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Skill ’em – Finland

A free public education system with small schools, small classes, and rigorous teacher selection and training. Schools do not stream. No league tables. Finland has no private schools. All children go to their local school and children of all abilities learn together. The school day is relatively short.

All schooling, including preschool, is free, as are all educational materials, hot meals, transport, health and dental care, special needs and remedial teaching and psychological counselling. Schools are the centre of the community, providing social services to students and their families. Teachers are highly respected, their status is on a par with medicine and law. Only 10% of applicants are accepted for the five-year masters-level programme.

Teachers are independent with full autonomy in the classroom. Working from a minimal curriculum they are free to design and timetable their own programme and choose textbooks. Students don’t change schools or teachers at age 13. All teachers are responsible for all students” they meet regularly to discuss how the class is going and deal with problems early.

The curriculum aims to encourage flexibility, creativity and open-mindedness. Pedagogy is inquiry-based, innovative, practical and student centred.
There is minimal external assessment, but a lot of diagnostic/formative assessment with sampling at grades 6 and 9 to monitor and inform how the entire system is working. No inspections.
Each school has a “special teacher” who works with class teachers to identify those needing extra help. Around 40 percent of children have some kind of special education and the percentage of children receiving special intervention is highest in the first three years of schooling (from age 7-10).

Drill ’em – Singapore

A highly competitive system with streaming from early years. Education is a tool for social engineering, economic development and national cohesion. Education is strictly government controlled. Learning is teacher directed, according to government priorities. Socioeconomic status has a significant impact on achievement and roughly a third of schools are private. Recently, the government has made moves to require teachers to be more innovative and autonomous, with the aim to develop students who are more self-directed, creative and critical thinkers. All through school, students are sifted and sorted. A high stakes primary leaving exam determines a child’s future at age 12.

The curriculum is similar to New Zealand’s, but teachers tend to restrict its implementation to what is necessary for students to cram so they can pass the leaving exam. Students face huge pressure from their families, and will study for long hours. Many have private tutors. A lot of status is attached to particular schools. Home advantage and cultural capital are very important.

Every teacher has their career path set for them by the education ministry. They don’t apply for courses but are chosen. Teachers are awarded bonsues through a system of performance pay.
There are learning support programmes for children who fall behind in reading and maths in primary school.
Children with physical or intellectual disability are exempt from compulsory education, and there are no public schools for them. Instead, they can go on a waiting list for special schools built largely by the Ministry of Education and run by voluntary welfare organisations.
Children from Singapore with special needs don’t figure in the OECD’s education tables because they’re not included in mainstream schools.

OECD PISA 2009 results” rankings out of 74 participating countries

Maths Sciences Reading
Finland  6 (1)*  2 (1)  3 (1)
Singapore  2  4  5
New Zealand  13 (7)  7 (4)  7 (4)

– Figure in brackets is the ranking out of the 35 OECD countries.