Exploring Physical Education in Norway: Part of the 2021 Series

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Global Perspectives

This blog series seeks to explore how Physical Education is designed and practiced in countries around the world. The intention is to give insight and hopefully inspiration to help improve it for all young people, both now and for the future.

If you have insight from a country we have not yet covered, then we would love to hear from you, please get in touch.

UNESCO published its ‘Quality Physical Education’ (QPE) guidelines for policymakers back in 2017. It includes a great video clip and infographic identifying some of the wide range of benefits of QPE and the following extract reminding us that PE is not just a nice to have in education, it is a human right for all children and young people!

“Every human being has a fundamental right of access to physical education and sport, which are essential for the full development of his personality. The freedom to develop physical, intellectual and moral powers through physical education and sport must be guaranteed both within the educational system and in other aspects of social life.”

The UNESCO Charter of Physical Education and Sport (1978)

Exploring Physical Education in Norway

In Context

The small, outstretched country of Norway has, over the last decades, developed a schooling system that is recognised globally as part of a progressive and good quality Scandinavian model of education. Norway had a population of 5.3 million in 2019, very similar to Denmark and half the population of Sweden at that time. At 385,207 km2 it is 1.3 times the size of the UK. Part of its success is certainly attached to an economic growth resulting in a state funded educational system. Education is free for all at all levels from primary school right through to university. There are some private institutions that bear a fee for entry, but in general there is no difference in quality nor reputation if one attends a public or private school like you can find in some other parts of the world. All children between the ages of 6 and 16 must attend primary and lower secondary school for 10 years. Primary and lower secondary schools are run by local authorities. Education is free, and schools supply pupils with the necessary learning materials.

Primary and lower secondary education has two stages:

  • Primary level – Years 1–7
  • Lower secondary level – Years 8–10

Pupils who live a long way from the school or those who have a disability or injury may be eligible for free transport to and from school. At primary level, pupils are not given grades for their work. Grades are awarded for the first time at lower secondary level, as a learning aid and a basis for admission to upper secondary education and training. When they reach the age of 15, pupils choose what they want to study at upper secondary level.

In 2019 there were 636,250 pupils in Norwegian compulsory school spread between 2,799 different schools across the country. Of these schools, about 800 have less than 100 students. This illustrates how sparce the population in Norway is.

In Policy

The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training is responsible for the development of kindergarten and primary and secondary education. The Directorate is the executive agency for the Ministry of Education and Research. The objective of the Directorate is to ensure that all children, pupils and apprentices receive the high-quality education they are entitled to.

From August 2020 the National Curriculum for primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education and training was replaced. As in many parts of the world, the purpose of physical education has changed over time according to societal needs – from military training to a very different subject today. The strong influence of governing political parties on the Norwegian schooling policies and governing document have led to reforms on a regular basis. This has had some negative consequences regarding ‘reform tiredness’ among teachers.

Nevertheless, the new national curriculum states that physical education is a key subject to stimulate lifelong joy of movement and a physically active lifestyle based on one’s own preconditions. The subject should contribute to the students learning, sensing, experiencing and creating with the body. Through movement activity and outdoor activities together with others, physical education promotes cooperation, understanding and respect for others. The subject will contribute to the students developing competence in exercise, lifestyle and health as well as experiencing what their own efforts have to say in order to achieve goals. The efforts of the students are therefore part of the competence in physical education. The subject will motivate the students to maintain a physically active and health-promoting lifestyle beyond school and in future working life.

Physical education should help to give students the opportunity to practice and reflect on interaction, participation, and equality. In physical education, students must solve challenges and tasks in a diverse learning community. The subject will also challenge their courage to stretch their own boundaries. Play, outdoor life, dance, swimming, sports activities and other movement activities are part of the bildung and identity creation in society. Physical education preserve traditional movement activity in society, but also stimulates experimentation and creative expression in alternative forms of movement. Physical education promotes critical thinking about body ideals that can affect self-esteem, health, exercise, and lifestyle. Outdoor activities provide a basis for enjoyment of nature, respect for nature and environmental awareness.

These statements have been operationalised in three core elements that are further divided in a series of competence aims:

  • Movement and bodily learning
  • Participation and cooperation in movement activities
  • Outdoor activities

In Practice

Similar to other countries, the landscape for PE across Norway seems quite fragmented. While there are some incredible teachers that practice incredible teaching that serves all students very well, several studies highlight the practices that are not aligned with the curriculum or recommended practice.

A national survey by Moen et al. (2018) on primary and secondary school in Norway, involving students (N = 3226), teachers (N = 139) and school leaders (N = 46) and their experience of physical education (PE), concluded that PE is a bit of a marmite subject whereby most students love it while others hate it. That is, the survey showed that most students like being at school, and like PE very well, while highlighting that this decreases with increasing age. Furthermore, the study report that: (i) Boys like PE better than girls, (ii) the content in PE focuses on ball games and basic training, (iii) dance and modern sports get little space, (iv) teacher led instruction method dominates the subject. The survey also found that teachers have knowledge of the PE curriculum, and use it in long-term planning. Lastly, while using results from physical tests is prohibited as a basis for assessment, the survey found that effort and physical tests dominate the assessment process of the student.

In Conclusion

The compulsory, statutory and free education system in Norway is one of the main reasons why Norway, compared to many other countries, have relatively small social inequalities. Since the curriculum of 1974, boys and girls take PE together in Norway, and it was clearly stated that school subjects were to contribute to ensure all children got the same opportunities in the system.

An important principle of the educational system in Norway is that the specific content delivered and teaching methods to be used are decided at the local level within individual schools.

Education in Norway is undergoing a renewal, with new curricula for all subjects implemented from August 2020. The revision is supposed to enhance cohesion and progress through all 13 years of schooling. The focus has been on defining the competences to be achieved in a way that facilitates in-depth learning but also how to face main global and national challenges, including issues concerning social justice.


  1. From August 2020, a new National Curriculum for primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education and training was implemented
  2. The new curriculum contains in three core elements:
    1. Movement and bodily learning,
    2. Participation and cooperation in movement activities,
    3. Outdoor activities

These are further divided into a series of competence aims

  1. PE should contribute to the students learning, sensing, experiencing, and creating with the body.
  2. Most students (boys more than girls) like being at school and like PE
  3. The content in PE focuses on ball games and basic training whilst teacher-led instruction still dominates the subject

About the authors

Mats Hordvik – associate professor at Norwegian School of Sport Sciences https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mats-Hordvik

Ove Østerlie – associate professor in physical education at Norwegian University of Science and Technology https://www.ntnu.edu/employees/ove.osterlie

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