Why The Finnish Education System Works.

I’ve previously written about my admiration for the Finnish education system.

I just finished reading Cleverlands, a book by a London teacher, Lucy Crehan. Lucy decided to visit five countries with top-notch education systems: Finland, Japan, Singapore, China and Canada – spent time there with teachers and tried to understand what it was about the culture, the education system, the philosophy and the approach that have allowed for these nations to be amongst the top for quality of education.

Upon reading this very informative and thought-provoking book, I revisited the topic of Finland’s education policy and thought it’d be useful to share some pertinent details.

Start of formal education

Formal education in Finland only starts at the age of seven, significantly later than in most other countries.

The late start of formal education has had no impact on the competency attainment in literacy, maths or science by the time Finnish children turn 15. Finland still ranks amongst the top nations in the PISA rankings.

Before the children turn seven in Finland, quality time is spent on creating the right conditions that support the children’s holistic growth and development. There is a predominant focus on the development of social skills, positive self-affirmation, reflection on right and wrong and creating the basis for much more positive interaction with their peers.

This emphasis on holistic development before they start school has allowed for Finnish students to rank amongst the top of their peers globally despite starting formal school later than in most countries. This is further supported by a generally high staff to student ratio and where the teaching and support staff are all highly trained and qualified professionals.

Free compulsory and comprehensive education

Finland also runs a free comprehensive education system for all children for the first nine years of their formal education (from seven to sixteen).

All of the children are trained to the same curriculum during their time at comprehensive schools.

In their first few years in their comprehensive schools, children with additional or special needs are identified early by their teachers. These students are then given greater support and guidance with teachers who are equipped with the right training and skill sets. These children may then be placed in smaller classes where they are given greater bespoke support and guidance by teachers. Beyond this though, there is no further ‘streaming’ or classification of students into different ability groupings and the children remain in class together till the age of fifteen/sixteen.

Despite the relatively late start of formal education (from the age of seven), Finland not only has one of the highest ratings of their children’s performance in international education rankings, it also achieves one of the top scores in terms of equality across students – where the gap between the best and worst performing students is narrow.

Another important aspect of Finnish education at the comprehensive school level is that schools have a multi-disciplinary approach to children’s development. All schools or clusters of schools in each area have a support team including a nurse, dentist, speech therapist, psychologist and counsellor. This child welfare support team form the base support for all schools where each child’s progression is considered.

This approach to education has a significant investment outlay. However, the Finnish attitude to this is that it is much most costly (and wasteful) when any Finn is excluded from active society due to a poor start during their schooling years.

As Ilpo Salonen, Executive Superintendent of Basic Education in Finland (in an interview to Crehan) says, “When we are five million (population-wise), we cannot afford to drop anyone.”

Empowering the teachers who are educating the youth of the nation

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to year for the vast and endless sea.”

Anotine de Saint-Exupéry

The Finnish approach to the development of their teachers is a fundamental underpinning of the Finnish education system

There is a significant emphasis on teacher training. All aspiring teachers need to first go through a rigorous and robust training programme, to Masters level, at one of eight prestigious Finnish universities.

Here, the teachers are all deeply immersed in understanding the pedagogy and educational approach towards a nationally coordinated curriculum.

Following this rigorous training programme, in their initial years, they observe senior teachers and have a programme of mentoring that help them further develop and refine their skills.

They are subsequently given greater autonomy when they are in schools (there are no lesson observations, no school inspections for example), and have the freedom to grade students to the age of fifteen (when they are in comprehensive schools) and even have the freedom to choose their own books for children!

This autonomy and trust provided to the teachers provides them with greater motivation and passion. In return for the trust shown to them, the teachers have a very disciplined approach to continuous professional development, where they spend time each year to learn new concepts and best-practices in teaching.

This Finnish approach of providing all teachers with the mastery in the art and science of education and teaching, creating a peer community of teachers, continuous training and respecting them by providing them with greater autonomy has reaped significant benefits for the education of children in Finland.

The power of culture

One cannot underplay the role culture plays in ensuring the overall approach to a high-performing education system.

In the case of Finland, the educational framework has a thoroughly egalitarian approach – where both vocational and academic pathways, post the basic comprehensive education phase, are deemed to be equal.

Children are also reinforced with positive affirmation and motivation rather than be shepherded early only in their childhood towards educational pathways which they may not necessarily understand.

The Finnish traditions also consider teaching to be a highly respected profession (despite the average pay) and hence the teachers who join the profession are intrinsically motivated and are committed to delivering public value through their custodial responsibilities of their nation’s youth.

For long stretches of their history, Finland and her people have been ruled by various colonial powers and were subjugated as second-class citizens. From the onset of independence, the Finnish people were determined to ensure they would never again be second-class and education was seen as an important lever to enhance themselves and their sense of self.

Finland remains a model of education for educators and regulators everywhere and has much for us all to learn from.

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