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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Teaching and learning in single-structure education


5.Single-structure primary and lower secondary education

5.2Teaching and learning in single-structure education

Last update: 27 November 2023


Teaching and Learning in Single Structure Education

Curriculum, Subjects, Number of hours

The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture issues the National Curriculum Guide which is intended both to provide the more detailed objectives necessary to implement the Compulsory School Act of 2008 and to offer guidelines on how it is to be carried out in practice and the Curriculum Guide is revised regularly. The Minister in office at the time the National Curriculum Guide is revised, decides how the revision is conducted. Most often a group of editors is appointed from officials within the Ministry. They hire experts as well as active teachers to work on different areas. 

The National Curriculum Guide

The National Curriculum Guide has the legal status of a ministerial regulation. It interprets the articles of the school act and further specifies what is to be co-ordinated in all Icelandic compulsory schools. Furthermore, the National Curriculum Guide sets the limits for each school and its staff regarding organisation, execution and evaluation of education within that school. The National Curriculum Guide applies to all grades and subjects in compulsory schools. The language of instruction in Icelandic schools is Icelandic.

The National Curriculum Guide emphasises equal study opportunities for all pupils and a chance for them to select subjects and learning approaches. The objectives and practice of study and instruction aim at preventing discrimination based on origin, gender, sexual orientation, geographic location, social class, religion, health condition, handicap or situation in general. All school activities shall encourage a healthy lifestyle. It is also to consider the variation of personality, development, talent, abilities and interests of each individual pupil. 

The National Curriculum Guide lays down the main objectives of study and instruction, the structure and organisation of study, as well as division of time between instruction in different subjects and subject areas in the compulsory school. The National Curriculum Guide defines required learning outcomes within each subject area. Pupils shall be allowed to fulfil the learning outcomes of subjects and subject areas in various ways. The National Curriculum Guide also defines learning outcomes and requirements for pupils who complete individual subjects or subject areas and the requirements for pupils that finish compulsory school in less than 10 years.

Based on the objective articles of the preschool, compulsory school and upper secondary school acts, the fundamental pillars of education have been defined. These fundamental pillars, in addition to the emphases of Article 24 of the Compulsory School Act, define the competence that pupils should achieve at compulsory school.

In the National Curriculum Guide, common for both preschool, compulsory school and upper secondary school, the fundamental pillars of education in Iceland are defined. They are:

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

According to the Curriculum Guide of 2011 the fundamental pillars of education are divided into six categories. They are interrelated and interdependent in education and school activities. By referring to them, a clear overview of educational work can be obtained. They are based on the idea that active democracy is unobtainable without literacy of the diverse symbolism and communication systems of society. They are also based on the idea that active democracy can only flourish if simultaneously every form of equality between individuals and groups in society is supported. Human rights will not be ensured, except by supporting individual health and welfare and by fighting discrimination and every form of violence, including bullying.

Sustainability concerns the interplay of the environment, economy, society and welfare. Sustainability includes respect for the environment, sense of responsibility, health, democratic working methods and justice.  Therefore, it is unthinkable to support human rights without simultaneously espousing sustainability and balanced social development. Additionally, sustainability is dependent on the equality of social groups. Democracy and human rights, and health and welfare are thus an integral part of sustainability and, at the same time, independent fundamental pillars of education.

The fundamental pillars of education and the emphases of the Compulsory School Act are to be the guidelines for general education and work methods of the compulsory school. They are to appear in the content of subjects and subject areas of the National Curriculum Guide, the pupils’ competence, study assessment, school curriculum guide and the internal evaluation of schools.

