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