How Finland emerged from recession with the best education system in Europe


OPINIONFinland recovered from deep recession and built a world-class education system. Ireland must follow suit, writes PASI SAHLBERG

FOLLOWING THE break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Finland experienced a severe recession, not dissimilar to current difficulties in Ireland.

Unemployment climbed from 3 per cent to 18 per cent in two years. GDP dropped 13 per cent at the same time and Finnish public spending reached close to 70 per cent of the overall state budget.

The Finnish Government of the day bravely decided that increased investment in education was the roadmap to recovery.

Result? Finland emerged quickly from recession, built a highly-skilled workforce, and today boasts one of the finest education systems in the world.

Interestingly, Finland has not employed any of the market-based educational reform ideas in the ways that they have been accepted within education policies of many other nations, United States and England among them.

By contrast, a typical feature of teaching and learning in Finland is high confidence in teachers and principals as respected professionals.

Another feature involves encouraging teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches rather than teaching them to master fixed attainment targets. This makes the school a creative and inspiring place for students and teachers.

What is important is that today’s Finnish education policies are a result of three decades of systematic, mostly intentional development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society in general, and within its education system in particular. The result is a cocktail of good ideas from other countries and smart practices from the tradition of teaching and learning in Finland.

The Finnish way has transformed an education system deemed as mediocre by international standards in the 1980s to a celebrated model two decades later.

Finland invests over 7 per cent of GDP every year in education. Ireland invests 4.6 per cent. The result: Ireland has dropped from 5th to 17th place in the literacy stakes and languishes at 27th place in the numeracy stakes, when compared with other OECD countries.

Ireland is fortunate to have a high quality of teacher graduates, But an over reliance on a committed and highly skilled teaching profession only serves to camouflage the lack of government investment, and will lead to a severe drop in levels of teacher and principal morale as disenchantment sets in. Corrective measures in the form of enhanced investment must be implemented now if this is not to happen.

From my experience, the Irish are a very resilient people and the new Irish government must be brave and put its trust in the next generation to create a new Celtic Tiger.

This can only be done if the next generations of entrepreneurs are given the raw material of knowledge, through education to develop their skills base.

In particular, the primary sector must be especially well-resourced to ensure the foundation blocks are in place for the knowledge economy that will inevitably follow.

Dr Pasi Sahlberg is a senior education consultant to the Finnish Government