Holy grail of Finnish education a 'red herring' for English schools

3rd June 2011 at 01:00
Curriculum review chair says model revered by Gove is unhelpful choice

Finland's schools system, a holy grail for educationalists worldwide, is actually a "red herring" that cannot be replicated in England, according to the leader of the Government's national curriculum review.

The Nordic country's residency at the top of international league tables has prompted so many foreign teachers to beat a path to Helsinki to learn from its success that officials have had to start turning them away.

Education secretary Michael Gove has frequently praised Finland, describing it as "the most educationally impressive nation in Europe".

But Tim Oates, appointed by Mr Gove to chair the expert panel leading the curriculum review, says it should not be seen as a model for England to follow.

"Finland has been advocated as the place to replicate and that idea is a red herring," he told The TES. "It has some very unique circumstances that mean we have to be very circumspect in taking too much from that system."

His panel has been reviewing international research on leading education systems to inform its recommendations for a new national curriculum.

Mr Oates is particularly concerned by those who argue that England should follow Finland's example and loosen central control and accountability on schools.

"One of the things that people often say is that Finland is a devolved system and that proves devolution works and therefore devolution is the right way to go," he said. "In fact, Finland achieved its success on the back of a heavily top-down (education policy) 30 years ago."

He acknowledged the country had since "relaxed" controls on schools, but said: "That wasn't what gave them their initial improvements."

Ministers in England and their Labour predecessors have claimed they are moving from rigid, centralised command and control and now emphasise school autonomy.

But Mr Oates said that did not mean it was helpful to see this country as being at the same point in a cycle as Finland. "I don't subscribe to a view that all countries have a common path. It is more important to understand the factors at play in a country's education system."

He noted that Finland had structural problems and was "closing schools all over the place".

The country's small size and cultural differences also limited its usefulness as a model for England, Mr Oates said. Even Finland's physical location had contributed to a unique educational culture.

"It is dark half the year, so they read and talk to each other a lot more during the dark months of the year," he said.

Mr Oates is annoyed by critics who claim his national curriculum review is simply "cherry-picking" international ideas.

He gave his findings on Finland as an example of the "sensitive and sophisticated" nature of its examination of evidence.

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