Finland’s public school system is a hot topic among international education circles and the media for a number of reasons that stand it apart from other countries’ approaches to teaching and learning. Most notable perhaps are its inclusive nature and emphasis on social equity, its excellent results in the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) despite its rejection of standardised testing, and of course the high value that Finnish society places on equal access to quality and free education. Teaching is a respected profession In Finland, and teachers have a great deal of autonomy in the delivery of the curriculum and caring for their students’ welfare and learning.
This article by Finnish educationalist Pasi
Sahlberg details Finland’s commitment to delivering high quality education and individualised learning to all students equally: “Because Finnish educators and policymakers believe schools can change the course of children’s lives, these schools must address the health, nutrition, well-being and happiness of all children in a systematic and equitable manner.” Aaah imagine if all education systems were built on this most basic and beautiful foundation.
This post will touch on some of the key features of the Finnish school system that I think are particularly positive and/or interesting. Sometimes I will make brief comparisons with New Zealand, but I will try to save the detail for future posts dedicated to those issues.
Finland sets the bar high, but its system is certainly not perfect and I don’t intend to portray it as such. The historical, political and social context in which this system works is unique. Up-lifting and transferring Finnish principles and practices to another country’s education system is of course much more complex that we might wish it to be, but we can all definitely learn a lot from these Finnish lessons…
Equity in education
One of the central aims of the Finnish education system is “to provide all citizens with equal opportunities”, and so offers equal access to education and training to all Finns. Most education is publicly funded, with responsibility for this shared between the central and local authorities. There are very few private schools in Finland, and each of those must follow the Finnish national core curricula and qualification requirements.
The value placed on public education here is so great that it is free of charge at all levels from pre-primary to higher education. Even my own tuition here is free (!!) though this is changing for non-EU students who will then be charged 10-13,000 euro ($15,000-$20,000 NZD) per year from 2017. Adult education sometimes requires payment, but it is usually very reasonable in price. Finland also has a well-developed system of study grants, loans and financial aid to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to continue their study throughout their lives.
By contrast, New Zealand introduced the “user-pays” model in 1990 as part of the “free-market” competitive economic reforms and now nearly 730,000 New Zealanders, or about 20 percent of the population, currently have a student loan debt with Inland Revenue that amounts to around $15 billion dollars. This NZ Herald article from June about it also promotes the frustratingly narrow notion that the primary value of education is its economic contribution through the production of graduates who will earn a good salary (gah!)… but we can come back to this sad business and how different groups and individuals aim to address it another time.
There is such a thing as a free lunch!
In pre-primary and basic education (up to 16yo) daily meals, the textbooks and transport for students living further away is also free. The right to a free meal is also included at secondary level. Finnish school legislation guarantees a well-balanced meal daily for every student, so that their health and nutrition can be sustained and ensure that every child has the energy they need for their learning. Makes sense, right?
This has made me reflect so sadly about the situation in New Zealand where there is such huge disparity between the lunchboxes of children attending our schools. This investigation by Campbell Live makes me cry hot angry tears every time I watch it (but please don’t let that put you off, it’s a must-see!). We tried to get a Feed the Kids bill through Parliament, beginning with the schools whose communities needed it the most. But the Government voted it down and claimed that only a few kids went to school hungry which is total crap. You only have to ask the experts working on the front line (paediatricians, social workers, housing and social policy analysts, human rights lawyers and educators to name just a few) at Child Poverty Action Group to learn about the extent of poverty in NZ and its detrimental impact on our children’s well-being.
So many of my colleagues have told me about how they bring extra sandwiches or muesli bars to school to slip to their kids who turn up with nothing. I’ve taught students myself who have come to school hungry, who haven’t had any breakfast and who usually don’t have much more than a packet of chips for lunch. How can we expect our kids to concentrate and learn anything when their tummies are rumbling? It has so much impact on their learning and therefore achievement rates, widening the already significant gap.
