Debate flies around winter holiday week

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Oslo schools are closed this week, and others around the country are also taking a week off at this time of year for Norway’s so-called vinterferie (winter holidays). A proposal to scrap the tradition that’s been around since at least 1957 has set off debate over how the school year is organized in Norway, and whether frequent holidays disrupt teaching.

Fresh snow followed by sunshine and blue skies arrived as if ordered in the Oslo area, just as the traditional winter holiday week was beginning. Skiers quickly hit the trails, here from Sollihøgda on Sunday, with many also able to ski all week. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Fresh snow followed by sunshine and blue skies arrived as if ordered in the Oslo area, just as the traditional winter holiday week was beginning. Skiers quickly hit the trails, here from Sollihøgda on Sunday, with many also able to ski all week. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Jan Arild Snoen, a political commentator for the conservative magazine and website Minerva, set off the debate earlier this month when he wrote in newspaper Aftenposten that Norwegian schools have too many holiday periods that come at the wrong time. This year’s winter holiday week, usually set for the third or fourth week of February, comes less than two months after the Christmas and New Year holiday weeks and (because of the way the calendar falls in 2016) less than a month before Norway’s Easter holiday week.

“As soon as teaching starts flowing well again, there’s another interruption and more holidays again here in this country,” Snoen wrote. It’s even worse, argued, with Norway’s traditional høstferie (autumn holiday week), when schools close just a month or so after starting up after the two-month summer holiday. The autumn holiday was rooted in a need for school children to help with the potato harvest on Norwegian farms, and was initially called potetferie (potato holiday), but that no longer applies and Snoen sees no need for a winter holiday either.

Rooted in school heating costs
Questions also have arisen over the origins of the schools’ long-standing closure for a week in February. Aftenposten could report this week, just as the holidays in Oslo and elsewhere were getting underway, that during the 1940s and the Nazi German occupation, it was expensive to warm up school buildings. A so-called brenselsferie (literally, “heating fuel holiday”) was initiated so schools could close and save money.

After the war, the week of closure began to be more closely associated with winter sports activities, as school children and older students alike headed for the mountains and into the forests to go skiing. The first formal reference to vinterferie came in an article in newspaper VG in 1957, when it was reported that demand was high for hotel rooms in the mountains. Before the winter holiday week became firmly established, schools had a longer Christmas and New Year holiday, from December 21 to January 9, according to Aud Rudshagen of the Oslo School Museum.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Norwegians hit the road, or fly off, to spend the winter holiday week at cabins or abroad. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Today, hundreds of thousands of Norwegians hit the road, or fly off, to spend the winter holiday week at cabins or abroad. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Today fully a fourth of all Norwegians take time off from work and school for a winter holiday week, according to new statistics from employers’ organization Virke. Of them, 34 percent choose to spend a week at a cabin in Norway and go skiing while 38 percent travel abroad, a reflection of increased affluence in Norway over the past 20 years. Economists are now warning, however, about Norwegians’ penchant for holidays because of the country’s economic downturn.

It’s entirely up to the local governments in charge of the schools to decide whether they want to schedule vinterferie, or move the days off to combine them with other holidays. Snoen noted that Bergen opted to do that this year, adding the five days to the six-day Easter holiday set for late March.

‘Think new’
“I think there’s all reason to ‘think new’ here,” Petter Skarheim, director of the state education directorate, told newspaper Dagsavisen this week. “The townships and counties can do what they want, there’s no central state rules stating that all schools must have a winter holiday. They could instead extend the Christmas or Easter holiday period. Breaking up the school year isn’t always a good thing.”

Norway’s school year has 190 classroom days with 748 hours of teaching for elementary school children, 56 hours less, Snoen notes, than the average among countries in the OECD. He thus suggests another alternative: Cut out (both the autumn and winter holiday weeks) and increase teaching time. “That shouldn’t be a distant thought,” Snoen wrote, for Norway’s government coalition led by the Conservatives (of which Snoen is a member) and keen on promoting better education.

“The teachers would surely demand compensation, both if the holidays were made into flexible days off or scrapped altogether,” he wrote. Alternatively, the teachers could spend more time in the classroom, he suggested, instead of spending time in meetings, conferences and carrying out administrative tasks.

Meanwhile, aided by brilliant sunshine and some fresh snow over most of southern Norway this week, locals hills and mountain ski resorts were full this week of people skiing, snowboarding or simply enjoying the great outdoors. For those staying in town, Oslo’s local ski association Skiforeningen was lending out ski equipment to those who can’t afford their own, with support from the local Rotary Club. Local museums hosted special holiday programs, while restaurants, cafés and cinemas also had specials on offer. Lots of parents took time off work to spend time with their children, as the vinterferie tradition showed no signs of abating.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund