How the Finns got it so right

 

The Finnish education system is regarded as the world’s best. But what’s their secret? A visit to Helsinki gave valuable pointers on what can we learn from their success

Finland is top of the class. In science, Finnish 15 year-olds were ranked first among 56 countries in the latest 2006 OECD survey. In reading literacy, the Finns were second to South Korea (they came first in 2003).

In maths they came second to Taiwan.

Better still, Finland had one of the smallest discrepancies between the best and worst performers. Overall, the OECD concluded that the Finnish education system was the best in the world.

WHAT’S THE SECRET?

The Finns have uncovered no magical elixir to transform their education system. The system is built on a sense of trust and confidence in teachers. Essentially, Finnish children learn well because they’re taught well. All teachers are required to have a masters degree; most will spend a minimum of five-and-a-half years acquiring expert knowledge and learning how to teach it.

Securing a place in teacher training is much coveted even though salaries are at average levels across the OECD. Less than 10 per cent of those who apply will be successful. Finnish academics routinely refer to their teaching force as the crème de la crème.

The intense competition to become a teacher helps to confer a high status on the profession across Finnish society. When Finnish teenagers are polled about their career choice, teaching and medicine will invariably top the list.

When Finnish men were questioned recently about a preferred career for their spouse, most chose teaching. Teachers, they said, were highly intelligent, compassionate and flexible.

Good teaching – and public confidence that an exceptional cohort of teachers will deliver exceptional results – is at the heart of Finnish education. Reflecting on their success, one senior OECD figure, Andreas Schleicher commented, “In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs.’’

WHAT’S IT LIKE IN SCHOOLS?

In Finland, there is a well developed system of pre-school education. But formal schooling only begins at age seven. Children remain in the same school until they are 16, before heading to upper secondary for two years.

Schools in Finland appear to be relaxed, informal places. Teachers and pupils are seen as equal partners. Teachers and students address each other by their first names. There are no hats, no iPods, no uniforms and no mobile phones. Otherwise, the system is not big on rules and regulations. Younger pupils rarely get more than 30 minutes homework per night; the focus is on collaborative work in the classroom.

All pupils are provided with a free warm lunch every day. As one might expect, there are no chicken nuggets or turkey twizzlers on the menu; the local municipality insists on good, nutritional food.

Schools also enjoy an enviable amount of flexibility to dictate their own agenda. While the Finnish National Board of Education provides set overall objectives, local municipalities and schools are free to tailor the national curriculum to their own needs. Schools which adjoin the Russian border can, for example, give a greater focus to the Russian language than schools in the east. School boards can give priority to subjects which are important to the local economy. Schools are also trusted to choose the best teaching materials on the market without any central diktat.

A key figure in all of this is the school principal who drives education and teaching in the school in consultation with the school board. Broadly, the principal is freed up to focus on monitoring and boosting teaching quality.

It helps, of course, that Finnish students and their parents take education very seriously. There is a strong literary tradition in Finland, which has endured even in our wi-fi, Playstation age. Most parents and their children are members of one of the 400 libraries scattered across the country. Parents of newborns receive a government paid gift pack which includes a picture book.

The Finns have managed to develop a world-leading education system without compromising their commitment to equality. When Finland introduced its current education model in the 1970s fears were raised it would hold back the best and the brightest students. But the rising tide has lifted all boats. The proportion of weaker students is lower than in other OECD countries. First and second generation immigrants also perform strongly.

Differences between individual schools are also marginal. This suggests the choice of school is of relatively little significance in Finland, where virtually all schools are free. The contrast with Ireland, where parents will ring from maternity suites to secure places in elite fee-paying schools could hardly be more stark.

WHAT ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY, INSPECTIONS AND LEAGUE TABLES?

Finland’s education system represents a throwback to a more innocent age. There is no appetite here for the British, American (and Irish) obsession with school inspections and league tables. The inspection system was abolished in 1991. Local municipalities trust the school management board and the principal to maintain standards. There is, said one academic, “no need for a big stick. The pressure on underpreforming teachers in this system is immense from the principal and from parents on the school board.’’

If there is a problem, a parent’s representative from the school board can sit in on classes and report back to fellow members. But the issue on underperformance scarcely registers on the education radar here. School league tables are also off the agenda. Some commercial TV stations do publish school rankings but the public appetite is something less than insatiable. Why bother with league tables when there are only marginal difference between the performance of schools right across the country?

WHAT ARE THE MAIN SIMILARITIES AND THE MAIN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN IRELAND AND FINLAND?

The two countries have much in common. Finland’s population, at five million, is slightly higher. Both countries have been dominated by powerful neighbours – in Finland’s case, Russia and Sweden. Both countries have a relatively homogenous population. And both are dominated by one religion, over 80 per cent of Finns are Lutheran.

The academics and teachers I met in Finland found it difficult to identify one stand-out reason to explain the success of the education system. This is a society where there is prosperity (courtesy of huge home-grown companies such as Nokia), a range of outstanding public services and very little crime.

It was not always like this. In 1992, the Finnish economy – built on the export of commodities such as timber – imploded with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The banking system also lurched into crisis.

The rise and rise of the Finnish education system is part of an national recovery effort – across all elements of the society – which has paid a handsome dividend.

One noted academic, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Centre for International Mobility underlined the importance of the Finnish term sisu meaning strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.

“When the going gets tough in Finland, people get together and turn to each other. This is small nation. There is a collective willingness to act in the national interest – to stick with the sisu.’’

Is there a lesson here for Ireland?

At a glance: what makes Finland stand out

“What visiting educators from over 50 countries have found in Finland is simple: well trained teachers and responsible children

– Seppo Tella, professor of language education (and teaching matters),

University of Helsinki

  • The Finns have a high regard for and confidence in their schooling system and a high opinion of schooling.
  • All teachers must hold a masters degree; most train for at least five and a half years.
  • Status of teachers is high and teaching is one of the most coveted and popular professions.
  • 400 local councils or municipalities administer schools. Schools are free to tailor education to local needs. Government only sets overall objectives.
  • Principal has key role in driving education, responsible for the school’s entire operation and pupil assessment and budget.
  • Principals evaluate teacher performance focusing on mastery of the profession, pupil performance and ability to co-operate.
  • No national evaluation system for teacher work, no external inspection system and no focus on league tables.
  • Compulsory nine year basic schooling is free for all aged 7-16 years.
  • Schools have a statutory obligation to maintain contact with homes.

“Our objective is not to be the best in the OECD. Our objective is to provide the best possible education for our children

– Reijo Aholainen, Finnish ministry of education