The NZ Government lacks the political will to do anything significant about this problem and instead relies on charities like KidsCan and Eat My Lunch to try and alleviate it. Of course it’s amazing to be in Finland where all children are fed at school so that their family’s financial situation has less of an impact on their learning, but it’s also very frustrating because I can more easily see the flaws in New Zealand from here. Please don’t come at me with any “it’s the responsibility of the parents” talk either, because most of this problem stems from structural inequalities (like the fact that more than half of our 40,000 homeless people are in working or studying) and no matter what “poor choices” some parents might make, all children are free from blame for their family situation and we should instead focus on what we can to bridge this divide. Feeding our tamariki at school is just the start, and we won’t even do that 😡
At university the meals at campus restaurants (pictured to the left) are not free, but they’re heavily subsidised by the Finnish Government. For 2.60 euro ($4 NZD) we get a salad buffet, bread and rolls, a choice of nutritious and pretty tasty mains and a drink of milk/juice/non-alcoholic beer. I’m living on a super tight budget as I still have to pay for living costs here, so these subsidised meals are way better than the 2 minute noodles and sandwiches of my undergrad days!
Finland doesn’t follow the grammar school model based on ability streaming. In fact, streaming is banned in Finnish schools because of the self-confidence and related motivation issues it can create, as well as the inequality such a system perpetuates.
This same philosophy is applied to special needs education, which it provides primarily within the mainstream. Students with special learning needs are offered extra support in that environment, rather than being segregated into separate schools. If a student’s needs mean that they cannot be taught in a regular teaching group, their special education is still usually provided at the mainstream school.
In an attempt to challenge the potential stigma attached to having extra support, all students have the right to extra support for their learning if required.
Intensified support is given to students if their needs require it to be regular or if they need various forms of it. The student’s teacher will complete a pedagogical assessment, meet with parents and relevant staff such as the principal, psychologist and/or special education teacher, and create a personal learning plan. The personal learning plan will help the student with key concepts and skills in the mainstream class. The aim is to prevent existing problems from deepening and expanding. If this intensified support is insufficient to do this and the child still cannot cope with mainstream education, students must be given special support. This also requires a pedagogical assessment to be made, with consultation of parents and key staff. A very detailed individual learning plan will be created for the student that could be very different from what is offered to the regular learning group so as to provide highly specialised support.
Something that I found interesting is that there is not a strong tradition in Finland to offer extra support for “gifted and talented” students. This is perhaps because of the egalitarian nature of the system, and is exemplified in a common response to people asking how Finnish students perform so well in the PISA tests: “We are good at being average”.
Finns are well-known polyglots, with many speaking at least Finnish, Swedish and/or English and often another language such as German or Russian. This makes it surprisingly easy for me to get around and run errands, but also difficult to learn Finnish because it’s much more convenient (though not as hilarious) for them to respond in English than it is for me to stumble along in my smattering of Finnish. Kiwis, on the other hand, are notorious for only speaking English, which has left me far behind almost all of my other classmates. My basic-intermediate Spanish hasn’t been very useful, but I automatically respond to Finns in Spanish because it’s the only other language I have any proficiency in.
Finland has a minority 5% Swedish speaking population. There are some schools in which Swedish is the primary language and I think the language is a compulsory subject across all schools as it is one of Finland’s official languages. English is also offered at school, and Finland tends not to dub over English language television and movies which is one reason why it is so widely understood and spoken here.
Local authorities in the Sami-speaking areas of Lapland in the north are also required to provide education in the Sami language (though there are variations of this of course). For other minorities such as Roma and the increasing numbers of migrants and refugees, education providers offer language support and instruction in their own mother tongue. If there are four students in a local area who share a minority first-language, then they are offered two hours a week of instruction in this language! A friend of mine in the course is from Iraqi Kurdistan and has been working in Finnish schools providing this support to children who speak Kurdish and Arabic. We have a significantly more diverse population in New Zealand, (of nearly five and a half million people, only 329,562 spoke languages other than Finnish, Swedish or Sami in 2015), but as far as I understand it, we are far behind in the provision of such support to our own multi-cultural children.
However, while this mother-tongue programme is laudable, celebrating diversity isn’t known to be a strong point of Finland. Most Finnish people are tolerant and welcoming of new people, but many I’ve spoken with have told me that their fellow country-people can be pretty xenophobic at varying levels.
