Finland's education system has been held up as one of the world's best, regularly coming top in Pisa studies of maths, science and reading in 40 countries. The TESS travelled to Helsinki to ask: Are Finnish schools really that good? And, if so, why? In the first of a five-part series, one of the most influential figures in Finnish education tells Henry Hepburn about changes in the past 35 years
Reijo Laukkanen has a neat way of cutting through convoluted debates about the success of Finnish schools: just count the pages in the national curriculum.
Part of the Finnish National Board of Education since 1974, he insists the easiest way to sum up changes since then is to compare the hefty slab towed around in the 1970s with the less back-breaking tomes that followed.
"In 1972, the national curriculum was 700 pages long; in 1994 it was 110 pages; in 2004 it was back up to 320 pages," he recalls.
These documents track the move from an austere, rigorously centralised education system to one where power was devolved to hundreds of local authorities (in a country of little over 5 million people), to a period of calibration where education leaders decided the state had become a little too laissez-faire about its schools.
Those changes came about because, Mr Laukkanen says, the Finnish government in the early 1970s had a "dream of equity" that would require major surgery to the state's cumbersome control of education: "As we started, education didn't produce results for equity."
He remembers his time at school in the 1960s, when Finnish pupils were divided up at the age of 11 or 12: the best performers in exams would get sought-after places in grammar schools, while others were deemed, even at that tender age, to be less able and left to plod through a few years at schools that had less ambition for their charges.
Mr Laukkanen recalls a swaggering, otherwordly elite at the grammar schools; teenagers who listened to different music - Elvis and The Beatles - who swanned about in "beautiful clothes", their confidence in marked contrast to those not lucky enough to get into grammar school, who entered their teens with the stigma of lower achievement.
Now, however, pupils are not split into "general" and vocational groupings until the age of 16, and the emphasis has shifted from hot-housing the best students to making sure struggling students do not fall by the wayside.
There is no question of parents opting out of this system, as pupils must go to a local school until the age of 16 and there are no British-style private, fee-paying schools for them to attend. While most pupils and their parents aspire to the "prestige" of general upper secondaries, Mr Laukkanen says there is less stigma in failing to go down the academic route than there was when this happened earlier.
Streaming, too, has become a thing of the past. It was used to sift and sort maths and foreign languages students at the age of 13; now all students work towards the same objectives, and overall standards are said to have gone up as a result.
"What we say is we must understand the role of basic education," says Mr Laukkanen. "Its role is to give all citizens the best possible start in life."
He believes the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results were the natural result of one fundamental priority in Finnish education policy: "the support of weak children".
Crucial to this was the move away from a prescriptive national curriculum. More and more power was devolved to municipalities (local authorities) - some with only a few hundred inhabitants - which had the right to devise local curricula, as long as key targets were met.
More emphasis was put on giving teachers "freedom to innovate" and influence over issues such as class sizes. Teachers are encouraged to think about their profession beyond the immediate pressures of the classroom: since the late 1970s, aspiring teachers have been expected to continue their training to Masters level.
A landmark move came in the late 1980s with the abolition of Finland's equivalent to HMIE. It had inspected schools at least every five years, but now the emphasis was on self-evaluation by schools and monitoring by local authorities. Government and Finland's six state provincial offices would have minimal influence. Provincial offices can inspect an individual school only if invited by a municipality, or if a complaint is made about maltreatment of children.
Teaching is now a highly respected profession and competes with law and medicine for the best undergraduates, even though working teachers feel their salaries do not compare too well with other professions (Finland's top 10 per cent of graduates go into teaching, in contrast to the bottom third in the USA, which regularly performs poorly in international tests).
"We don't need inspectors because we have teachers we can trust, and we have municipalities we can trust," Mr Laukkanen says.
"It is a very simple issue. We have qualified people working in our schools; they have got good training in universities, and they know well how to do things. We also have professional people in municipalities."
