She started school last week, at the good age of five and three quarters. She had her big new rucksack and all the matching accoutrements; lunchbox, pencil case, water bottle (of course). Anyone who has visited the house since June has had a grand tour of all of the above, at no extra fee, as she delighted in the opportunity to talk them through it and let them see a fine lunchbox up close and personal.
Off we went on Monday morning to the big opening ceremony for new starters in the school gym. The husband had the day off work in honour of the occasion because his employer, like many here, gives a day off for that milestone day that you send a child off into the school system. While it’s common in many countries to get time off when moving house or if there’s a family death, having time allocated for school occasions was new to us. It’s a very nice touch. We had a lovely lunch together and then we went off to the local garden centre to buy plants and seeds to sow to mark the day.
The regulation here is that children start school in the year that they turn six years old, so the boisterous bunch of kids turning up with their parents was ready and eager for school. Kindergarten is great but they have a fair idea that there is a great world of fun and independence beyond it and that starts with school. Nora has long been looking forward to doing homework with her big brother, it took them 5 minutes to annoy each other on the first day but still, in her mind this is progress as she is catching up on him.
Given that we live in a very high immigrant area of Oslo, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of kids going to our local school are of immigrant background. Sitting in that gym last week, one would be forgiven for thinking that we were living in a country far, far away from here. It was a slight shock when I looked around and saw the degree to which Norwegians had become an ethnic minority, almost to the point of non-representation. The vast majority of kids have Pakistani, Turkish, East-African, Romanian, Vietnamese, Polish backgrounds which means that even though many were born here in Norway, Norwegian is their second language. Our kids have Irish/German backgrounds so we are all in good company. This, in itself, is not a problem as the teaching is excellent and the kids will learn Norwegian at school as well as how to behave in accordance with Norwegian societal rules and values.
To me, the challenge is when Norwegian is not just their second language but also their second culture. Can these kids really have a long-term sense of belonging here when they have little or no chance to befriend ethnic Norwegians of their own age, to go on play-dates to Norwegian houses, to eat Norwegian evening meals, to learn the vital social rules like saying ‘Takk for maten’ or thanks for the food, every time they rise from the table after a meal.
There is unmistakably a richness to life here in this mad immigrant community that I love, the warmth, the eagerness to help each other, the migrant stories. With a general election coming up next month, integration is a very topical issue. When it comes to school selection here for your kids, there is free choice. In my experience, Norwegian society is incredibly welcoming to immigrants but there is a tipping point in the school system, at primary level at any rate. Up to 50% immigrant kids is fine and seen as giving enriching cultural exposure in all directions. However, if you slide past 50% or 60% then, understandably, Norwegians start to move their kids to other schools because most don’t want their kids to be in a minority in their own country. There has been much in the media about tackling immigrant dominance in schools here with one proposed solution being to ‘bus’ kids to other areas of the city where the cultural split has a healthier Norwegian bias. It’s never gone beyond a talking point as this means huge state intervention, where essentially the state is taking choice away from parents and forcing them to send their kids to specific schools.
I’m not going to suggest a solution here but it’s a big issue worthy of consideration and scrutiny. What the government wants is fully integrated immigrants contributing to society and embracing Norwegian culture. If you have suburban areas of the city where there are blocks and blocks of new apartments with only immigrants moving in, you will have functional immigrants but not integrated ones. They will have no means of integration as they have little or no exposure to real local life and culture. And the two-tiered society that this creates will likely be a big problem down the line.
But back to our little school starter, she is loving her big school. The plants are being watched carefully on a daily basis as she and they flourish in tandem. Tired of the big brother annoying her by saying it was HIS school, she is very happy to be able to finally call it HER school. After all, when you are five and three quarters, there is nothing more annoying than a big brother with a sense of entitlement.