We need to give education more prominence

18th April 2008 at 01:00
In the final instalment of our five-part series, Henry Hepburn discovers that, despite Finnish education's glowing reputation, things could be better. Photographs by Neil Turner

Failure after failure after failure. I am flicking through a long, desultory list of deficiencies in Finnish education.

It is a surprising scenario. The TESS is in Helsinki with one main aim: to discover the reasons for the consistently outstanding academic performance of Finnish pupils. Yet Kirsi Lindroos (right), one of the most important figures in Finnish education, chooses instead to tell us how things could be so much better.

The title of a paper she hands us is typically Finnish: frank, jargon-free and laced with humility. Challenges and Problems of the School System: Some Viewpoints tells us there is not enough continuing professional development for teachers; secondary pupils drop out too often; research into teaching is under-developed; and - surprisingly, given everything The TESS has seen and heard during its visit - "education does not enjoy a sufficiently strong position in society".

Simo Juva is similarly unwilling to bask in international acclaim. The education director in the town of Lohja - an hour's drive west of Helsinki - and member of the OECD review team on Scottish schools is keen to qualify, if not quite debunk, some of the received wisdom the Finnish Government trots out to the stream of foreign visitors arriving to gaze admiringly at the nation's schools.

The Government credits nine years of equitable basic education - with no selection exams, no system of private fee-paying schools and a commitment to supporting the weakest pupils - with creating a high-achieving system.

"Yes, but actually this is true only up to the age of 16," Mr Juva says. "Then we divide the age group in a quite conservative way to two strands: upper secondary general and vocational training."

It may happen later, but this is still the "social selection" that happens in many other countries. In the transition to this level, about 5 per cent of young people fail to enter either route, yet there is no one charged with guiding and counselling pupils after the nine years of basic education.

It is also a misconception to think of basic education as a fluid progression. In practice, 12-year-olds often move from a cosy little school to a bewilderingly huge one, just as in Scotland, and even if lower and upper comprehensive education are in the same building, the two environments can be very different. So Finland, too, has to grapple with the damaging effects of transition to the big school.

"There is still a huge traditional difference between primary school culture with class teachers and the lower secondary school culture with subject teachers and academic orientation," Mr Juva says.

He also fears that Finnish education, having long benefited from a strong welfare state, will have less room to manoeuvre as it becomes increasingly exposed to the pressures of a globalised economy.

There are, however, aspects of the Finnish way that Mr Juva backs without qualification: the balance of clear national aims with flexible national curriculum guidelines; training of teachers to Master's level; and limited external testing of pupils.

Ms Lindroos is director of the Ministry of Education's department for education and science, and was director general of the Finnish National Board of Education until last year. Her big idea is that the traditional classroom, bound by four walls where an all-knowing teacher holds sway, is too dominant, and should be replaced by broader "learning environments": the social, local, physical and technological.

"Our system doesn't encourage children to be creative enough," she says. It would make sense, for example, for children who are going to be the main users of a new school building - part of the physical learning environment - to influence how it is planned; schools should also be more open to influence from parents and the private sector.

Learning environments offer hope to the least populated of Finland's 415 local authorities - nearly half of which have fewer than 5,000 inhabitants - where resources are tight, but schools must soldier on with little outside planning or leadership.

Ms Lindroos's solution is not to close such schools, even though in some areas pupils can face daily journeys of up to 80km (50 miles) to get to class. These schools are crucial to local communities, so a better solution is to help schools flourish through, for example, sophisticated information technology.

She wants to see schools in all parts of Finland change their ideas of why they exist. That could mean opening at all hours and inviting local people in: it is illogical to Ms Lindroos that, after the short school day, classrooms lie empty. "Why not use ICT facilities, for example, for the community?" she asks. "I think of a school as a centre for learning that should have its doors open to everyone in the community."

At the same time, teachers should learn new skills throughout their careers: "If you have a teacher who is working every week of every year in the same way, they burn out quite easily. If we have teachers learning all the time, together with pupils, they have motivation and they can grow as human beings."

This, however, could lead to a sticking point over how teachers are paid. Ms Lindroos says it is "out of date" that salaries are almost entirely based on time in the classroom, but OAJ, Finland's teaching union, is not keen on radical change.

