READING AND THE FINNS

Finns are avid readers, which goes some way to explaining,  apparently, how cultural influences  have aided their education success.

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One of the most interesting issues raised about the backdrop to Finland’s successful education system,   in Peter Wilby’s recent Guardian interview   with Pasi Sahlberg, a   roving ambassador for Finland’s education  system, involved the Finns  reading. ( Seldom does a conversation pass  on  education reforms here without some reference to Finland’s system )

Sahlberg said that there  are  a number of key influences, outside the schools, that  are important for success . One of which is the predisposition of Finns to read. Finnish adults, he says, are the world’s most active readers. They take out more library books, own more books and read more newspapers than any other nation.  “Reading is part of our culture. At one time, you couldn’t marry unless you could read. If you belonged to the Lutheran state church, you had to go a camp for two weeks before confirmation, as I did. I had to read the Bible and other religious books to the priest and answer questions to show I understood them. Only then could I be confirmed and only if I was confirmed could I get a licence to marry in church. That is still the case. Now, of course, you can get married anywhere, but 50 years ago there were very few options other than marrying in church and, 100 years ago, none at all.”

What  too many of the admirers of Finland’s education  system  don’t quite register is the  basics-you can never simply cherry pick the best from one system and apply it to another.  Finnish society, rather obviously  is somewhat different from our own. There are what might be termed  ‘cultural variables’  at play. Around four  high quality graduates are going for each teaching job, in what is a high status profession, for example .We have high levels of inequality in  our society-the Finns don’t. They have  negligible numbers of students who don’t speak Finnish as their first language , whereas in many schools in England, for a majority, or a significant minority of pupils,  English is  their second language, and so on.   Nor do the apologists choose to  mention the fact that Finlands performance in maths,  as measured  by the TIMMS international survey (as opposed to the OECDs Pisa survey) has  actually declined, significantly,  in the last ten years.

Having said all  that -one of the most distinctive, stand out qualities of the Finns, is the degree of consensus they consistently  exhibit. They had their battles, of course , over the  future shape of their education system and selection , back when, but  they then created space for themselves to develop a system that was essentially depoliticised, based on consensus and shared objectives. Compare and contrast  that with what happens in the States and the  UK when we debate education! Any discussion quickly becomes adversarial, polarised and personal. Odd that, given that we probably largely agree on what outcomes we want for our children.

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