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Schools in Iceland have similar disciplinary climates in science lessons compared to those in other OECD countries, according to students’ reports in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015, with an index of disciplinary climate of 0.01 (the average index value was 0.00). At the same time, Iceland’s student truancy was among the lowest across OECD countries: 4.5% of 15-year-olds reported skipping at least one day of school in the two weeks before the PISA 2015 test, compared to 19.7% on average. Students in Iceland were also more likely to report that their science teachers adapt their instructions more frequently than the OECD average, with an index of adaptive instruction of 0.07 (the average index value was 0.01) (OECD, 2016[1]).

The PISA 2015 index of instructional educational leadership (measuring the frequency with which principals report doing leadership activities specifically related to instruction) was close to the OECD average (-0.01 compared to 0.01) (OECD, 2016[1]). The proportion of lower secondary teachers in 2016 aged 50 or over was 39.1%, compared to an OECD average of 35.4%. In 2017, teachers in Iceland had fewer net teaching hours for general programmes than their OECD peers. Teachers annually taught 624 hours at both primary and lower secondary levels, compared to OECD averages of 784 and 696 hours, respectively (OECD, 2018[2]). According to school principals’ self-reports in PISA 2015, schools in Iceland have higher levels of autonomy over curriculum than the OECD average: 82% of principals reported that the school has primary autonomy over curriculum, compared to 73.4% on average (OECD, 2016[1]).

According to the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018, 62.5% of teachers in Iceland said that if they could choose again, they would still become a teacher; this was lower than the OECD average of 75.6%. Furthermore, only 10.1% of teachers felt that the teaching profession was valued in society, compared to an OECD average of 25.8% in 2018 (OECD, 2019[3]).

According to school leaders’ reports in PISA 2015, school leaders in Iceland are more likely than average to conduct self-evaluations of their schools (99.9% of students were in schools whose principal reported this, compared to the OECD average of 93.2%) and more likely than average to undergo external evaluations of their schools (93% of students were in schools whose principal reported this, compared to 74.6% on average) (OECD, 2016[1]). However, teacher appraisal levels as reported in the earlier cycle of TALIS 2013, were below average: 53.1% of teachers had reported then having received an appraisal in the previous 12 months, compared to a 66.1% on average (OECD, 2014[4]). At 9%, the share of students enrolled in secondary schools whose principal reported in PISA 2015 that standardised tests are used to make decisions on students’ promotion or retention was well below the OECD average of 31% (OECD, 2016[1]).

In 2017, school autonomy levels over resource management (allocation and use of resources for teaching staff and principals) in Iceland were higher than the OECD average: 75% of decisions were taken at the school level, compared to 29% on average.

Annual expenditure per student at primary level in 2015 was USD 11 215, compared to the OECD average of USD 8 631. At secondary level, Iceland spent USD 11 149 per student, compared to an average of USD 10 010, while at tertiary level (including spending on research and development), Iceland spent USD 12 671 per student, compared to USD 15 656. In 2015, expenditure on primary to tertiary education as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) was 5.8%; the OECD average was 5%. The proportion coming from private sources (including household expenditure, expenditure from other private entities and international sources) was lower than the OECD average (4.8% compared to 16.1%). Between 2010 and 2015, the relative proportion of public expenditure on primary to tertiary education fell by 0.5 percentage points; the average fall across the OECD was 1.3 percentage points. Private expenditure decreased by 0.8 percentage points, whereas the average change for the OECD was an increase of 10.6 percentage points (OECD, 2018[2]).

Evolution of key education policy priorities

Iceland’s key education policy priorities have evolved in the following ways over the last decade (Table 8.14).

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Table 8.14. Evolution of key education policy priorities, Iceland (2008-19)

Identified by

Selected OECD country-based work, 2008-191

Evolution of responses collected by the Education Policy Outlook, 2013-192

School improvement

The OECD found that although reforms have addressed teacher quality by, for example, requiring all teachers to earn a minimum of a master’s degree, obstacles remain. In-service teacher training seemed to be ad hoc and not systemically planned, which could be a critical challenge, especially as the teaching profession was ageing. [2012]

Iceland reported the key priorities of improving teacher education and professional development. A newly identified challenge is the ageing teacher population and thus, a foreseeable shortage of teachers in pre-primary, primary and lower secondary schools. Focus is put on the need to recruit young people into teacher education, increase enrolment rates and tackle attrition within the profession. [2013; 2016-17]