According to Article 24 of the Compulsory School Act, certain aspects of learning and teaching are to be emphasised. These emphases are further development of the objective article of the act and the fundamental pillars of education in Iceland. Most of them have in common not to be confined to specific subjects or school activities but are to be general guidelines for all compulsory school education, both formal and non-formal, and in all school activities. Among other things the Article 24 emphasise the following:

  • Self-consciousness.
  • Ethical consciousness
  • Social awareness and civil consciousness.
  • Social competence
  • Physical and mental welfare.
  • Competence in Icelandic
  • Pupils’ reasoning and critical thinking
  • Balance between academic and practical education.
  • Play integrated into every subject and learning area in a varied
  • learning and working environment and in extracurricular activities.
  • Preparation of both sexes  equally for active participation in society
  • Pupils should be prepared for further studies and employment through systematic vocational and study counselling,

Compulsory Subjects

The National Curriculum Guide stipulates the content and organisation of study in the following fields: Icelandic or Icelandic as second language or Icelandic sign language, mathematics, English, Danish or other Nordic languages, arts and crafts, natural sciences, physical education, social sciences, equal rights affairs, religious studies, life skills and information and communication technology. 

From the beginning of their compulsory education, pupils shall have the possibility of choice regarding their studies, such as of topics, learning methods and subjects, according to the framework provided by the National Curriculum Guide and the school curriculum guide. The objective is to encourage pupils to assume responsibility for their studies and create flexibility in school activities. Distance education and web-based learning may account for part of pupils' schoolwork. 

The Compulsory School Act sets the pupils’ minimum number of hours of school instruction. This is generally the definition of the minimum instruction to which pupils are entitled. Local authorities may offer pupils a longer stay at school in addition to their daily hours of instruction.

Minutes of Instruction:

Compulsory Subjects


1 - 4


5 - 7


8 - 10

Weekly Teaching Time %
Mother Tongue, The Icelandic Sign Language, Icelandic as a Second Language 1.120 680 630 2.430 18,08%
Foreign Languages 80 460 840 1.380 10,27%
Art and Craft 900 840 340 2.080 15,48%
Natural Sciences 420 340 360 1.120 8,33%
Physical Education 480 340 360 1.200 8,9%
Social Sciences, Religion, Life Skills, Ethics, Equality 580 600 360 1.540 11,46%
Mathematics 800 600 600 2.000 14,88%
ICT 120 260 80 360 2,68%
Optional 300 160 870 1.330 9,90%
Total 4.800 4.200 4.440 13.440 100,00%


In Grades 8, 9 and 10, elective subjects and subject areas chosen by pupils may account for about one fifth of the study time. The pupils are supposed to choose both academic, artistic and vocational subjects. Organised studies carried out outside the compulsory school, e.g. in music schools, may be evaluated as part of compulsory education according to further implementation laid out in the National Curriculum Guide. If a pupil engages in such studies, the local authorities in question are not obliged to bear the related cost, even though the studies are accredited as part of compulsory education. Temporary participation in employment, social activities, sports or organised voluntary work can also be evaluated as part of compulsory education as long as it complies with school operation objectives. 

Compulsory school pupils are entitled to enrol in particular subjects at upper secondary level while still in compulsory school, as long as they demonstrate the necessary competence. The head teacher authorises the pupils’ participation in such studies outside of school hours according to the framework laid down in the National Curriculum Guide.

School Curriculum Guide

Under the Compulsory School Act, the staff of each school are obliged to write their own school curriculum guide and an operational plan.  The head teacher is responsible for their implementation of these plans and designs them in consultation with teachers. The school curriculum guide is a more detailed version of the National Curriculum Guide, as regards objectives, content and assessment of studies, operational methods and evaluation and quality control of school activities. The school curriculum guide is to take into consideration the compulsory school’s culture, characteristics and circumstances, and is revised regularly. The annual operational plan provides information on the school calendar, including pupils’ study schedule, school rules, support services, duration of the Christmas and Easter vacations and other winter vacation, extra-curricular and social activities and school activities each year. The school’s annual operational plan is submitted to the School Board for approval, which confirms its entry into force provided that it has been devised in accordance with law, regulations, the National Curriculum Guide, collective bargaining agreements and local authorities’ decisions regarding school activities. The head teacher is responsible for the implementation of these provisions and for their discussion within the school and in the School Council and for presenting the results of the operational plan to the School Board. The operational plan and school curriculum guide are accessible by all parties within the school community.

