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Finns can only get better

It does you good to get out. After a fortnight of conversations about pizza nuggets and twizzling turkeys, I packed my thermals and headed off to Finland with my colleagues to discover how it is that the Finns are all so jolly clever at everything according to the industrialised world's league tables of maths, reading and science.

As always there is a depressing preponderance of fluent language speakers everywhere we turn. "Welcome to our country!" smiles the passport controller, the luggage attendant, the toilet cleaner.

"Would you care for milk or lemon?" asks the tea shop owner, the waitress, the hotel receptionist.

Our hostess, Eeva, the leader of international relations in Helsinki, was an exemplary role model for all speakers. Witty, precise and, above all, insightful on the reasons for Finland's global educational high standing.

"We don't care about money, we care about learning," she declares. "But now we have a problem: 60 per cent of Finnish women have degrees, but only 40 per cent of men do." She sternly surveys the scattering of token males among our primary headship group; shoulders are squared and backs straightened.

There is something of the Mrs Coulter about Eeva. She has the secret of dust and we want to hear what it is.

"In Finland, from the 13th century if you couldn't read, you couldn't marry." Blimey. "More people use the public libraries than anywhere else in Europe." Cripes.

"We spend 75 per cent of our gross national product on education, health and social services. All our teachers train until they are at least 26, and everyone wants a job as a teacher." What?

"In Finland, to be a teacher you must have more than just a good degree. We are requiring (she stops and searches for the word) circus performers... all singing and dancing, yes?" Aha! Common ground at last!

But now Eeva is getting to the heart of the matter.

"In Finland there are three things that no politician would ever change: free school meals, free school meals, and free school meals. I think your Yammie Oliver is wishing you could say the same."

Our patron saint of dinners gets in everywhere and no doubt watches over us as we go off to sample the holy grail or, more realistically, gravadlax.

The climate makes growing anything green difficult, and the indoor market can offer the degree-laden Finnish housewife whatever she wants as long as it's reindeer. How, then, do they manage to serve a daily diet of mixed salads, fresh vegetables, rice, potatoes, cheese and meat to everyone (including us) for free? We look nervously at our food-shaped food, our fizz-free water and the home made garlic dressing supplied on every PVC-clad table. "Enjoy your meal," chirps a smiling nine-year-old boy with the merest touch of Sven to his accent.

It's been a hard lesson to digest.

Vicki Johnson

Vicki Johnson is head of Northwood primary school, Cowes, Isle of Wight

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