Evaluation and assessment

Another challenge previously identified by the OECD for Iceland related to strengthening an integrated assessment and evaluation framework aligned with efficient teacher appraisals. [2016]

Iceland reported the priority of implementing a new system of student assessment, as well as strengthening and financing external evaluation at all school levels. Recent policy measures have been taken. [2013; 2016-17]


According to OECD evidence, Iceland’s decentralised governance system was not providing support or accountability for schools. The lack of redistribution strategies within and between schools, and a weaker capacity to hold actors accountable could inhibit meeting the needs of students and providing equal access. [2012]

Previously, Iceland had reported considering merging universities and increasing co-operation among municipalities. As of 2016-17, a priority is to encourage collaboration in the tertiary sector, although mergers are not on the agenda at this stage. [2013; 2016-17]


The OECD recognised the need to improve spending efficiency, reduce costs and increase returns to education. More recent OECD evidence shows that technological change has shifted skill demand, predominantly towards high-level skills. [2009; 2013; 2015; 2017]

Iceland reported that it continues to face challenges in providing funding to respond to a large increase in the student population tertiary level and an expansion of postmenntamgraduate programmes, while budget cuts have adversely affected the implementation of new legislation and national curriculum guidelines. [2013; 2016-17]


1. See Annex A (OECD publications consulted).

2. See Reader’s Guide (years and methods of collection).


Selected education policy responses

School improvement

  • The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture established the Council of Continuous Professional Development of Teachers (2013), which is led by the ministry with representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, the Icelandic Teachers Union and teacher education institutions.

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Progress or impact: The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture commissioned systemic and thematic studies on teaching practices and the implementation of national curriculum guidelines in compulsory and upper secondary schools. The study on the implementation of the new national curriculum guidelines in the compulsory school sector is still ongoing, and results are due. Apart from TALIS, considerable research has been conducted on teaching practices and attitudes on behalf of the University of Iceland. A new Council of Continuous Professional Development of Teachers was established in 2016 with a renewed mandate. The council is also in charge of following up on the policy recommendations of the former council and published reports in 2018 on professional development and recent changes to the profession of teachers in pre-primary and upper secondary schools, as well as music schools (Starfsþróun Kennara (Council of Continuous Professional Development of Teachers), 2019[309]).

Additional education policies of potential interest to other countries

School improvement

  • The Act on the Education and Recruitment of Teachers and Head Teachers (2008) in Pre-School, Compulsory School and Upper Secondary School, fully effective since 2012, sets minimum requirements for teachers at the different education levels (including professional titles and recruitment processes). In 2019, Iceland introduced a reform of the law on teacher education and the professional certification of teachers in Iceland. The reform was consulted on with all the professional teachers’ associations and unions, as well as the teacher training institutes. The reform proposes a single teacher certificate for all school levels, with clear guidelines for teacher education and hiring of teachers. It also emphasises the role of a teacher competency framework and proposes a teaching council to oversee the development of teacher quality in line with the competency framework. In a separate development, initial teacher education is being reformed by introducing a fifth-year, salaried induction programme for teacher trainees. These changes are expected to increase the quality and the attractiveness of the teaching profession, encourage teacher trainees to be better prepared for the profession and increase admissions to teacher education programmes.

Evaluation and assessment

  • The Association of Municipalities and the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture set a formal co-operation agreement on financing and execution of external evaluation in compulsory education (2011). All schools or specific aspects of school activities may be externally evaluated, as organised by the ministry (Government Offices of Iceland, 2018[310]). The Directorate of Education oversees and performs external evaluations for pre-primary schools and compulsory schools and as of 2014, also for upper secondary schools. A new co-operation agreement was made with the Association of Municipalities in 2017 on the external evaluation of compulsory schools. In the agreement, it is stated that the Directorate of Education is to perform more frequent external evaluation of compulsory schools, which means that every compulsory school will be subject to external evaluation every five years.

