Finns have a reputation as innovators in electronics and mobile phone technology (think Nokia) as well as being serious, introverted people little given to policy flipflops of the kind that happen in New Zealand.

In education, this seems to have served them well. Since the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA ) began in 2000, Finnish students have ranked at or very near the top in science, maths and reading.

Their high performance has seen educators and policymakers from the around the world, including an NZEI Te Riu Roa study group, flock to Finland to learn more. They find a primary school system with a number of distinguishing features:

  • All children start school in August of the year they turn seven.
  • Class sizes of around 20.
  • No nationalised standards or testing, although teachers use a range of everyday assessment tools for student learning.
  • A high level of teacher autonomy. No national school inspection or review process. Municipalities govern and monitor local schools.
  • The teaching profession is highly valued in Finnish society. Only one in seven applications for teacher training are accepted.
  • Teacher education is research-based and to high academic standards.Students graduate with a five-year masters degree, and there’s no probationary period.
  • The school day starts around 8.30am and finishes around 1.30pm.
  • Relatively few teacher staff meetings.
  • All students provided with a hot meal daily, free health and dental care, and all learning materials.
  • All students receive the same comprehensive schooling for the first nine years.

It might all sound like a socialist utopia, but in fact the system results from a long internal debate. In the 1950s, the Finns found themselves as the poor cousins of Europe, and decided that to turn the situation around they needed a better educated population. They developed a plan, and they stuck with it despite some hiccups in the mid-1990s when a need to cut costs was met by a decision to cut centralised school monitoring.

And it seems to have worked. Besides being well educated, Finns now also rank as the world’s happiest people living in the most prosperous nation with the one of the most competitive economies. Although, as the high Finnish suicide rate might hint at, it’s not all a bed of roses.

An NZEI study tour in 2008 found a homogenous and ordered society, with the state taking a high level of responsibility for children, at the same time as putting pressure on parents to conform to expectations about their children’s behaviour and care.

Peter Hansen, a principal at a rural Hawke’s Bay school, who visited Finland on sabbatical to investigate teaching techniques, agrees. “I actually found our methods were ahead of theirs they have a much more formal method of instruction.”

Peter met two education professors at the University of Helsinki who asked him, “Why do you want to come here we want to come and look at your system! “They said they didn’t have a lot of immigration, but that was changing, and in a few years they were expecting to develop a tail [of educational failure] themselves.” Peter was intrigued though by the later starting age. “What they do is establish pretty comprehensive kindergartens and early childhood centres that are attached to schools.”

Peter says he is okay with his students starting school at age five because his small school can offer extra support to those who need it. “They come at different stages of readiness. Some need greater allowances if they’ve not had much experience of books, or their oral language isn’t up to scratch, or they’re not that flash at playing together.” He suggests that for bigger schools a room where a teacher can work with children on those issues, before they move through to a new entrants class, might address the problem.

But he did like the lack of testing in Finland. “They do test but not on a national scale, it’s only to assist in teaching and to report to parents. I’m not really in favour of national standards I don’t like the path they lead us down.”

Global educational reform

At the centre of the Finnish debate about education was the idea of equal educational opportunities for all children. Ironically, in the 1990s after nearly three decades of their system, critics were arguing that Finnish comprehensive schools were, by definition, reducing the level of knowledge and skills of young Finns.

At about that time, many other developed countries were turning to more marketdriven educational reforms more testing, greater accountability on teachers, increased competition as a flow-on from the neoliberal policies of the 1980s and 90s.

Then along came the PISA scores – and it’s safe to say that Finnish critics have been silenced by the results. According to Dr Pasi Sahlberg, a former Finnish teacher and education ministry official, and advisor to the World Bank and European Union (see www.pasisahlberg.com) New Zealand, along with the United States, England and parts of Canada and Australia, has suffered from educational reforms that emphasise stronger school accountability with intensified testing.

“The trend of students’ performance in mathematics in all strong accountability policy nations is similar in decline. The situation does not change if we look at students’ performance in science or in reading literacy,” he says.

However, he adds, “Although this does not constitute evidence of the failure of testing driven educational reform per se, it suggests that frequent standardised student testing is not a necessary condition for improving the quality of education.”

He believes the international trend to standardised testing has passed its peak, in part because Finland provides an example of a successful alternative. “Before this trend became global, Finland had built a strong professional foundation for teachers. Schools and parents have for a long time believed that teachers know better than external assessors how well their pupils are learning.”

Indeed, Finnish teachers are held in such high regard they top polls as the most respected profession. In dating surveys, Finnish men report the preferred profession of an ideal spouse would be a teacher. For Finnish women, a teacher spouse would come second only to a medical doctor.

“Public education is the key,” says Pasi, “and to lift learning overall, give resources to those who need them most.”

Key Points

  • Finland’s primary and secondary education system delivers the world’s best-performing students
  • It was the result of a long internal debate that has seen Finland rise from Europe’s poor cousin to world’s happiest and most prosperous nation
  • Teachers are held in high regard, and all hold masters degrees. Children start school in August of the year they turn

By Jane Blaikie, with information from Dan Murphy writing in the Australian Educator

See also: From BBC World News America Why do Finland’s schools get the best results?