Pasi Sahlberg

How to Finnish ahead of the rest

Finland is proudly egalitarian and educationalist Pasi Sahlberg believes that’s behind its success the home of Nokia and the Angry Birds app is a leader in technology and innovation, as…

Finland is proudly egalitarian and educationalist Pasi Sahlberg believes that’s behind its success the home of Nokia and the Angry Birds app is a leader in technology and innovation, as well as in education.
It consistently comes out on top in international measures of student achievement for 15-year-olds, without even trying. Its students rate highly in reading, writing and maths in the OECD’s PISA tables after spending fewer years in school than their classmates in most other countries (they don’t start till age seven) and with very little difference between high and low achievers.
NZEI invited Pasi Sahlberg to Annual Meeting in 2012 to explain how they do it. The son of two teachers, he’s been a maths and physics teacher, teacher educator and policy maker in Finland and worked for international organizations such as the World Bank and the European Commission.
He’s currently Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, and adjunct professor at the universities of Helsinki and Oulu.


Over the past 20 years Sahlberg has analysed education reforms around the world. His term Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) describes the market-based reforms infecting public education systems worldwide.
He says policies that promote school choice” like an open market where schools compete against each other” are an alternative to equity: “You can either have school choice or you can have equity, the evidence is very clear on this, you have to value one of them.”
Even having a little bit of school choice means sacrificing equity, he says, and somehow performance quality and equity work together.


He believes its commitment to equity, not Finland’s status as a small, wealthy, homogenous country, that drives success. Sahlberg says all schools do equally well” urban and rural” and even disadvantaged groups such as non-Finnish speaking immigrants don’t perform noticeably worse than native speakers.
New Zealand by contrast has one of the biggest gaps in the OECD between high and low achievers. A telling statistic is that only 4% of Finnish children live in poverty, compared to 20-25% in New Zealand.
Finns didn’t start on this path until 40 years ago when they made a commitment to equity. Forty years ago Finland replaced privately run schools that had been performing below the world average with the current comprehensive school system. Then in the 1990s changes were made to school organisation as part of enhancing equity. “We wanted to have a school system where pupils’ learning didn’t depend on their home background”.


“When I started my teaching career in the mid 1980s we had a very centralized system of education where practically all the key decisions¦ were directed from the central government.”
At that time teachers were not really trusted, but that all changed.
“First of all, the public administration was decentralised, but more importantly the schools were handed the responsibility of designing their own curriculum instead of central government mandating what to teach.”
Sahlberg says since then policy has been built up from classroom and school level and the culture of collaboration is a result of systematically building partnerships between government, employers and teachers.
Every Finnish school is a customised place for learning where teachers and principals plan and design their own curriculum, and the resulting individualised teaching and learning fosters creativity and innovation. Standardisation is the worst enemy of creativity, Sahlberg says, because there’s less room for risk taking.

No inspectors, no ERO

The Finnish government trusts teachers to do their jobs without checking up on them. They abolished the inspectorate in 1991, and handed its work over to local authorities and schools, which were asked to self evaluate. Sahlberg says he and his colleagues in the education ministry in the 1990s deliberately used a particular language with schools, “saying˜we know that you can do this better than we can’, which is a language of trust.”
This greatly increased professionalism in schools and gave teachers a lot more responsibility” they also devise their own classroom tests. Teacher training was radically altered to reflect the new responsibilities.
“Master’s level teacher education programmes include a lot of elements on curriculum planning and student assessment and evaluation¦ so they are prepared to do this better than teachers in other countries.”
But the other important thing is that Finnish teachers have significantly fewer contact hours, allowing more time for preparation, assessment and evaluation.
“Look at the OECD data” it shows that Finnish teachers have one of the lowest teaching loads, (which is not the workload, but the teaching load), meaning that they have more time compared to many other teachers.”
Teacher training also emphasises the flexibility to work deal with children at different levels of ability in creative ways. Sahlberg says school readiness means something different in Finland.
“In our case school readiness more refers to school being ready for different types of children. So the teachers in the first grade can use, for example, not ability grouping, but they can organise teaching and learning so that the students feel comfortable and they are not afraid to come to school because they know that they will be received as they are.”

Culture of collaboration

Sahlberg believes the culture of teachers’ work in Finland, which emphasises sharing and helping one another, is part of its attraction. Teaching has a high status in Finland” perhaps not in terms of pay, but definitely in terms of a desirable job that contributes to society” it’s seen as being on a par with medicine and law. He says the collaborative culture is foremost in the minds of the many young Finns who want to teach. “They see that teachers’ work is more based on cooperation and kind of a collective responsibility rather than competition between teachers and individual efforts. I think it’s very important – at least this is important in Finland.”
Some teachers work together, combining their classes so that instead of 25 students and one teacher there are 50 students and two teachers.

Relationships rule

As well as flexible ways of configuring classrooms, teachers have regular meetings where they try to identify students who may need extra help. About one-third of primary school students are in some type of special education arrangement, which usually means a support teacher in the classroom.
Children with special needs are identified early because families and teachers know each other well. This is because in Finnish primary schools a teacher has the same group of children for several consecutive years.
“One reason why we want to do it like this is exactly this cooperation and communication with the homes and parents,” Sahlberg says. “We believe that¦ the same teacher will learn to know the pupils much better and in more detail and see them as individuals, they also will be able to establish a good trust-based relationship with their parents.”

Big dream come true?

Sahlberg says of course it’s not perfect and there are challenges” fast growing immigration means it’s increasingly difficult to teach children in the medium of their home language. And he’s concerned by a decline in reading skills and habits among adolescent boys.
“But in general we have a system where everybody has a good school within their own community and parents seem to be very comfortable and satisfied with what the public system is offering.”
This is borne out by the statistics” education services are the highest ranked public service in the country and 85 percent of responders to an annual government survey of public services are happy with their schools.
“If our dream was to have a good school and good teachers for every child in their own communities then I think one can say that this dream has been fulfilled.”

Key points

Finnish academic and policy-maker Pasi Sahlberg visited New Zealand at NZEI’s invitation.
Educators in Finland are respected professionals, like doctors and lawyers, working in a high-trust system.
Finland tops the OECD for student achievement in maths, science and reading.