It was autumn break, or høstferie, here in Oslo a few weeks ago, when all students and school staff took a break for a week, a breather after the first hectic weeks of the school year. We moved to Norway from London over four years ago and now have two kids in primary school here on the outskirts of Oslo.
The same as with half term in Ireland, teachers and kids get a chance to relax and recharge before the ramp-up to Christmas. This is when many kids here go off to their grandparents for a week, or the whole family heads south to the sun for one last blast of vitamin D before the winter. Some parents also take time off work to relax with kids at home, or head to their huts in the mountains.
It was business as usual in our house, and the kids were still getting up and out in the mornings. Instead of real school, they went off to activity school, or AKS for short. AKS is on the school premises, a service provided in all state schools in Norway.
AKS grabs the kids with a smile and a hug from 7.30am in the morning and keeps them warm, fed, happy and stimulated until parents pick them up, at the very latest 5pm. On regular school days, kids are delivered by the AKS staff to their classrooms at 8.30am and picked up again at 1.45pm when school is over.
AKS is one of those places where the kids speed away from you in the morning after a quick hug and then are all grumpy if you arrive too early to pick them up; didn’t you know they were in the middle of something interesting?
Every week, we get an emailed plan showing what the kids will be up to the following week, ranging from workouts at the gym to hanging out with the animals at the local farm, trips to the forest, indoor and outdoor free play days, and the odd movie.
AKS is heavily state funded and requires a very reasonable supplementary fee, to be paid by parents. This is means-tested and further discounted where we live, to encourage all immigrant families to send their kids. The service is available to all kids from 1st to 4th class (roughly the age of 10), providing a learning environment that supports fun, adventure and overall social development.
The AKS team excel on a week like autumn break when there is no school at all. Nora, our little school starter this year, experienced it all for the first time and loved it. One day at the cinema (sweets were allowed). One day at Oslo’s biggest sculpture park, Frogner Park, taking in a McDonald’s as well. One day running around in the forest, eating sausages from a barbecue. And one day focused on maths, where there were lots of number games, board games, cards and the like.
One aspect of society here is the level of state control in child-care, from state run kindergartens to pre-school and after-school care for young kids
The pièce de résistance came on the Thursday night for big brother, when he had a sleepover at AKS with his mates from school. They “slept” in classrooms on the floor in their sleeping bags, looked after by many staff who worked in shifts throughout the night.
Depending on their home situation, some of these eight-year-olds are more independent than others. Some have rarely, if ever, been away from their parents overnight but it’s a great way to begin cultivating some independence, safe and at ease with their school mates and the AKS staff they know and love. For those kids who aren’t lucky enough to be able to go on holidays or to have grandparents to stay with, the sleepover gave them a real highlight in this school break. With no family here, we were among those parents who were incredibly grateful for it.
I dropped him into a warm chaos at 6pm as other parents were delivering their excited kids, sleeping bags, mats and overnight stuff, before heading off home for a quiet evening. They were in their sleeping bags watching a movie by 9pm, but it was the small hours before anyone saw any sleep. According to our boy, they didn’t sleep at all; he and his friends just rested their eyes to fool the grown-ups.
Not coming from Norway, we are still learning how the school system works here and will continue to do so as the kids grow up through it. One aspect of society that hits you straight away here is the level of state control in child-care, from state run kindergartens to pre-school and after-school care for young kids, heavily subsidised to make it available for all.
Many people say it’s the oil money that makes this so easy in Norway, and why it would not be possible in a country like Ireland. But I don’t agree; money certainly helps but this is more about prioritisation when it comes to setting government budgets. In Ireland, our traditional institutional view is still that it’s the family’s responsibility to take care of their kids, and the only state obligation is school. This view shifted here many years ago; now there is now a fundamental belief that everybody benefits if childcare is controlled and subsidised by the state, and not just left to parents to figure out and fincance for themselves.
Kids are well taken care of with trained staff and great facilities. Childcare is affordable so parents stay in the workforce instead of being forced to drop out of their careers when their kids are young. More tax is being paid into the state coffers because more parents stay at work.
All fit and healthy adults here are expected to work and contribute to the economy so the only downside is that it can be frowned upon if a mom decides she wants to stay at home to spend time with kids. That’s perfectly acceptable in Ireland but it’s seen as odd, even lazy by many Norwegians. It should be your own choice, if you can afford the drop in income.
When I see my kids jumping out of bed on dark early mornings, keen to get to activity school during half term holidays, it’s clear the state is doing something right here in Norway.
Carmel Stelzner blogs at midlifemigrant.com about family life in Norway.
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