Pasi Sahlberg

25th May 2012 at 01:00
The Finnish education policy expert discusses the merits and pitfalls of his country's celebrated status as a world leader in pedagogy, the advantages of creating a master's-level profession and life after the abolition of the school inspection service. Interview by Julia Belgutay

What made you want to be involved in education?

I wanted to work with people and try to help. My father was my teacher and we actually lived in the primary school. My walk to school was about five steps. When the pupils were gone I saw the empty classrooms and I would play being a teacher.

Is Finnish education as good as people say?

I think a good education system is something the taxpayer, parents and other people are confident with, and we have that. Good education also includes how many people go into school, how many leave without qualifications, how much money was spent and, crucially, how the public service for pupils is in terms of "treating everybody equally". And this is where Finland is leading everybody else.

What is its biggest strength?

It is probably two-fold. The system is built with equality as the main driver, not excellence or achievement like in many countries. And we have been more successful than many with taking teachers very seriously. We are not just paying lip service to them. Very early on we upgraded teacher qualifications to master's degree level, equal to any other master's. Most of the system is now in the hands of these highly qualified, motivated professionals.

What weakness needs to be most urgently addressed?

Ten years of global international fame and high reputation have meant that continuously improving and developing the system has become very difficult. We have a state of complacency, which in the long run will be a critical problem. We have issues others have, too, like the gap between boys and girls becoming wider and alarming numbers of young people who find education irrelevant and drop out. We have more than 100,000 young people between 15 and 29 who have only compulsory education. In a system like Finland, that is a lot.

How is immigration affecting the system?

It is a challenge because of the language. Very few immigrants who come to Finland have any previous background of the language. We are providing every child who comes to Finnish school as an immigrant with a right to study in their first year using their mother tongue. I can take you to a school in Helsinki where people speak 30 different languages. But Finns still have a lot to learn about what diversity means, and what it means to be multicultural.

The Finnish population is still fairly homogeneous - how much does that have to do with educational success?

Of course, it is easier if you have a homogeneous pupil population. But you cannot explain all Finnish achievements by saying we are small and homogeneous and we all speak the same language.

Part of the success is also founded in the high standing of teachers in society. Why is that so important?

It's extremely important that teaching is seen as one of the most high- prestige professions, because only in this way are we able to maintain the high demand among young people to become teachers in Finland, so we can focus on the quality of the entrants and select the right people. That means we don't have to worry about things too much, unlike here in Scotland, where you have to spend a lot of money inspecting schools. We don't need to do that because we know up-front that these people are good and we know they got good training and are responsible professionals. In a system like Scotland, you need to run after these individuals to make sure they do everything they are supposed to do.

Finland doesn't have an inspection system - are there any plans to change that?

We had an inspection system like you. I was the last chief inspector appointed to a permanent post. We have no plans to bring it back because it's very expensive to run and we now have highly educated professionals, and that would be difficult to explain to them. Their reaction would be, "Why doesn't the ministry of health have an inspectorate for doctors?" We abolished the inspectorate, but not inspections; we handed those over to schools. They often do that in a peer-review-type exercise where schools and their staff are inspecting themselves and having professional dialogue.

What can other countries learn from Finland's success?

We don't have standardised testing where we would be testing every child all the time, but we rely much more on sample-based assessment, where some of the students are assessed sometimes. And then there is the bigger picture, where the main lesson for many countries - particularly the UK and Scotland - is that there is another way to think about reforming education and then implementing the reform than those that have been dominant here, which are based on competition, accountability and standardisation, testing and assessment.

Has Finland reached its peak in terms of educational quality?

If we look at the international test scores, every time a new country comes in, it affects the averages and rankings. We are probably going to go downhill in the rankings, but continue to have a fairly good overall situation. As long as the country has good teachers, nothing radical can happen. But if we lost that, then in 10 years' time we would be in a very difficult situation.


Born: Oulu, Finland, 1959

Education: Vuohtomaki Primary, Pyhajarvi Secondary, University of Turku, University of Helsinki

Career: Maths and science teacher, senior adviser in science education for the Finnish Ministry of Education, senior education specialist for the World Bank, author of Finnish Lessons - What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?

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