Pupils in all compulsory schools are provided with the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular and social activities. Extra-curricular and social activities may be organised as part of daily school activities or outside normal school hours. The local authorities may also offer compulsory school pupils with extended stay outside of daily teaching hours. 

Teaching Methods and Materials

Article 2 of the Compulsory School Act of 2008 emphasises that the main objective of the compulsory school is to encourage the general development of all pupils. This entails that education is based on the capabilities of each pupil and within an encouraging study environment where the pupils feel safe and able to apply their talents. Compulsory school education takes into account the development, personality, talent,

abilities and interest of each individual pupil. This is to be the foundation for the organisation of all school activities and teaching. It requires teachers to make an effort to get to know all the pupils that they teach, evaluate their situation with regard to their studies and consult with both the pupils and their parents about the objectives to beaimed at each time. Parents should be encouraged to follow the study progress of their children.

At the compulsory school level, all pupils have the right to compulsory education in common inclusive schools which all children are entitled to attending. Inclusive school means a compulsory school in the pupils’ municipality or local community where the educational and social requirements of each pupil are met with emphasis on respect for human values and social justice. The inclusive school assumes that everyone has equal or equivalent study opportunities and the education is appropriate for each individual. The attitude of the inclusive school is characterised by respect for the rights of all pupils to participate in the learning community of the local school regardless of their attainment or

status. This basic principle in school operations in Iceland involves universal involvement, access and participation of every pupil in school activities. Inclusive education is a continuous process that aims at offering good education for everyone. Respect is shown for the diversity and different needs, abilities and characteristics of the pupils and an effort is made to eliminate all forms of discrimination and disintegration at school.

Neither the curriculum nor laws and regulations contain instructions regarding teaching methods. Teachers are free to choose the methods and materials that suit their objectives and circumstances at any given time. In Grades one to four, class teachers teach most of the subjects in their class. The boundaries between individual subjects at this age are not very clear. Teaching takes a variety of forms, class teaching, group work or individual tutoring.

Instruction in clearly-defined subjects characterises teaching in the later stages of compulsory education. In the upper grades of compulsory school, the boundaries between traditional subjects are clearly defined and teachers tend to be subject teachers teaching one or two subjects in many classes. 

There has been a tendency in recent years to offer different types of instruction in respect to the rate at which the syllabus is covered in Grades eight to ten. Pupils select a group according to ability, i.e. the most able pupils choose a group where they can move faster through the subject, then there is a group for average pupils and the weakest pupils choose a group where the subject matter is covered more slowly. 

Generally speaking schools are well equipped. According to the compulsory school act all schools shall provide a school library or otherwise ensure pupils’ access to services in an information center for students and teachers. It shall for example be equipped with books and data of various kinds. Official recommendations regarding homework do not exist. 

Educational materials play a very important role as a means to achieving the objectives of school activities. Educational materials include all the material which is used to achieve the objectives of learning and teaching. Educational materials should be varied and carefully made, exploiting the newest knowledge in education and pedagogy. Educational material include printed material, such as text books, reference books, booklets on themes and guides of various sorts; visual materials of various types, audio material, computer programs, online material, material for practical and outdoor teaching, etc. Nature and the school’s cultural environment are also an important source of education and development.

According to the Compulsory School Act and the Educational Materials Act, pupils in compulsory schools are to be provided with study materials free of charge in those subjects and subject areas stipulated in the National Curriculum Guide. Pupils in compulsory study may not be charged for their instruction, study materials or anything else which they require for their study in accordance with the National Curriculum Guide or school curriculum guide.

A government institution, The Directorate of Education is responsible for providing all children in compulsory schools with teaching materials and receives budget appropriation for this purpose. Individual schools and teachers may choose which materials they use when alternatives are available. There is also a fund operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, according to the law from 2007 on educational materials to support development in this field for pre primary, compulsory and upper secondary school level.