21st May 2013

It's Not so Cold in Finland


IT’S NOT SO COLD IN FINLAND  (based on information from an interview between Emma Alberici of ABC Lateline and Pasi Sahblerg – Finnish Director General of Education)


Finland constantly gets mentioned in education circles for having the finest education system in the world and the envy of many developed nations. As hard as other countries try to improve their academic standing, Finland continues to stand alone in performance and philosophy.


Australia, more often than not, tends to follow the United States and Britain in its academic thinking and there is no denying that education is very much a political football in the western world.


The Australian ideal when it comes to education is best summed up in the Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians. I believe that in most cases Australian teachers genuinely strive to do the best for students but their job is made increasing difficult as each new generation rolls through the doors of our schools.


The intent of the Melbourne Declaration talks about equity for all and the development of life long learners. Every educator in the country applauds the desire to have successful, confident, creative and active students leave our schools.


The teaching profession in Australia has gone form a revived position to one that is questioned. Young teachers are leaving the profession in droves mainly due to the perceived stress attached to the role of teaching. Today, all schools and systems are encouraged to have parents as close allies in the education process but there in lies a dilemma for the industry. More and more teachers, particularly in the public sector, are confronted with a generation of students coming into the system who are so removed from the social context of a school that containment becomes the priority for the classroom or the school.


The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15 yr old students every 3 years across the globe in Numeracy, Reading and Science. PISA now has a study effectiveness rating to give some measure and balance to the actual test results against the number of hours students are engaged in formal study. Some countries focus on testing as a means in itself, generating extreme pressure on students to perform. South Korea for example ranks extremely high on the PISA results but in study effectiveness ranks 24th out of 30 developed nations. In some cases students in South Korea study up to 13 hours a night and many affluent families engage private tutors to give their child an edge. Finland leads the way in study effectiveness. Students in Finland attend school for approx. 190 days and have less than 30 minutes homework a night. Australian students attend school about the same. South Korea has the highest suicide rate in OECD countries surpassing Japan. Suicide is the #1 cause of death for those under 40 and the youth of South Korea nominate the pressure of exams as the cause.

It is interesting to note that Japan has made a significant shift in its educational landscape. The education system is branding itself as an "education of the heart". The pressure of academic life on students was too great. As a consequence more resources and professional learning has centred on creativity, artistry and play. A good lesson for all systems!


So what is it that makes Finland so exceptional?

The teaching profession in Finland is revived. It is regarded as one of the top professions. Teachers are among the most highly qualified teachers in the world with a Masters degree in teaching theory and practice as the lowest standard entry for the profession. The government covers the majority of study costs for teachers. The profession is very attractive not for the wages but for the autonomy and respect it commands from the general public. Teachers love their work and it is quoted by many that the incentives of their work comes from inside. There are approx. 65 000 teachers in 3500 schools in Finland.


The political background of Finland helped to shape its educational focus with a great deal of tension during the Second World War. Being a small country sandwiched in such political tension it wanted to assert itself onto the world stage by doing something exceptional for its people. EDUCATION was seen as the big ticket item to economy recovery. As a country, they decided to put all its energy into public education. It was felt that in order to be competitive as a nation they needed to educate everyone. The Finnish mantra for education is whatever it takes” and the major goal is to mainstream all kids.


It is my belief all schools should have a learning framework where thinking dispositions are taught. In Australia it is an individual priority of principals as to how they deliver the curriculum in their schools. Certainly the new Australian Curriculum has general competencies that encourage life long learning. 


Finland priorities


Parents are genuine partners with the government when it comes to educating children. Mothers are provided 3 years maternity leave and all families receive subsidised day care. Pre-school is available for all 5 year old children with the emphasis on play and social skills. 97% of 5 and 6 year old children attend public pre-schools. Parents receive child support for every child until the age of 17. Schools provide food, medical care, counselling and a taxi service if needed.


Educational differences


Compulsory schooling commences at 7 years of age. Finland believes children learn better when they are ready. They are not in a rush to commence formal schooling. 30% of students get extra help in the first year of school.


In Finland there are no mandated tests just one exam at the end of senior school. Grade 6 students can sit a regional exam if the teacher feels it appropriate but there is no publication of results. There are no rankings, comparisons or competitions between students, schools or regions. All schools are public funded.

Pasi Sahlberg (Minister for Education & Culture) believes teachers in Finland know more about their students than any test can tell them.

I would assert that Australian teachers know the same about their students but they don’t have a say about the mandatory testing.


Special Education teachers with higher qualifications are employed on a higher pay scale to teach in difficult schools where a higher percentage of learning disabilities exist. These schools use lots of World 2 (hands on experiences) and outdoor learning opportunities. Extra teachers and teacher aids are employed in schools with a high migrant intake. Special language teachers provide intensive lessons in Finnish to help refugee children. A “Positive Discrimination” fund assists these schools with refugee students. Vocational High Schools exist for the severely disabled and the number is increasing. 43% of all high school students attend one of these schools and it is a priority of the system to get students into the right school. There is a genuine desire for every student to success in life.


Catching the weak is deeply ingrained into the Finnish philosophy.


There is an extraordinary unity among educators in Finland to do the best for every child. The connection that exists between teachers and students is a global phenomenon. Team teaching, mentoring, cooperative learning and a culture of sharing are part of the fabric of learning.


There is one system of public schools with the belief that private schools promote inequality. Ability grouping has been eliminated from schools with students of mixed ability being able to assist others with peer mentoring and Special Education teachers working along side class teachers to ensure learning mastery. When you compare the Finnish model to that of South East Asia where there is pressure to succeed, streamed ability and a highly competitive environment, it is little wonder that the welfare of the planet and its people is being overtaken by individualism.

Finland boast of having the smallest academic differential between the weakest and the strongest students. Students are encouraged to love learning and they are valued for who they are, not how they perform.


Principals and teachers are responsible for their own accountability rather than external inspections from government bodies. This in itself reflects attunement between educators and their profession.


So what?


Many education systems around the world use competition as a means of driving results. It doesn’t work. Finland believes that if you only measure the statistics you miss the human aspect. We have moved so far from what we have always known with the industrial model of learning that our students are suffering from the disconnection. Many of our students are disconnected individuals before schools get them and then we compound the problem through no fault of our own.


Reversing the trend will take a serious commitment of government to connect our students with the necessary love of learning that builds a bright future. The Gonski initiative is a step in the right direction. Educators, particularly in the public sector, deserve our support in delivering successful, confident, creative and active citizens who make a difference. Failing this I see no other scenario other than the existing private school system, which is providing a wonderful education for its students, but it comes at an exclusive cost.



“Fins pride themselves on preparing children to learn how to learn. Not on how to take tests. We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”

                                                - Pasi Sahlberg (Minister of Education & Culture)