In2edu I.C.T. Resources Enhancing Education & Learning

Musings about Finland's Education and Learning Success

finland


Twenty years ago, Finland was under the international educational average in testing and had large gaps between affluent and poor schools. Today, it tops the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), a test of fifteen year olds covering literacy, maths and science. Finland is a small country of five million, with industry comprising of services 65%, manufacturing and refining 31.4% and rates reasonably well in innovation indexes also. It is a strong welfare state with high taxes, a high respect for education by Finnish parents and society in general with surveys demonstrating Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police.

pupils
Recently, I spent a couple of weeks, on and off, looking at videos, reading blogs and investigating various websites that had information to convey about the successes of the Finland education system. The most prominent feature of Finnish students’ performance in PISA, is its constant high level of results combined with small variance. Finland stands out with its weak performers, scoring in all domains, 66 to 91 score points above the mean for the lowest 5 % of students. Their top 5 % surpassed the OECD mean of its group only by just 31 to 47 score points. It was interesting teasing out the factors that I think have combined to produce their high international results. My perspective is from the context of New Zealand education, a country that has also scored highly on these same international tests.

Society Statistics
  • Family statistics 2010 66% married couples, 22% co-habitating couples, 12% one-parent families
  • Crime statistics Generally, on the low side in most categories
  • Child poverty statistics 4% child poverty in Finland. Very low compared to other countries.
  • Current % of government (public) debt to GDP is 48-50%
  • Median age 41 years (the oldest of most European countries)
  • Low infant mortality, high productivity and relatively high taxes
  • Happiness index 5th on table, Happy Life Years 9th on table (see World Database of Happiness)
  • Judged to be the world's least corrupt country (Transparency International)

Finland's Education History
finland_wordle-3-3
In the 1960's, a 9 year plan was adopted with the goal of "education for all". Significant teacher training was carried out, especially to accommodate whole age cohort teaching (a Finnish teacher in the primary area will teach the same children from 7- 16.) The system was government centralized with a detailed curriculum prescription. By 1985 municipal and school level freedom was allowed around a core curriculum. The Education Law of 1999, established a new evaluation policy with sample based NBE-implemented evaluations in key subjects, obligatory for the sampled schools but also available by fee for others for internal use. This lead to local flexibility and diversity with a strong emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy concurrent to provide wide-range education for all.
Finland, possibly has a narrower focus in the breadth of its curriculum than other countries. PISA examinations are similar in contract to the style of the curriculum that FInland focuses on which may also give its pupils an advantage in the PISA exams.
See also this very good overview of the history of education in Finland.

Notable Features

Philosophy as I summarize
  • No pupil should be left behind
  • Equity
  • Trust
  • Free education, including university and polytechnic

Education Statistics

  • Typical class size 18-20
  • Teachers work about 40% less class hours than US teachers do. Average 570 teaching hours a year for teachers in Finland (1,100 hours in the US)
  • 27 % of students having received some form of special support for their learning during basic education.
  • School year 190 days
  • Average spending on education compared to other OECD countries.
  • Zero illiteracy
  • Homework is minimal with an emphasis on extra-curricula
  • Pupils spend the fewest hours in the classroom
  • Finland has more than 4,000 comprehensive schools, 750 upper-secondary schools, 20 universities, and a great many other educational institutions.
  • 99 percent of students now successfully complete compulsory basic education, and about 90 percent complete upper secondary school
  • Two-thirds of these graduates enroll in universities or professionally oriented polytechnic schools.
  • More than 50 percent of the Finnish adult population participates in adult education
    programs.
  • Comprehensive network of libraries
The Flavour of Education in Finland
  • Informal atmosphere in the schools.
  • No formal exams and ranking of schools. The outcomes of all Finnish nine-year comprehensive schools are followed by sample-based surveys. The results are published only on the system level. Formal examination grade 9 (leaving high school) the National Board of Education makes occasional assessments in other subjects and at other grade levels in representative samples of schools and pupils and, lately, longitudinal assessments in key subject. There is no separate school inspection and inspection visits to school are no longer held. Self-evaluation and external examination are emphasized. Emphasis on formative assessment.
  • In Finnish culture, significant political conflicts and sudden changes in educational policy have been rare
  • Teachers and schools are autonomous from state education system. Devolution of power.
  • Teachers are trusted to do their best as true professionals of education. They are entrusted with considerable pedagogical independence in the classroom, and schools have likewise enjoyed significant autonomy in organizing their work within the national curriculum.
  • Finnish teachers set high standards.
  • Flexible, school-based and teacher-planned curriculum along with student-centred instruction, counseling, and remedial teaching.
  • Schools coordinate with social service providers.
  • Teachers all require a masters degree with thousands turned down for training each year, 10-15% of those who apply are accepted. They see teaching as a life-long career. The teaching force is 100% unionized.
  • Starts with preschool (kindergarten), school starts at seven. The emphasis is on, "play". In 2006, 63 % of three-year-olds were in day-care, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.
  • Finnish high schools have two clearly separate streams with both academically oriented general upper secondary schools and vocational institution. Most young children will stay with the same teachers for their entire education, up until 16 when they go to high school.
  • Free daily school meals
  • Right to attend closest school with school based curricula
  • Performance based funding for universities and polytechnics based on: Effectiveness (job placement and further studies); Processes (dropping out, % ratio of qualification certifications holders to entrants); Staff (formal teaching qualifications and staff development).
  • Emphasis on broad knowledge within a depth of curriculum rather than a wide curriculum. Equal value to all aspects of individual growth and learning: personality, morality, creativity, knowledge and skills.
  • The phonetic character of Finnish language makes decoding easy, leading to easier literacy success.
  • Finland emphasizes research and development (around 4% of GDP).
  • Each family gets three free books on birth of child…. for parents and child.
The Gotchas
Cost: the teasing out the figures of the Finnish education finances may enable others to see the split between education department costs and school costs (frontline). It will also be important to see how education budgets integrate with funding from other areas such as Social Services. Secondly, Finland is a homogenous society. It has not had significant migrant or multi-cultural change over last twenty years. However, recent immigrants have become part of Finland's current success and Finland certainly out-performs other homogenous societies.

Off the top of My Head

Relationships, however, are the deal-breaker in the success game. Relationships have driven a systematic reformation of the Finnish education philosophy. It started with leadership and co-operation between professionals to change a failing education system and the ongoing change has had a lack of political interference to derail it. Relationships also drive the start a pupil has in education, from the play in pre-schools to formal "primary" schooling (ages 7 to 16). Having the same teacher, who gets to know their pupils intimately (what happens with the personality conflicts I wonder?) over the eight years they teach them, means that relationships become core to the child-teacher-parent partnership. Relationships between parents, teachers and pupils show a general trust and professionalism.





education
Possibly, due their tough environment and limited natural resources (except for large forest reserves), Finns have made a priority of investing in education. It seems they still have a strong family emphasis that must contribute to the stable and measured start that their children get to schooling. Finally, the lack of formal testing allows schools to develop programmes of learning that balance competition, equity and child-centred needs within the values they wish to emphasize, time is spent on learning and not on testing. For those in management who worry about this… just look at Finland's results and see that it works.

Resourcing and relationships summarize the keys of success in Finland. It would be interesting to explore further how, with an average OECD spend on education, Finland has free education, pays teachers well, provides free meals, gives teachers excellent non-contact time and has class sizes of 18-20. Although it is a state with high taxes, Finland does seem to have a stable government debt to GDP ratio of 50% at this point in time.

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