Can UK schools really go Finnish?

5th February 2010 at 00:00
Edward Dutton: Finland's uniquely egalitarian society makes the model almost inimitable

Original paper headline: No simple task for the UK to Finnish what it's started

Finnish schools are repeatedly described as the best in the world. So it was no surprise when David Cameron recently praised them, and promised that his Conservative Party would emulate their "unashamedly elitist" attitudes to teacher recruitment.

The fact that Finland has topped such international education tables as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that, aside from the school shootings it has suffered, it must be doing something right. But whether the UK can copy it is another question.

One of the clearest differences with the UK is that there is no stark social divide in secondary education. "There are no private schools in Finland," explains Sampo Backman - despite being head at the simply titled Swedish Private School in Oulu, in the north of Finland. The name, he explains, reflects the school's funding - by a cultural foundation rather than the state. "I suppose you could say we have tuition fees of zero euros!" he says, with a laugh.

The only real divide in Finnish schooling is linguistic, reflecting the country's status as a former Swedish colony. Though numbering only 5 per cent, the Swedish-speaking population have the right to state-funded schooling in their native tongue in municipalities where 6 per cent or more speak Swedish, Finland's second official language. Sociologists confirm that the minority are - on average - better-off, more educated and over-represented in elite professions but, for Mr Backman, this kind of research is misleading. "It is inaccurate that Swedish-speakers are somehow a higher class than the Finns," he insists.

The teachers at Mr Backman's school are certainly highly educated. To become teachers at all, they have had to get masters degrees from elite universities - only nursery school teachers can get away with a polytechnic education. According to Birgitta Vuorinen, a civil servant in the Department of Education and Science Policy, in 2008, 68,000 Finnish secondary school students applied for just 18,000 first-year university places. To gain a place, they must not only do well in their school matriculation exams but pass a rigorous examination set by their chosen department and - if they want to become a teacher - an interview as well.

Heikki Blom, another civil servant in the Department of Education and Science Policy, explains that Finnish degrees normally involve a "track system". If you wanted to do a Theology degree, for example, you would decide when applying if you wanted to follow the "Lutheran priest", "teacher" or "academic" line. "If you decided to do the teacher track degree then you would study social science and pedagogical modules as well as the academic modules," Mr Blom explains.

Though last year's Higher Education Act in Finland has tightened things up, until this year Finnish students received 10 years of term-time funding to do a masters degree that could be completed in five (they now receive five years of funding but can apply for more). This left students with the possibility of pursuing a broad, in-depth education. Even now, all university graduates have to produce a 60,000 word masters thesis and, therefore, achieve a rigorous understanding of a particular area of their discipline.

The former history teacher at Mr Backman's school has published a number of books and his history of the school is on display. And Finland has among the highest per capita number of PhDs in Europe.

It may not be that easy to introduce such a culture into British teaching. Education is deeply respected in Finland. According to historian Pekka Hamalainen, highly educated Finns have always been accorded a kind of elite status even if they are not wealthy. The respect for education can be seen throughout the society. Finns do not use titles such as "Mr". In similarly formal circumstances, they will put their academic qualifications before their names. Posters for elections stress the academic clout of the candidates. As a teacher, you are automatically paid more if you have a PhD. The approximate equivalent of the insult "chav" in Finland is amis. The word derives from ammattikoulu - the "vocational schools" attended by around 40 per cent of school-leavers, generally those who are not especially academic.

By contrast, British people can be suspicious of the highly educated. Gordon Brown could emphasise that he has a PhD - but he doesn't.

While there may be no Etons or Harrows in Finland, there also no "bog- standard comprehensives". Teachers do not have the problems with discipline that some in the UK do. Their pupils will likely be entirely Finnish and conforming in their Finnishness - 90 per cent of Finns are confirmed as Lutheran at 15 after a week-long "Confirmation Camp" (80 per cent of Finns are paid-up members of the Lutheran Church). Indeed, at some point between the ages of 18 and 26, the boys all have to do national service.

Schools in Finland do not compete with each other in the way that British schools do, and social class is not a significant source of media debate. Finland lacks areas of pronounced poverty or wealth.

Anthropologist Professor Pertti Anttonen argues that a very successful myth has developed, since the Finnish Civil War of 191718, that there are no "social classes" in Finland and the only major difference is between Finnish and Swedish-speakers. According to the Legatum think tank, Finland remains a very united society. People trust each other, they trust those in positions of authority and the country is homogenous. Immigration is only now becoming a political issue, with some parents withdrawing their kids from schools in Helsinki because 40 per cent of their classmates have a mother tongue other than Finnish, according to the country's public service broadcaster YLE.

Schools here are co-educational and comprehensive. From age seven to 12 you have a class teacher and from 13 to 15 subject specialists. Up until the age of 15, you simply attend your local school and parents seem to assume that these are all of much the same standard.

