Education Reformers look to Finland for inspiration

But Finland holds  some surprises


Ever since Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million that does not start formal education until age 7 and scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years, scored at the top of a well-respected OECD Pisa  international test in 2001 in maths, science and reading, it has been an object of fascination among educators and policy makers worldwide.

Our own Government admires the Finnish education model and there are plenty of politicians and policy wonks who have visited Finland to see what we can learn. Education tourism is now something of a cottage industry but most educators realise that you cannot simply import another country’s education system to improve outcomes.  Systems operate within a specific  context and culturally specific factors are important. You cannot examine any education system divorced from its political, socio-economic and cultural backdrop. Nonetheless by the same token it would be ridiculous to claim that we have nothing to learn from a system that delivers such consistently outstanding outcomes.

Dr. Sasi Sahlberg ,a prominent Finnish educator and author, puts high-quality teachers at the heart of Finland’s education success story.  Dr. Sahlberg said in an interview with the New York Times  that  teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, where he teaches, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots in the (fully subsidized) master’s program for schoolteachers. “It’s more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine,” he said. Dr Sahlberg said a turning point for Finnish education was a government decision in the 1970s to require all teachers to have master’s degrees — and to pay for their acquisition. The starting salary for school teachers in Finland, 96 percent of whom are unionized, was about $29,000 in 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared with about $36,000 in the United States. Finland scorns almost all standardized testing before the age of 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children’s right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7. Given the importance now attached by many educationalists to early interventions this is particularly interesting and appears to go against the grain of current thinking in many other countries. Indeed Finland  seems to be swimming against the tide of many reforms elsewhere. Dr. Sahlberg said another reason the system had succeeded was that “only dead fish follow the stream” — a Finnish expression.  Meaning that Finland is going against the tide of the “global education reform movement,” which is based on core subjects, competition, standardization, test-based accountability, control.

“Education policies here are always written to be ‘the best’ or ‘the top this or that,’ ” he said. “We’re not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That’s enough for us.” (think he was joking). Sahlberg cautions against others trying to import the Finnish model-it just isn’t that simple.  You cant import ideas à la carte and then expect results, he says.

Besides high-quality teachers, Dr. Sahlberg pointed to Finland’s Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

He emphasized that Finland’s success is one of basic education, from age 7 until 16, at which point 95 percent of the country goes on to vocational or academic high schools. “The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society,” he said.

Dr Geraldine Hutchinson of CFBT Education Trust  says that  pre-school childcare for working parents  in Finland is of the highest quality for everyone (it is not unusual to find a masters level teacher in this field). The importance given to the care and development of the youngest children is fundamental and that basic tenet is the basis upon which that society is built .There  is a also  thread of egalitarianism that runs through Finnish society, mirrored in its education system.

As the UK is again involved in reviewing its curriculum –the process is not going very well, by the way, as the Review team have been asked to think again by Gove- it is worth noting that Finlands curriculum is short and sweet. A 2010 OECD report ‘Strong Performers And Successful Reformers In Education: Lessons From Pisa For The United States; (‘Finland:  Slow and Steady Reform  for Consistently High Result’) provides some intriguing insights. It reveals that both regular class teachers (grades 1-6) and subject teachers (7-9) exercise an enormous degree of professional discretion and independence when it comes to the curriculum. There is a national core curriculum in Finland, introduced in 2004 but over the past 20 years it has  become  progressively less detailed and prescriptive. (the Preamble ran to 300 pages, see below) The core curriculum also offers some broad criteria for student assessments, but it is teachers who  have the principal responsibility for building systems to continuously assess the progress of students.  Essentially the curriculum is  a framework, leaving education providers and  teachers considerable  latitude to decide what they will teach and how. Teachers select their own textbooks and other instructional materials, for example. Because the only external testing in comprehensive schools is done on a sampling basis and is designed to provide information on the functioning of the system as a whole, assessment in Finnish schools is a classroom responsibility. Teachers are expected to assess their own students on an on-going basis, using the assessment guidelines in the national core curriculum and textbooks.

And pupils are encouraged to take greater ownership and responsibility for their own learning and this is central to the Finnish approach. The following is taken from the preamble to the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, Finland (2004):

‘The learning environment must support the pupil’s growth and learning. it must be physically, psychologically,  and socially safe, and must support the pupil’s health. The objective is to increase pupils’ curiosity and motivation to learn, and to promote their activeness, self-direction, and creativity by offering interesting challenges and  problems. The learning environment must guide pupils in setting their own objectives and evaluating their  own actions. the pupils must be given the chance to participate in the creation and development of their own  learning environment. ‘

This is something of an antidote to  the relatively prescriptive  centrally driven version we  currently have here in which teachers are not  given much say and pupils are certainly not encouraged nor trusted  to take ownership of their own learning. But then again maybe this is a culturally specific phenomenon.



  1. Guilty of PISA tourism, having been to Finland in September! But I will also say it was one of the most valuable international events I have ever attended. There were a number of things that really struck me about the trip, which included a visit to the University of Helsinki’s teacher training institute. I only met one teacher the entire time I was there who was in any way as deeply politicised as so many UK teachers are…and she was Swedish. Everyone else discussed their role and education, in completely apolitical terms.

    I was also deeply struck not just by the obvious high academic standard and ability of the teachers but by the remarkable degree of consistency they displayed. Ask 5 different UK teachers a question about schooling and you’ll almost certainly get 5 different answers. Not in Finland. There was no doubt that expectations, for example about how teenagers should behave in a classroom, were the same between entirely different teachers, in entirely different schools.

    But most interestingly of all from my own research point of view, was the degree of autonomy Finnish teachers have in choosing and designing what they teach. It underlined for me something I am increasingly keen to be more widely understood. During my career I rarely worked with any teacher who used a text book, except to dip into, because their levels of subject knowledge were so high, they preferred to design and own their own lessons. In effect, they really did know what they were talking about! That is what I saw in Finland too.

  2. Interestingly I heard a Swedish politician speaking recently on Free schools and he could not fathom why we in this country are so politicised polarised and aggressive when it comes to discussing education issues. Although he was a Free school supporter one of his children was at a municipal school and the other was at a free school.. and nobody would think of giving him any grief in Sweden..he was just bemused by what is happening here

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