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Finland's lesson for the minister

Peter Peacock should look at the whole system and not just cherry-pick the bits he likes, says John Muir

As a regular visitor to Finland over 14 years, I was interested to learn of Peter Peacock's decision to make a second trip to look at the country's education system. In that time, there have been many changes to the way schools are organised and the OECD has taken note of high achievements in key subjects.

The minister may learn that the Finns, in common with many other Scandinavians, are amazed at what we have here in pre-school: a structured, more formal curriculum from age three; at times tedious reporting and record-keeping; a never-ending round of inspections; variations in standards of training and qualifications of staff.

In Finland, the emphasis is on learning through structured play, with children from the age of six being guided by well-qualified staff into the curriculum as they mature. The country does not start on formal schooling until the age of seven, arguing that it wants them to be children for as long as possible. Despite some criticism from the OECD that seven was perhaps too old to enter primary, the Finns have held their ground.

On visits to schools, I was interested to note that, after only one year, most pupils were working at similar levels to Scottish primary 4 children and some had begun to learn English also. Maturity and preparedness for learning seemed to be the keys to progress.

Comprehensive schooling is divided into two levels, lower school (age 7-16) and upper school (16-plus), with the latter divided into a choice of a general or vocational-apprenticeship route. Class sizes tend to be smaller than here and teachers are well qualified, after five years of preparation.

I was impressed with the conditions for staff. There are modern or upgraded "eco-friendly" schools, with good sized classrooms and excellent work areas. I found that many young people in Finland are keen to become teachers and that there was a high percentage of men in primaries.

Underachievement among boys is not an issue in Finland, as it is here. I wonder if the gender balance among teaching staff is a contributory factor.

Mr Peacock will notice that the Finns are not obsessed with assessment at every stage, as we seem to be. There is, of course, continuous informal assessment in class to record progress. But there are no major examinations until matriculation. I found that teachers and pupils seemed more relaxed as a result, but certainly not laid back. They endeavoured to ensure steady progress through their national curriculum.

Most notable over the years I have visited has been the move to decentralise control of schooling. Local communities, parents and staff have much more input than 20 years ago. This ranges from spending on equipment to staffing ratios, within fairly open national guidelines. There is greater flexibility in the delivery of the curriculum now, albeit within national minimum allocations of time.

Then came a bombshell: the abolition of the national inspection programme.

In line with decentralisation, quality assurance now takes place at a local level, with each community playing a key role in monitoring standards.

Although I later began to see greater variation in both financial and education provision across schools, the OECD none the less provides the evidence that Finnish schools are now among the best, if not the best, in the world.

Given the current debate in Scotland, discipline in schools will be uppermost in the mind of the Education Minister when he flies into Helsinki. I could not help but note the good order in almost all of the limited number of schools I visited. Somehow they seemed tidier, with little or no graffiti or litter. I was told that there was a "zero tolerance" approach and that great effort was made to ensure that children, parents and community had "ownership" of the school. A lesson for Scotland, perhaps?

Finland was also an early example of a country which identified a link between diet and ability to concentrate in class. Finns had health promoting schools when we were still selling chocolates and crisps in profit-making tuck shops. Snacks and school meals are provided free to all pupils.

While pupils start school at 8am, their time in class is shorter than here, with a range of extra-curricular and sports activities at the end of the day. Lessons are also shorter, particularly in the lower school, with several five and 10-minute breaks throughout the day. They believe that teachers and pupils benefit from improved concentration when they return to work in class. The school year is shorter too.

One cannot transfer parts of a system from one country to another, taking text out of context and using it as a pretext for change, as some former ministers have done to promote their own political agenda. Let us hope this minister learns only the appropriate lessons.

John Muir is a quality development officer with Highland Council.

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