Finland shocked the world in 2000 when the international PISA survey (Programme for International Student Assessment), which measures the abilities of 15 year old students all around the world in key areas, found that students in Finland were the best in the world at reading, and in the top 5 in the world at science and mathematics. In 2003, Finland came top in both reading and science, and came 2nd in Maths. The latest survey in 2012 saw them drop a little, coming 6th in reading, 5th in science and 12th in mathematics. Still this is an impressive achievement, since most of those above them are Asian countries that have long school hours, and strict, tough conditions, the opposite of Finland’s more laid back approach. Also, 12th place in mathematics is nothing to be sniffed at when you consider that the United Kingdom is 26th, and the USA 36th. So what is the secret of Finland’s success? I looked at some key facts about Finland’s education system.
- Children in Finland don’t start compulsory schooling until the age of 7.
- Finland spends 30% less per student than the USA
- The national curriculum in Finland is more guidelines than rules, with teachers having a much greater say in what they teach.
- There is much less emphasis on homework in Finnish schools, with only a minimal amount being set compared to other countries.
- Class sizes are broadly similar to the majority of developed countries
- School starts 8-9am, and finish 1-2pm. There’s about three and a half hours of lessons per day.
The first thing that strikes me here is that less would seem to be more in Finland. Less money spent, less homework, less time in the classroom. In one respect, this makes the results of the PISA surveys all the more surprising, but on the other hand it does make a kind of sense. Everyone knows that when you work too much you burn out, or at the very least there is a law of diminishing returns – the more hours you spend, the less effective you are in each extra hour. Are most other countries overworking their kids?
I read an interview with a Finnish school teacher and in it they were asked a number of questions about how children in Finland performed at various ages and subjects and how this compared to students in the US. The surprising answer was ‘We don’t know’. A key difference between Finnish schools and many others is that in Finland, they do not have any compulsory standardized tests, other than a single exam when they finish their schooling. Nor are there comparisons and competition between schools, instead they collaborate and share knowledge and experience. At the moment in the UK there is considerable contention about standardized tests for primary school children which have been introduced – only yesterday my daughter, who has just turned 7, spent the morning doing her SATS comprehension test. At aged 7, it is still quite relaxed (while she said they were hard, she seemed more concerned that it meant she’d missed her Physical Education lesson that morning), but when they get to age 11 there’s quite a lot of pressure put on children. This is the antithesis of the Finnish model, and look who is higher in the PISA rankings!
Here in the UK I know a number of teachers, who while all finding their job rewarding and enjoyable in places, also find it stressful and involving extremely long hours particularly out of the classroom in evenings, weekends and holidays. A good friend of mine gave up his job as a manager at a local accountancy firm to train to be a teacher. He found it hard going and gave up to go back to accountancy! Teachers also regularly complain that they aren’t valued enough and their job is being consistently made harder and harder by changes in the role and in the national curriculum. In Finland, teaching is a very valued profession and teachers are considered on a par with doctors and lawyers. This isn’t reflected in their salary, which is broadly in line with the UK and USA, so it must be a more intangible value they perceive in their job, the feeling they are valued and they are making a difference.
Teachers in Finland seem to relish the challenge of their job and will do whatever they can to help poorer performing pupils catch up. A significant proportion of children have one on one coaching in schools at some point in their school life, the aim being to ensure all pupils achieve a similar standard. Finland’s education system is all about consensus and equality rather than competing with each other and stretching the best pupils.
I’ve heard one other theory about Finland’s success in education. For a long time, Finland had no universal education system and it was only in the 1960s, after Soviet Communism’s influence had waned, that Finland decided to concentrate on putting education first. As a result of this, many of today’s teachers and parents were the first generation to receive a good education in Finland. They really see the benefit in education and want to do their utmost to ensure the next generation – their children and pupils – get as good an education as they possibly can. Perhaps in a generation or two this effect will be gone, but they should make the most of it while it lasts.
So what lessons can be drawn from Finland’s education system and the success it has achieved? I am not an expert, but I can see several themes.
- Less is more – Start formal education later, don’t work them so hard
- Schools don’t need to be competitive to do well, and standardized tests probably aren’t helpful
- Freedom – Give teachers more freedom to teach how they want, don’t bind them with too strict a curriculum
- The more teachers’ time is freed up, the more they can help lower performing children
- Value teachers more and see the value in education. The more we value it, the more we instil that value in our children
None of this is to say that Finland has the perfect model of schooling, perhaps they don’t put enough emphasis on pushing their top performing students for instance, but they are obviously doing something right.