Long Way to the Finnish Line

To most Scots, of the key areas of policy already devolved to Scotland, Education ranks right behind Health and the NHS in terms of priority. Based on an early tradition of universal education, Scots have had a pretty good conceit of the superiority of a Scots education. But, since school leaving age was raised to 16 and universal comprehensive education was introduced forty years ago, that conceit has worn thin.

While—in common with England—the measures of academic performance for the last 15 years indicate steady improvement in exam results, most employers, colleges and universities (and in private, many teachers) see the measure as inflated and flawed. Despite what education professionals claim and undoubted abilities of better pupils, there is uniform condemnation of school leavers ill-prepared for work and, in many cases, innumerate if not actually illiterate.

Rather than argue the toss with no context, let’s look elsewhere for comparisons. In the early 1970s, Finland had an under-performing education system and a poor economy. The Finns knew that to achieve their goal of a knowledge-based society, the education system needed revamping. Finland’s agricultural economy had fallen into a steady decline by relying heavily on one product of which there is an abundance in their great forests: trees.

But only one out of every ten adults had completed more than nine years of a basic education. Holding a degree from a university was a rarity. Most children left public schools after six years while the rest attended private, folk, or academic grammar schools. The privileged few and the lucky ones received quality education. This is one reason why Finns now value equality over excellence of individuals. The not only emphasise but actually practice “equal opportunity to all”.

By 2006 the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted a survey of 15-year-olds’ academic skills from 57 nations. Finland placed first in science by a whopping 5% margin, second in math (edged out by one point by Chinese Taipei), and third in reading (topped by South Korea). That they have been overtaken in recent years by Singapore, several districts of China and other Asian countries does not negate their remaining at the peak of Western educational attainment where they are being pursued by a variety of countries. But not Scotland or England, which languish around 25th place.

To listen to EIS and other teaching unions, money in the shape of teachers’ salaries and conditions are the answer. But statistics do not bear this out. Taking the difference in points between PISA scores in maths, science and reading OECD average and comparing this with the difference in percent between that country’s teacher salary and the OECD average gives a chart as shown below.


Comparison of PISA Scores & Teacher Salaries

Comparison of PISA Scores & Teacher Salaries

There is clearly little correlation between results and what teachers get paid and it appears that Danish children get a worse deal than Scottish for the money lavished on their education. The Irish cost more but seem to get better results. But the one that stands out (again) is Finland. Whatever their success in educating young Finns, it clearly doesn’t derive from their teachers’ high salaries.

At first glance, the Finnish educational system looks as if it were designed for slackers. Schools often have lounges with fireplaces but no period bells. Finnish students don’t wear uniforms, nor do they often wear shoes. (Since Finns go barefoot inside the home, and schools aspire to offer students a nurturing, homey environment, the no-shoe rule has some pedagogical logic.) And, although academic standards are high, there’s none of the grind associated with high-performance private schooling here in Scotland. Never burdened with more than half an hour of homework per night, Finnish kids attend school fewer days than 85% of other OECD nations.

Finnish teachers enjoy an equally laid-back arrangement. They work an average of 570 hours a year, much less than the Scottish average of 950 hours. They also dress casually and are usually addressed by their first name.But that does mean they do not receive huge respect.

When Finland began the first stages of remaking its education system, teaching made it to the top of the list. The first reforms relocated all teacher education from teacher colleges to universities, which enabled a higher level of professionalism and academic sophistication. In order to control quality and maintain standards, only eleven colleges and five vocational schools offer teacher education programmes. Of equal significance, further reforms have since required teachers to hold a master’s degree.

In Finland, teachers boast the highest vocational status (followed by doctors.) A full 25% of Finnish youngsters select teaching as their career goal, but only a fraction succeed. Under 13% of applicants gain acceptance into the masters’ degree in education program. Applicants usually come from the top quartile in their class and are accessed based on their upper secondary school record, extra-curricular activities, and their score on the Matriculation Exam. If the applicants make it past the first screening round, they are observed in a simulated teaching environment, and if they make it through this, they are then interviewed. Applicants who show a clear aptitude for teaching, in addition to strong academic performance in their interviews, are accepted.

Because of the fewer hours worked, Finnish teachers do earn hourly rates comparable to their Scottish colleagues. But the big difference is Finnish teachers enjoy immense independence. Allowed to design their own lesson plans and choose their own textbooks (following national guidelines), they regard their work as creative and self-expressive.

It all starts early. Finnish toddlers have access to free nurseries supervised by certified college graduates. Nurseries offer no academics but plenty of focus on social skills, emotional awareness, and learning to play—they don’t approach reading until age seven— learning other concepts first, primarily self-reliance. P1s are expected to walk unescorted through the woods to school and lace up their own ice skates.

Schools aren’t ranked against each other, and teachers aren’t threatened with formal reviews. At many schools, teachers set no exams until P5, and they aren’t forced to organise curriculum around standardised testing. Gifted students aren’t side-tracked into special programmes but struggling students receive free extra tutoring in the mainstream. Many teachers also stay with a single class for many years, moving with them through the school. School choice doesn’t exist; everyone goes to the same neighbourhood school.

After S2, students follow either an academic (53%) or vocational (47%) curriculum, which results in 96% of pupils leaving school with suitable qualifications. The Finnish curriculum is far less ‘academic’ than you would expect of such a high achieving nation. Pupils sit no mandatory exams until the age of 17-19. Teacher-based assessments are used by schools to monitor progress and these are not graded, scored or compared; but instead are descriptive and utilised as feedback and assessment for learning.

Finland’s academic success took smart planning, a willingness to take risks to achieve measurable and ambitious goals, patience, and fortitude —things our education system needs. With Finland’s retention rate for teachers is 97 percent (in Scotland, it’s 73%) there is a clear case for status, respect and autonomy, rather than financial reward, being the best motivators for exceptional teaching than creates a world-class education.


About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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1 Response to Long Way to the Finnish Line

  1. Pingback: Home from School | davidsberry

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