Ms Lindroos underlines, however, that while she wants teachers to work in a different way, they should also have better salaries. The highly academic five-year path into teaching attracts many of the country's best young minds, but they are often subsequently poached by more lucrative professions.

It is difficult to imagine a high-ranking civil servant in Scotland delivering a similarly blunt admission about teachers' pay: "The salary is not high enough for teachers - it is very low and must be bigger. Teachers need to be better paid."

Ms Lindroos also points out, again with that Finnish unwillingness to obfuscate, that the Pisa (international assessment) results which famously made the country's education system one of the world's most admired, were not all positive.

"The big problem in the Pisa results is the difference between boys and girls, which is the biggest in the world," she says. "That is because our schools are very old-fashioned and give more positive feedback for girls' behaviour and girls' work."

Finland is trying to address this in teacher training, and by getting boys out of classrooms: "they want to learn by doing". Otherwise, Ms Lindroos fears, universities are going to be disproportionately full of women.

Intriguingly, while Scottish public figures repeatedly hold up Finland as a paragon of educational virtue, the Finns also cast admiring glances our way.

Ms Lindroos, who has visited Scotland, says there is much to learn from Scottish schools' use of individualised ICT programmes and systems and the way in which staff, both school-based and outside professionals, work as a team. "The discussion culture was very open between all the people involved in the school - more than in Finland."

Surprisingly, given recent parliamentary debates about the need to secure the place of Scottish history in the curriculum, Finland envies Scotland's cultural self-awareness.

"In Scotland, we can see your own history and culture is a very strong part of education," Ms Lindroos says. "In Finland, we also have a very interesting culture, but it is not enough in our education curriculum. You are proud about your culture and history and everything you are doing, but in Finland we don't have that kind of feeling."

Perhaps the most startling admission comes from Mr Suva, who believes Finland can learn from Scotland's system of inspection.

He agrees that Finland's abolition of inspection in the 1980s helped to create an "atmosphere of trust", but wonders "if we perform well despite, rather than because of, the lack of inspection". No "credible evaluation system" has come in its place, and he adds: "I really think we need both legal control and more detailed evaluation in the field of education than we have today."

Having visited Scotland last year, he recalls: "I was very impressed with how modern and useful the works of the HMIE actually were - all reports published on the website, with no feeling of shaming or league tables."

Two dominant impressions emerge from The TESS's visit to Finland. Firstly, there is a deep trust in others, from the Government's willingness to let schools devise curricula, to the freedom for outlandishly dressed teenagers to lounge in school corridors, to the rock band of 10-year-olds disappearing for unsupervised practice sessions.

Secondly, Finns are a little embarrassed by interest in their education system - most are not inclined to trumpet their achievements. The distaste for self-congratulation and preference for sorting out what's going wrong should ensure that Finland remains an educational high-flyer for years to come.


Cynics believe Finland's successful education system is largely a result of a homogeneous population, with few ethnic groups and non-Finnish speakers putting pressure on resources. If that is even remotely true, there are tough times ahead.

Finland's immigrant population makes up only 2.3 per cent of 5.3 million inhabitants, but it is growing fast. Most new arrivals settle in Helsinki or its neighbour Vantaa, the country's fourth-largest city; the capital's immigrant numbers are set to more than double by 2025.

There are 140 nationalities in Helsinki, speaking about 40 languages. In some schools, immigrants make up 40 per cent of the roll, while 13 per cent of children do not have Finnish or Swedish as their main language.

Deputy mayor Tuula Haatainen, who is responsible for education and was Finland's education minister from 2003 to 2005, embraces immigration as a means of reinvigorating an ageing population.

"We need people. Our policy is to be open and we want to have people from different professions," she says.

Refugee children are given a year in school to acclimatise, spending time with other children in the same situation and receiving specialist tuition, before full integration into normal classes. Even then, they get some lessons in their own language.

"It's very important to the children that they can also learn things in their mother tongue," Mrs Haatainen says.

Above left: A statue of Tsar Alexander II in Helsinki. Finnish public education began in the 1850s on his orders.

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