Reach for the Finnish line
One can see why the British government might be keen to play down Finland's recent stunning success in the largest international rankings of educational achievement.
When the biggest comparative study of pupil performance (by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) was updated in December, assessing 40 countries based on tests taken by more than 250,000 pupils, Finland was the undisputed winner.
This young country of five million people came second only to Hong Kong in maths, and rated top of the 41 in both reading and science, the other two subjects tested in 2003. This follows a string of impressive results in earlier studies and contrasts with the UK's position of fourth in science, seventh in reading and eighth in maths in 2000 (the country was unplaced in 2003 because not enough schools could be persuaded to give their pupils the tests).
Yet Finland also boasts a set of largely teacher-friendly education policies, many of them with a decidedly Old Labour flavour, which appear about as far away as you can get from England's centralised, target-driven culture.
Are these two facts connected? Could our pupils benefit from a sprinkling of the Finnish magic dust? Or does Finland's education success, achieved against the backdrop of a society very different from our own, actually offer very few lessons for our schools?
These were the intriguing questions as 300 educationists gathered in an icy Helsinki for a conference designed to shed light on its success.
Since the 1970s, when it scrapped its grammar schools, Finland has had a system of "bog standard" comprehensives. Until they reach the age of 16, almost all youngsters are educated in the local primary and then secondary school.
There is little setting or streaming. Even in subjects such as maths, where differences in pupils' capabilities can be great, the philosophy is to educate children in all-ability classrooms.
The inspection system was scrapped in the 1980s. Instead, Finnish municipalities, or local authorities, monitor self-evaluation of schools.
The results of these investigations are not published. Arvo Jappinen, director general of the Department for Education and Science Policy at the Ministry of Education, told the conference of the need to support teachers, rather than expose some to blame.
He said: "Evaluation is a tool for developing better schools, not for putting a bad label on schools which are not so good yet, but in future, may be."
Neither has Finland developed a national system of testing, although it does test samples of pupils to enable it to monitor national standards. The Government does not, it seems, favour league tables.
Chris Silverstrom, of the National Board of Education said that this approach had been taken specifically because the board did not want to see parents trying to take their children out of schools if they fared badly in the tables.
This, then, appears a truly high-trust system. But is it the foundation for Finland's success? Is there something else in the education system which explains its achievements? Or is it more to do with the kind of society Finland is?
Explanations for the Finns' achievements varied from the climate (this, I was told, meant teenagers were more likely to be studying than hanging around outside all day), to the populace's general enthusiasm for reading.
The secret ingredient remained elusive even after a series of school visits laid on at the conference. There was nothing in the two Finnish schools I visited which was breathtaking, and this was the view of most at the conference.
The buildings were smart without being flashy, the pupils polite but not saint-like. Perhaps most remarkably, in the land of Nokia there was little evidence of technology.
The secondary school I visited had one computer room and typically one terminal in the corner of each classroom, with teachers working from overhead projectors. It reminded me of English schools of the 1980s.
British visitors were fairly dismissive, particularly of the laid-back quality of some of the teaching, pointing to pupils being "off-task" during some lessons. Yet it is hard to make proper judgements without analysing what is actually being taught.
The maths lessons I saw appeared to be emphasising problem-solving, for example, which looms large in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests which, official reports suggest, is not a strength in England.
Finland's education system is not exceptionally well-funded. It spends 3.7 per cent per capita on primary and secondary education, compared with the OECD average of 3.5 per cent. And its national wealth is not particularly high.
The class sizes I saw were low, at a maximum of 16. This is the average across Finland, which is not particularly small by international standards.
Do socio-economic factors explain the success? There are not huge disparities of wealth, and the social deprivation seen in some British cities is non-existent.
These factors, many argue persuasively, must make it easier for Finland to do well in Pisa. But how much of an influence do they have?
Andreas Schleicher, chief spokesman for Pisa, said Finland's success is significant even after socio-economic factors have been taken into account.
He compared its achievements with those of Belgium, which, he said, had not fared as well despite having a broadly similar distribution of wealth.
But Belgium and Finland differ in numerous other ways. The reality is, once again, that comparative judgements between education systems are fraught with problems because so many of the variables change from country to country.
Yet two characteristics of the Finnish system are striking.
The first is the high quality of its teachers. All primary and secondary teachers have to spend five years at university, gaining a masters degree and completing a research thesis.
This is possible because of the numbers applying to be teachers: there are three times as many applicants as places, despite salaries being relatively low at, typically, 30,000 euros (pound;20,500).
Defenders of the English system argue that differences in the quality of teachers in the two countries mean that the Finnish system of trusting teachers would not work here.
The counter-argument is that a system based on trust is more likely to attract good applicants than one which is not.
Second, is that the Finns appear to have achieved their success because they do spectacularly better than other countries with those of average-and-below ability.
The results show that Finland did far better with the bottom 75 per cent of pupils than other countries near the top of the Pisa rankings. Its results with the top 25 per cent were still impressive, but slightly less strikingly so.
And the difference in performance between schools in Finland was tiny - the second lowest in the OECD behind Iceland and around a tenth of the OECD average.
Mr Schleicher said: "Parents in Finland can be less concerned about school choice in order to enhance their children's performance, and can be confident of high and consistent standards across schools in the entire education system."
Nor does this appear to be an accident. Repeatedly, teachers and educationists The TES spoke to said they believed in equity and opposed big differences between schools.
The conference was told that the biggest challenge facing the system was reducing still further inequality of provision between pupils.
It seems unlikely that there is a definitive explanation for Finland's educational success. Nor is it clear that it has a formula which can be transferred to countries such as England.
The decision on whether we want an education system more like the Finns must ultimately rest more on political beliefs than on any scientific assessment of its merits.
The thought remains: is a system where teachers are highly qualified and trusted - and where parents can be confident of a good school wherever they send their child - such a bad goal at which to aim?
Talkback, friday magazine 21