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Beijing looks a long way north for inspiration

China. China has selected Finnish schools as the model for radical reform of its curriculum for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Five hundred Chinese principals will travel to Finland to gain first-hand experience of the country that came top in international comparisons of reading, science and problem-solving skills and second in maths in 2003.

The principals are from four provinces - Guangdong, Hainan, Shandong and Ningxia - that have been piloting the curriculum since September. It will be introduced to seven more provinces this year and nationally in 2007.

A Finnish delegation has visited Beijing to sign an agreement to help implement the curriculum. The deal is the product of burgeoning co-operation between the two countries since minister of education Chen Zhili visited Helsinki in 2001. The principals will attend one to two-week courses on the post-16 curriculum, meet policy-makers, attend workshops in universities and visit schools.

Jorma Kauppinen, head of Helsinki education board's upper secondary school unit, said Ms Chen had identified the Finnish post-16 system as a model after being impressed by Ressu upper secondary school, which she visited during her trip. The curriculum has since been translated into Chinese and adapted, though based on the Finnish structure.

The deal was initially signed between eight schools in Finland and eight in China, involving student and teacher exchanges and help from officials with curriculum development.

Ressu's principal, Ari Huovinen, has been co-ordinating the exchange, receiving high-level delegations from China and making several visits in return. "The Finnish system encourages students to make their own individual study plan and to take responsibility for their studies," he said. "I am convinced that the decision of China to take this unique system as a major role-model was a wise and far-sighted choice."

Finland has a broad, modular senior secondary curriculum, with 47 to 51 compulsory courses and a minimum of 10 optional specialist courses.

Students are not taught in year groups and, though they generally complete the stage in three years, but can take from two to four years.

Students are assessed after each module and receive a school-leaving certificate. They can also take a national matriculation exam, in their mother tongue and three optional subjects, for university entry.

China's new senior secondary curriculum is based around eight core areas of study including language and literature, maths, humanities and science. As in Finland, students will not be taught in year groups, but according to courses, mixing compulsory and optional subjects. The curriculum replaces a rigid study programme offering no options.

China is understood to be interested in extending co-operation with Finland to other areas of education, in particular vocational education.

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