Finnish classes are not academically streamed, a practice which was abolished in 1985. But at 15, students must either attend an academic high school, or lukio, or a vocational ammattikoulu. According to Mika Tuononen, of Statistics Finland, almost 51 per cent of 15-year-olds go straight on to lukio, while 41 per cent go straight to ammattikoulu. The other 8 per cent take a break before, often, going to lukio later. Lukio prepares you for polytechnic and university further education, vocational school directs you towards a job such as a chef or a mechanic. As with FE colleges, there is no upper age limit to these schools. To get into a lukio, students must do well in regular assessments throughout their time at lower secondary school. There are no national exams - akin to key stage assessments - in Finnish primaries or secondaries. At the end of their three years at lower secondary, pupils are presented with their summary grades and it is on this basis that they start to apply to upper school.

According to Teemu Honkavaara, who teaches religious education and philosophy at Kastelli Lukio in Oulu, pupils study for three years to take their "matriculation exam".

Anneli Roman, secretary general of the Finnish Board of Matriculation, emphasises that lukio matriculation is the only public examination in the Finnish schooling system. The results are public, allowing people to discover which are good schools - or, at least, which receive the highest number of good grades and in which subjects. "People have complained about this because the lists don't take, for example, social factors or the quality of the pupils into account," Mrs Roman says. "But some people will judge lukios by these results."

Unlike with the British A-level, lukio students must study all the major subjects during their three years. In the exam itself, there are certain compulsory subjects and other optional ones. Students are obliged to sit exams in their mother tongue (Finnish, Swedish or Saami), their "second national language" (Finnish or Swedish), English and maths. They can choose from an assortment of other exams including another foreign language, various sciences, history, philosophy, religion and so on. As in Britain, there is a national curriculum. However, the concept of grade inflation does not exist because the amount of particular grades is strictly limited. In the lukio matriculation exam (first established in 1852) only the top 5 per cent, in a given subject in a given year, can receive laudatur (the highest grade obtainable) and only the bottom 5 per cent can fail. As such, governments cannot boast about pupils' grades improving. As the pupils improve, so the standard needed to get laudatur increases. Universities can, therefore, be relatively confident in the standard.

Professor Juha Janhunen, of the Department of Oriental Studies at Helsinki University, has been critical of judging Finland's educational success by its PISA ratings. He argues that it is difficult to compare Finland to the US or the UK. First, as with Korean the spelling system in Finnish is very simple, meaning pupils have less trouble learning to read and write. And second, Finland is a relatively egalitarian society. Though it may be slowly changing, there are not the dramatic differences in standard of living found in the UK.

Professor Janhunen is also concerned by the lack of streaming in Finnish education. "Finnish schools are very good at making everybody averagely good," he said. "But this neglects excellence and talent."

Dr Edward Dutton is a social anthropologist living in Finland and author of The Finnuit: Finnish Culture and the Religion of Uniqueness (Akademiai Kiado, 2009)

Day-to-day life in Finnish schools

School start times vary depending on the time of year, the amount of light and the age of the pupils.

Schooling does not become mandatory until children are seven, though many working families make use of heavily subsidised day centres for years before this.

At Oulu Swedish Private School, as with most schools across Finland, the Lutheran Church plays a noticeable role. Priests are invited in to lead assemblies at Easter, Christmas and other occasions.

Yet compared with British schools, there is an informal air to Finnish institutions. None of the male staff wear ties at the Swedish Private School, which - because it caters for the city's small Swedish minority - teaches pupils from age seven to 18. "We don't want to be too formal," laughs the history teacher.

There is no school uniform and no hiding of the teacher's Christian name.

Classes are, on average, 15 pupils in size. For Seppo Backman, the tracksuit-wearing headteacher, if there are any more in a class then there needs to be another class. In the "primary" part of Mr Backman's school, only the teachers are allowed to keep their shoes on. "I think it's a sort of status thing," comments one teacher, "and, in Finland, we always take our shoes off in the house."

Children start learning English around the age of nine. Thirteen-year-old Rami Klemets is keen to practice. "I speak Swedish, Finnish and now English," he says, with an American lilt. Pupils opt for an "A" language and "B" language, receiving more tuition in the former. Surrounded by English-language TV, most pupils are keen to learn more of it. By the age of 13, they are peppering their conversation with "cool" English phrases such as "for real".

Finns traditionally eat their main meal at lunchtime and all schools must provide nutritious, balanced diet for their pupils. Since the 1940s, these have been funded by the taxpayer, originally so that poorer pupils could get at least one good meal a day. The menus are published on the internet for parents to inspect.

As in the UK, the health of pupils is being taken increasingly seriously by Finnish schools. The North Karelia Project was started by the World Health Organization in 1972 with the aim of reducing the startlingly high levels of heart disease in the eastern Finnish region and across the country. The project - which introduced weekly health education lessons to schools - cut heart disease by half in the ensuing years.

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