Side note: Finland has become increasingly more diverse in recent years, and there has been a rise in far-right, anti-immigrant and populist sentiment along with it. The current centre-right coalition government now includes the nationalist Perussuomalaiset or the “True Finns”, who position themselves as the “working class party without socialism”. They are more populist (though I have issue with the use of this term as it kind of normalises bigotry and associates those attitudes with working classes) and known for their anti-EU and limited immigration stance than anything else. Certain individuals from the party have pretty extremist views and don’t hold back from sharing them. Anyway, more about them later, and again I digress…
Multi-cultural education seems to have been more reserved for the immigrant children themselves, rather than integrated throughout all schools. Hopefully this will change with the new curriculum from this year, but I haven’t had a chance to read it so will have to come back to you on that one! The amazing Intercultural Teacher Education programme at the University of Oulu is something you should check out if you’re interested in these issues – and it’s also offered to international students in English!
A system based on trust and responsibility
Finland abolished school inspections in the early 1990s, opting instead to steer through information, support and funding. Objectives and guidelines are set out in legislation, the national core curricula and qualification requirements.
Education administration is organised between the national and local levels. At the national level, the Ministry of Education and Culture is responsible for education policy and the Finnish National Board of Education leads in the implementation of policy aims: developing educational objectives, content and methods across all levels of education. The local authorities make decisions on allocation of funding, local curricula and delegating decision-making power to schools.
The education providers themselves can have extensive autonomy, though how much can vary between municipalities. Schools are typically responsible for their own administrative arrangements, and teachers themselves are trusted to decide on the delivery, methods and materials used in their classes.
This might not be so very different from New Zealand, but the value given to the teaching profession and their responsibilities certainly feels very different here. When I was training as a teacher back home, many people asked me what I thought I was thinking, some made comments along the lines of me going into teaching was a “waste”. Here though, Finnish people have praised me for not only being a teacher, but also for getting into the EdGlo course as university studies in education and its sciences is very competitive. Teachers in Finland must have a five-year master’s degree at least. Even the terminology used reflects the value of the profession – teacher education as opposed to teacher training.
This difference has been especially poignant recently as our teachers in New Zealand struggle to make the Minister and the Prime Minister hear their very real concerns about the impact that changing policy on issues such as special needs education, “global funding” and national standards are having on their students. Teachers are being dismissed as “wanting to have a bit of a row” rather than listened to as the experts they are…another conversation worth having again in a dedicated post.
Assessment for learning, not for ranking
One of the most talked about features of Finland’s schools system is that it has rejected standardised testing in favour of trusting teachers’ professional responsibility to know the needs and development of their students. This starkly different approach has seen Finnish students perform very highly against those in other OECD countries in the Programme for International Assessment (PISA). But test results aren’t the purpose of schooling for Finland’s teachers, who instead focus on teaching children how to learn and to find their passion.
No nationally standardised tests doesn’t mean that there are no tests at all though! As mentioned earlier, there is a strong focus on schools’ self-evaluation and teachers are trusted to assess their students themselves in a variety of ways as they know their needs best. There is also a national evaluation every year either in mother-tongue, literature or mathematics. Other subjects including arts and crafts and cross-curricular themes are also evaluated in the national plan. However, these tests/evaluations are sample-based, which means that not all students take part in them and they’re therefore not seen to be regular from the schools’ perspectives.
The aim of the national evaluations is to monitor how well the national objectives are being met, not to compare individual students against each other in a narrow framework as happens in the United States and New Zealand. Schools receive their own results so they can be used for developmental purposes, and the individual students or their parents do not receive them. The results are not used for ranking the schools!
I don’t want to get started on it here in this post as I will need dedicated time and space for it, but there have been significant concerns about the effectiveness and potentially negative impact of National Standards in New Zealand.
More to come
I will explore various aspects of the Finnish school system including its national and local curriculum development and implementation, innovative programmes to develop empathy and to tackle bullying in schools, school funding models and more on this blog throughout my time here in Oulu. If there’s anything that you especially want to know more about, please get in touch and I will do my best to investigate it for you!