the aims of the branch of study in question 
  3. Free selection.

At the upper secondary school level there are four qualification competence levels. Core subjects of the upper secondary school are  in addittion to Icelandic, mathematics and English; Danish; a third foreign language (usually French, German or Spanish);  history; social sciences; natural sciences; sports and a course in life-skills. A fourth foreign language is required in the foreign languages branch of study and a course in geography in the social sciences branch. However, the number of courses in these subjects for each branch of study differs as the core subjects include special subjects within that branch together with subjects that provide and support general education. Core subjects constitute the required course in each academic branch of study and amount to 70% of the total course load. For the matriculation examination for example, a certain amount of credits are required, a mix of core and elective fields.

Elective fields constitute 21% of the total course load and cover specialisation in an area of the branch of study, such as mathematics, physics and chemistry for the natural sciences branch of study and psychology for the social sciences branch and Latin as well as any of the modern languages mentioned above for the foreign languages branch. Vocational training or recognized training in the arts may be assessed as counting as part of the specialised courses within general academic studies, provided certain conditions are met. 

Free selection constitutes about 9% of the total course load and may include any of the subject courses on offer at the school including further deepening in a subject already studied, such as a foreign language. 

Teaching methods and materials

Neither the curriculum guide nor laws and regulations contain instruction regarding teaching methods. Teachers are free to choose those methods that suit their aims and circumstances at any given time. Teachers are also free to choose their textbooks and other educational materials.

Pupils buy their textbooks on the free market. Teachers commonly produce, translate and adapt teaching materials. Teachers can apply to the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture for grants for such work. All upper secondary schools have libraries that serve both pupils and teachers.

Teaching materials comprise textbooks, ICT-related aids, sound, and images produced with specific learning objectives in mind. Items initially provided for other purposes, such as newspaper articles, feature films, literary works, e.g. can also be used as learning materials. Pupils with special needs require teaching aids, which take their abilities and aptitudes into account. Teaching materials should comply with principles of universal design and diverse cultural backgrounds. It is up to the publishing firms to decide which subject teaching materials they wish to produce. School libraries serve both teachers and pupils and serve as an important hub of information and learning materials.

The European Language Portfolio has been introduced in the upper secondary schools and some of them have chosen to use the ELP as a foundation for their teaching methods.

There are no central regulations regarding homework.