Excellence and talent 'neglected'

12th February 2010 at 00:00
Edward Dutton explains that its uniquely egalitarian society makes the Finnish model almost inimitable

The fact that Finland has regularly 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 Finland has no stark social divide in secondary education, and there are no private schools.

Teachers are highly educated and must have masters degrees from elite universities - only nursery school teachers can get away with a polytechnic education. According to official figures, 68,000 Finnish secondary school students applied for just 18,000 first-year university places in 2008. The successful ones all have to produce a 60,000-word masters thesis before they graduate and, therefore, achieve a rigorous understanding of a particular area of their discipline.

Finland has among the highest per capita number of PhDs in Europe, and teachers are automatically paid more if they have a PhD. Education is deeply respected: Finns put their academic qualifications before their names, and posters for elections stress the academic clout of the candidates.

While there may be no Etons or Harrows in Finland, there are 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 and, at some point between the ages of 18 and 26, boys all have to do national service.

And 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.

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.

At 15, students must either attend an academic high school (lukio) or a vocational ammattikoulu. According to 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 a lukio later.

To get into a lukio, students must do well in regular assessments throughout their time at lower secondary. There are no national exams 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.

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. There is a national curriculum.

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.

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 United States or the UK. Apart from its egalitarianism, the spelling system in Finnish is very simple (as with Korean) so pupils have less trouble learning to read and write.

Professor Janhunen is also concerned by the lack of streaming in Finnish education; it was abolished in 1985. "Finnish schools are very good at making everybody averagely good," he said. "But this neglects excellence and talent."

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

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