  • Iceland made changes in 2016 and 2017 to their standardised tests. This included making the standardised tests electronic in 2016, and extending the test into new grades (4 and 7). An expert group was appointed in 2016 to advise the Directorate of Education on the administering of standardised tests. The assessments introduced in 2016-18 have been able to highlight students and schools that need extra attention, while also supporting the drive towards a national goal of 90% of compulsory school students in each municipality meeting the minimum reading standards. This goal, set by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and the Directorate of Education, receives support from consultation, literacy screening, stakeholder engagement and parents. By early 2019, a committee established by the minister will be providing proposals for alternatives to standardised tests in compulsory education (National information reported to the OECD).


Selected education policy responses


  • In 2010, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture established the Quality Board for Icelandic Higher Education to administer the development of a Quality Enhancement Framework for Higher Education (QEF). In undertaking this work, since 2010, the board has collaborated closely with the Icelandic Quality Council for Higher Education, also established by the ministry. The board published the Quality Enhancement Handbook for Icelandic Higher Education in 2011, which aimed to support higher education institutions to enhance the quality of student learning experiences and award high standards of degrees. The Higher Education Act (2006) lays down the provisions for quality control of teaching and research.

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Progress or impact: As part of the Quality Enhancement Framework for Higher Education, the Quality Board for Icelandic Higher Education leads institutional reviews. According to the first-cycle QEF review (2011-14), respondents viewed the main principles of the QEF and the emphasis on students during the first cycle as positive (Clever Data, 2015[311]). The 2015-16 review aimed to cover reflections and preparations for the next cycle (Rannís, 2018[312]). Regulation 1386/2018 contains the legal basis of the Quality Board. This regulation codifies, for example, the board’s full control over the QEF, including control over the board’s budget and human resources.

The second cycle of QEF reviews started in 2019 in accordance with a new handbook for the second cycle. The board has adopted a Board Constitution, as well as a strategy and action plan based on the board’s mission statement. The board and its secretariat meet regularly with external stakeholders, including students and industry professionals.

In addition to the reviews, board representatives meet annually with the individual leadership teams of the universities and twice per year with the Quality Council, which is a stakeholder group comprised of Directors of Quality Management from the seven Icelandic universities, as well as two representatives of the National Union for Icelandic Students. Finally, the Board also hosts QEF annual conferences, covering, for example, the topic of “Integrating research into undergraduate learning: International and Icelandic examples” in 2018 (Rannís, 2018[312]). Further information can be found in the Quality Enhancement Handbook (Quality Board for Icelandic Higher Education, 2017[313]).

  • The Quality Council for Higher Education (QC, 2012) is a component of the Quality Enhancement Framework for Higher Education in Iceland. The QC is comprised of senior representatives of all higher education institutions and two student representatives. The overall aim is to oversee and improve the quality of student experience and the institutional standards in higher education establishments. The QC is also a focal point for the exchange of practices, mutual support and advice in the higher education sector. It works together with the Quality Board for Iceland Higher Education (2010), which has the role of administering the development of the QEF (Rannís, 2018[312]).

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Progress or impact: Examples of activities and initiatives carried out by the Quality Council for Higher Education are: the organisation of workshops and conferences; setting up guidelines; doing shared research and development activities; and undertaking joint activities across institutions (Clever Data, 2015[311]). According to the first-cycle review, it was found that the QC has been generally regarded as an important venue for discussing quality matters, exchanging information and sharing experiences, as well as being a link between different stakeholders within the higher education system. Insufficient funding and excessive member workload were identified as potential future challenges (Clever Data, 2015[311]).

  • In 2015, the Directorate of Education (Menntamálastofnun, 2015) was established to co-ordinate initiatives by various stakeholders to improve students’ literacy and reading skills. Its principal responsibilities include national assessment of students in compulsory school, national testing and screening tests, PISA research and school evaluation at all levels. In addition, the Directorate is in charge of providing students with learning material in compulsory schools. The Ministry of Education tasks the Directorate with systematically developing improved learner assessments, such as by producing and conducting different screening tests for all levels, on reading and risk of dropout (Government of Iceland, 2016[314]).

    Since 2015, the Directorate of Education has carried out screening tests on the risk of dropout among first-year students in upper secondary schools in Iceland. The results from this three-year, nationwide project are now being analysed, and the final report is expected to be published in 2019. The Directorate also assumed responsibility for new projects, such as the implementation of the National Agreement on Literacy (Menntamálastofnun, 2016[315]). In addition, the Directorate is implicated in the promotion of Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education (EDC/HRE) in Iceland. As of 2015, the Directorate has worked on the development of indicators to assess the implementation of the fundamental pillars of the national curriculum, including EDC/HRE (Council of Europe, 2018[316]).

