Politics - Scandinavian mission sparks issues of trust

19th March 2010 at 00:00
Education Secretary looks to Finns to inspire way forward for Scottish education

The Education Secretary's trip to Scandinavia this week has cast doubt on whether Scottish teachers will ever be ready for the greater freedom of the new curriculum.

Finland and Sweden may be neighbours, but Michael Russell found they could not be further apart in their willingness to trust teachers.

Placing trust in teachers' professionalism led to education's decline in Sweden, he was told. But trust was the secret of Finland's world-class system, its officials insisted.

In the 1990s, Sweden thought it had the key to successful education and gave teachers a "large degree of freedom", said Per Thullberg, director general of the Swedish Education Agency.

Now it has backtracked. In a fortnight, Mr Thullberg will present a new curriculum to the government. "It will be much more prescriptive to drive up standards," he said.

Head of the inspectorate Marie-Helene Ahnborg said: "Until now, teachers have been given a lot of space for professional interpretation and what we have seen is the teachers who are good enough take on that responsibility, but many teachers have not been able to do so. They have been left with a document that was too philosophical, and this has had a bad impact on teaching."

Scottish teachers have accused the Curriculum for Excellence of being too vague, and it has been delayed for a year. Mr Russell is expected to decide around Easter on whether to concede to demands from secondary teachers' leaders to hold back the reform for a further 12 months: they say teachers need more detail.

But teacher autonomy is not all that separates Sweden and Finland. Sweden struggles to recruit teachers. There is no competition for places, and Ms Ahnborg admits they fail to attract the best students.

In Finland, teaching is more prestigious than law or medicine, and competition for places is fierce. Teachers are trained to a high level - all study at university for five years and write a masters thesis.

Teachers are trusted in Finland because they are very capable, said Ritva Jakku-Sihvonen, head of the national learning outcome unit.

This trust was key to Finland's success, Mr Russell concluded at the end of his visit. The Donaldson review of teacher education was more vital than ever, he told The TESS. He would instruct the former HMIE chief to look to Finland, he said.

But constant checks on teachers' fitness to teach would not help build trust, said Kauko Hamalainen of the Finnish Education Evaluation Council. The Scottish Government has asked the General Teaching Council for Scotland to adopt this "MOT". Accreditation was "demotivating", Professor Hamalainen said. "Better to invest in staff development."

The other key to Finland's success was political consensus, Mr Russell said, and he was keen to emulate this too.

"The Finns tinker with their system," he said. "Every 10 years or so, there is curriculum reform but there has been no structural reform since the 1970s. They have had a 30-year policy. Creating political consensus is the right thing, so we avoid changing every two or three years."

Curriculum changes were put in place in Finland in 1972, 1994 and 2004. In spring, the proposals for the next reform will go out to stakeholders. Asked why, when they were so successful, they were making changes, the Education Minister's state secretary, Helja Misukka, said: "The world is changing all the time; the others are running very fast. If we just stand still, we will find ourselves the last person."

emma.seith@tes.co.uk

Others learn from Scotland, p12

Next week: Swedes' progress.

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