Schools are assessed by government, but only intermittently and randomly. Results are used to assess trends across a region or a particular group - looking at boys' performance, for example - and influence national policy, but they are not regarded as a stick with which to beat a school.
"It's not like England, where you test all children at certain grades and publish the results," Mr Laukkanen says. "We never publish data school by school or municipality by municipality. We don't make any ranking lists. We use the results for development."
Mr Laukkanen, who is a board "counsellor" specialising in international issues, knows the Scottish education system well, having visited the country. He believes schools here could benefit from a "loosening" of the inspection process: "It could help teachers understand that they are not followed all the time." He emphasises, however, that he admires the "professional" nature of inspection in Scotland.
He makes clear that Finnish education does not provide a model that can be transplanted anywhere. "What's very important in my mind is you must take the context, history and other factors in your society seriously, and build on them."
He believes the hands-off approach to inspection, for example, would not work in Peru, another country with which he is familiar. Peru demands stringent evaluations of knowledge and skills, which Mr Laukkanen thinks is necessary, "because the quality of teachers is so poor".
But even Finland recognises that it does not get everything right all the time. It realised a few years ago that education could become too localised, and it emerged that it was significantly easier to get good marks in some schools than others.
So control over education has become more centralised; hence the expansion of the 110-page curriculum document from 1994 to a new one nearly three times that.
"The latest version is far more detailed than the 1994 one," says Mr Laukkanen. "The state is prescribing goals more exactly now."
The number of municipalities, meanwhile, has recently dropped from 450 to 415, a figure that should drop again to about 350 next year. This follows concern that very small authorities were struggling to make ends meet and cutting back in areas such as special needs and in-service training.
Finland, Mr Laukkanen concedes, is not the unqualified success story it is sometimes painted to be. There is not enough continuing professional development for teachers; middle-class parents are starting to question why they cannot choose where their children go to school; and there is a feeling in some quarters that, while weaker pupils have benefited, perhaps the strongest students do not always fulfil their potential (there has been much gnashing of teeth in Finland about the paucity of Nobel Prize winners).
Nevertheless, Finnish schools are barely recognisable from those of Mr Laukkanen's youth. "Children are more lively; things are much more relaxed, more flexible; it's not like everyone is sitting in rows," he says. "There is no comparison in the atmosphere."
But he has cautionary advice for those seeking to follow Finland's example: keep a steady course, and do not expect quick results.
"You can't change an education system and guidelines every year," he says. "If you have consensus, though, you can really make efforts to get to the dreams you have. But the changes take time - the Pisa results happened largely because of decisions made in the 1980s."
Next week: Inside a Finnish secondary school.
- The population in 2006 was 5.3million
- In 2003, the average population of Finland's municipal authorities was 12,000; the smallest had 134 people and the largest 559,000. There are 415 authorities, down from 518 in the early 1970s, and due to fall further.
- Finland became an independent republic in 1917, after centuries of Swedish and Russian rule, and an EU member in 1995.
- Most people's first language is Finnish (91.5 per cent) or Swedish (5.5 per cent).
- The majority of people (82.5 per cent) are Lutheran, while 15.2 per cent have no religious affiliation. Just 1.1 per cent are Orthodox; 1.2 per cent belong to other religious groups.
- Forests - mainly pine and spruce - cover 67 per cent of the country, and there are 188,000 lakes.
THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
- Compulsory education begins at the age of 7.
- More than 33 per cent of the population aged 25 to 64 have university or other tertiary qualifications - more than any other EU country.
- Education from pre-primary to upper secondary (roughly equivalent to the final two years of a Scottish secondary) is free of charge.
- School meals are free at all levels.
- There are no national regulations on class sizes.
- More than 90 per cent of 16-year-olds go straight into upper secondary general or vocational education.
- The only national exam is at the end of upper secondary education. It includes four compulsory tests: of the national language (Finnish or Swedish), a foreign language, maths and general studies (humanities and natural sciences).