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Progress or impact: According to an external audit of Iceland’s education system, published by the Government of Iceland, the Directorate of Education set up a temporary department with experts on reading and literacy. The experts are expected to act as a temporary resource centre to assist schools in building capacity to improve reading. The report also highlights a recommendation made to the Directorate to support upper-secondary schools to develop programmes to prevent dropout (Government of Iceland, 2016[314]). Results from literacy tests for 2017 and 2018 indicate limited progress. However, the tests are now administered to 90% of the student population in compulsory schools.

School reforms can expect to take 8-14 years (according to PISA 2015), and the Directorate is still in the process of implementing measures to achieve the objectives set out in the National Convention on Literacy. Teachers’ education and professional development in literacy teaching need to improve; the support systems of schools and municipalities need to be strengthened and made more effective; schoolmasters need to be more effective in providing professional support and show more leadership; and publication of teaching materials and school books needs to improve. In addition, schools face challenges in integrating a growing population of immigrant children and children who speak Icelandic as a second language.

  • As part of the updated National Curriculum Guides for Compulsory Schools (2015), the number of Icelandic classes in the reference timetable was increased. The aim is to regularly measure reading skills from pre-school to the end of primary school according to the set targets in reading skills outlined in the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture’s White Paper. The Education Directorate’s literacy advisory task force carries out the assessment.

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Progress or impact: In 2017, the relative time dedicated to Icelandic in the curriculum had not changed, but schools were given more flexibility in allocating time to individual subjects (National information reported to the OECD). The Directorate of Education has developed tools for literacy assessment for students aged 3-16 years. These include: fluency assessment for 6-16 year-olds; spelling and writing rubrics; reading comprehension for compulsory school levels; and phonological awareness for 5-year-olds. Schools have adopted these tools, and approximately 90% of compulsory school level students participated in the fluency assessment in January 2019. The results from the fluency tests will provide information on how well the Convention on Literacy is progressing. An assessment report is expected in 2019. In conjunction with the assessment tools, the Directorate has published benchmarks that describe the students’ competence in various factors of literacy or in comparison with their peers. The results are used by schools to adapt teaching practices to the students’ abilities and to provide necessary support tailored to each student. The directorate has recently issued new test instruments for literacy and vocabulary as an online service. This will help schools organise teaching more effectively and monitor students’ progress in more detail.

Additional education policies of potential interest to other countries


  • The Education and Training Service Centre (ETSC, 2003) is owned by social partners and offers learning services to adults who have not graduated from upper secondary education (estimated at 22% of the adult population in Iceland). The ETSC collaborates with the Lifelong Learning Centres in Iceland in two ways: 1) by distributing funds for courses, guidance services and recognition of prior learning projects (RPL); and 2) by providing professional and innovative support. The Act on Adult Education (2010) describes its role and its funding is determined by the parliament. It is comprised of all major stakeholders in the field of adult education (e.g. three ministries, Federation of Employers, federations of trade unions and representatives from the municipalities and the formal school system). The ETSC developed a recognition of prior learning methodology based on pilot projects (Musset and Castañeda Valle, 2013[317]). The main target group are adults with low formal education who can then return to upper secondary school and can complete a fast track of the programme through RPL. A total of 12 lifelong learning centres and two centres for certified trades co-operate in pursuing RPL projects. On average, participants complete 28 units of credit recognised through RPL; for example, the carpentry programme includes a total of 100 units (Musset and Castañeda Valle, 2013[317]). Two overall customer surveys were undertaken by the University of Iceland (2018) on the impact on individuals and their progression routes resulting from RPL projects and The Guidance Services for adults. Additionally, the ETSC has a service contract with the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, which stipulates overall assessment of the adult education system before 2020, with the last survey carried out in 2014.

  • Iceland’s framework providing incentives for companies to train and support students in the workplace (2011) was a consequence of the 2008 crisis and the inability of many firms to offer training places. Under the framework, 54 companies were allocated ISK 54.4 million (around EUR 470 000) to train 182 students. In 2012-14, an additional ISK 450 million (EUR 2.8 million) was allocated to the workplace training fund. The result of this initiative is now being evaluated in order to see how successful these apprenticeship placements were and if graduation increased from the vocational education and training system.

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