Nearly 10 years ago, I flew to Helsinki, after Finland had become the star turn in the Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) analysis of education systems around the world.
My visit often felt like a history lesson: the reasons for Finland’s educational success could be traced back decades.
Teachers had been bulwarks for Finnish identity in a country that passed between Sweden and Russia for hundreds of years, before declaring independence in 1917. In small communities, their teachings might have been the only focal points for Finnish language, culture and history. This partly explained why the profession was venerated.
In education and beyond, Finland has played the long game. During the 1970s, it famously began the North Karelia Project, one of the one of the most successful health intervention programmes in the world, which reduced rates of cardiovascular disease with its approaches to lifestyles and healthcare.
First health, then education. In 1991, school inspections were abolished, leaving no national system for evaluating schools’ performance. And I was repeatedly told during my visit that teachers were just as important as doctors. With this mindset, it made sense for a five-year master’s degree to have been established as a prerequisite for aspiring teachers.
Is Teach First a solution?
It is hardly any surprise, then, that many Scottish educators look longingly to Finland, with which they feel a greater affinity than England’s education system. In the past few months, however, much of the debate around Scottish education has been driven by consideration of Teach First, a controversial teacher-training scheme well established south of the border, as a fast-acting solution to recruitment problems.
Since Tes Scotland revealed in June that, after being kept at arm’s length for years, Teach First might be coming to Scotland, opponents have railed against a scheme whose recruits head into schools after five weeks of training. They see it as an existential threat to the teaching, whereas supporters have complained of stifling homogeneity stifling homogeneity in Scottish education.
Now, Scotland’s initial teacher education universities have confirmed that they want no part of Teach First. This comes as no surprise: in July 2016, Tes Scotland reported on University of Glasgow research that found Scotland’s schools of education did not consider Teach First an answer to recruitment problems. Unless Teach First can link up with another Scottish university with no track record in teacher education, or a university from England, it may have to abandon hope of gaining a foothold in Scotland.
Yet even if Teach First – or any other fast-track route into the profession – did come to Scotland, it emerged a few weeks ago in tender documents that this might only provide 20 extra teachers a year.
The whole debate around fast-track routes seems like a distraction from consideration of changes – whether to pay and conditions, school funding (see pages 6-7) or national education institutions – that might lead to significant long-term benefits for the education system.
Scottish education might like to align itself to Finland, but it’s hard to imagine the recent Teach First shenanigans ever happening over there, where successes have been built on decisions taken decades ago. Unlike the Finns, however, Scottish policymakers still appear vulnerable to the idea of quick educational fixes.