The poster child of school improvement

Comprehensive, but also pro-choice


Finland is proud of its egalitarianism. It is a homogeneous society which has overtaken Sweden as the darling of the left  ,as its  social democratic  model    combines steady economic growth with generous welfare  provision and ,of course,  an education system that is  the envy of the western world.  It regularly tops International League tables.  It wasn’t always so.  It is a  relatively new system, created over the last generation. In the early 1970s the Finnish schools system was seen to be failing. The individual , regarded as most responsible for its transformation, was Erkki Aho, director general of the National Board of Education from 1972 to 1992. Aho, now   in his late sixties, is a Social Democrat who believed in trying to make his country more fair, more equitable. Aho and his confederates thought schooling should be “comprehensive,” keeping all children together in the same schools for nine years without tracking them by ability. Only for “upper secondary,” or high school, would academic students be separated from those with vocational interests. The schools would be administered by municipal governments, but at the outset, the substance of the reform would be controlled and driven by the National Board of Education and the government, in Helsinki. However, as I have pointed out in another comment piece, choice is also part of this  system both within schools and between schools. Andrew Adonis, the former Labour Education Minister and architect of the Academies scheme, in his Sir John Cass Foundation Lecture in 2008, talked of how he had been inspired by the Finnish system. He said   “Even Finland – which many think of as the pure version of a uniform community comprehensive model – is in fact no such thing. In Helsinki, parents of half the children entering secondary schools request a school other than the one originally allocated to them. At the upper secondary level, beyond the age of 16, there is wider choice still, with schools and vocational colleges competing strongly on the range and quality of their courses.” Schools also enjoy large autonomy from both municipal and national authorities   with little interference by the central education administration in schools’ everyday lives. School autonomy is increasing at an international level (OECD, 2010) and findings regarding the relationship between school autonomy and raising standards are generally positive. Schools   have considerable input into the curriculum they teach. The current national core curriculum is a lean document—featuring fewer than 10 pages of guidance for all of mathematics, for example—that guides teachers in collectively developing local curriculum and assessments. The focus of 1990s curricular reform was on science, technology, and innovation, leading to an emphasis on teaching students how to think creatively and manage their own learning.  Generally those who support the Comprehensive model in the UK  and who are anti both academies  and free schools are anti-choice and against autonomy  because these  they see as divisive, working against inclusion.


The key to long term transformation, Aho and others believed, was teacher training.  Teaching had always been a high-status profession in Finland, and parents were supportive of an education culture but now it would become even more prestigious. (Today there are 10 applicants for every place in the universities that train teachers.) Teachers are now required to complete master’s degrees, six years of preparation that combined education courses with substantive work in subject areas. Once they have qualified they undertake rigorous and continuing professional development  Finnish policy analyst Pasi Sahlberg describes how, since the 1970s, Finland has changed its traditional education system “into a model of a modern, publicly financed education system with widespread equity, good quality, large participation—all of this at reasonable cost.” (Sahlberg, 2009, p. 2.) More than 99 percent of students now successfully complete compulsory basic education, and about 90 percent complete upper secondary school. Two-thirds of these graduates enrol in universities or professionally oriented polytechnic schools. More than 50 percent of the Finnish adult population participates in adult education programmes. Ninety-eight percent of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.  Leaders in Finland attribute the gains to their intensive investments in teacher education—plus the  major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a “thinking curriculum” for all students. A recent analysis of the Finnish system summarized its core principles as follows:

Resources for those who need them most.

High standards and supports for special needs.

Qualified teachers.

Evaluation of education.

Balancing decentralization and centralization. (Laukkanen, 2008, p. 319)


Sources: F. Buchberger and I. Buchberger, 2004, Problem-solving capacity of a teacher education system as a condition of success? An analysis of the ‘Finnish Case,’ in F. Buchberger and S. Berghammer (Eds.), Education policy analysis in a cmparative perspective

P. Sahlberg, 2007, Education policies for raising student learning: The Finnish approach, Journal of Education Policy

P. Sahlberg, 2009, Educational Change in Finland, in A. Hargreaves, M. Fullan, A. Lieberman, and D. Hopkins (Eds.), International Handbook of Educational Change




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