Teacher tourist flood sees Finns try to stem tide

22nd October 2010 at 01:00
Finland Officials in Helsinki are having to turn away visiting hordes in search of the secrets of the Nordic system's success

The countdown has begun - in early December governments around the world will find out how well 15-year-olds are doing in their schools.

If the last two sets of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results are anything to go by, the firm favourite to top the international table will be Finland. The Nordic country was judged to have the most able pupils two times in a row, when results were published in both 2004 and 2007.

Such public displays of educational excellence have made Finland the envy of other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, not least in England, where politicians have heaped praise on their school system. Education Secretary Michael Gove has regularly spoken of his admiration that Finland draws its teachers from the top 10 per cent of graduates.

But its increased profile has also led to problems for the country of just 5.5 million people. Helsinki's 140 schools are now inundated with officials and teachers wanting to know the secret to their success, visitors that one Finnish newspaper has dubbed "PISA tourists".

Armies of foreign government ministers, principals and classroom teachers are clamouring to look round schools in the Finnish capital in a bid to understand why the country performs so well.

Eva Pentilla, head of international affairs at the Helsinki Education Department, says she now rejects all applications from foreign teachers as a matter of policy.

"In Helsinki itself, we now only accept high level guests such as presidents, government ministers, other officials and high level researchers," she says. "Principals, teachers and students are encouraged to contact other cities in the region, such as Espoo or Vantaa, or other cities in Finland.

"Today, I am having dinner with a delegation from the US embassy because we are setting up a visit of a high level US group in May. So far this year, we have hosted, for example, the minister of education from Namibia and three high level groups from China."

Rejection by Helsinki's Education Department does not seem to have deterred eager educationalists from their quest to witness Finnish schooling first hand. Oulu, a city of 140,000 people almost 400 miles north of Helsinki, is also having to turn away foreign teachers because of the sheer numbers wanting to visit.

The city now offers job-shadowing for foreign teachers, which is funded by the EU, to give a more in-depth look at what's happening in the classroom.

But Mrs Pentilla, a former president of the European Secondary Heads Association, warns that visits are pointless if the culture of a country is radically different to that in Finland.

"It is my responsibility to try to make trips worthwhile," she says. "But even I sometimes think, 'Come on,' our societies are so different!"

In a few weeks' time Finland will find out if it has continued its table-topping performance. If so, expect Mrs Pentilla's warning to fall on deaf ears as foreign educators continue to hunt for the secret to their success.

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