Why is the Finnish school system so good?


FinlandInternational league tables comparing school standards will be released today, and it is expected they will show the UK lagging behind China, South Korea and Finland.

It is the latter I want to focus on, however, as Finland consistently comes out near the top of international of education systems. While slipping slightly in the new rankings, behind some of the East Asian systems, the Finnish education model does not churn out compliant test takers in the way that, say, the Chinese and South Korean systems do.

David Cameron has also previously singled out Finland as a country Britain would do well to emulate when it comes to education.

Uncomfortably for Michael Gove, however, a closer look at Finnish schools reveals an education system built on unapoligetically social democratic principles.

So why are Finnish schools so successful? Here’s why:

1. Children in Finland don’t start school until they are seven

In Sweden, Denmark and Finland school doesn’t begin until children are aged seven. In fact, despite the fact that English schoolchildren start at five most children in Europe begine school later. According to a recent study by the Cambridge-based Primary Review: “The assumption that an early starting age is beneficial for children’s later attainment is not well supported in the research and therefore remains open to question.”

2. Few exams and no homework until your teens

Children in Finland have more time to be children. In Finlanf there are just 12 students per teacher, meaning students have sufficient teacher interaction in the classroom. Rather than exams, school outcomes are measured using from sample-based surveys. All children are taught together in the same classroom and take one standardized test at 16. 66 per cent of students go on to college.

3. All teachers must have a master’s degree

All teachers must be qualified to at least masters level, with the degree fully subsidised.

4. The school system is completely state funded

Finland’s schools are publicly funded. There are no grammar schools, private schools, religious schools or academies. They are also run by education experts rather than by politicians and business people. As a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) put it: “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education”.

5. Finnish teachers are granted a large degree of autonomy in the classroom

Teachers are valued in Finland, and as a result are trusted to teach. Teachers in Finland also spend less time in the classroom than their American or European counterparts and therefore have more time to work on the curriculum and their own personal development.

6.School students in Finland get 75 minutes break time a day

There is also more in the way of arts and crafts and learning by doing, rather than rote memorisation. As the authors of a 2008 study of the benefits of break time/recess found, “Recess remains one of the only times during the school day when children have time and opportunities to interact with their peers on their own terms. Through interaction at recess, children learn social skills, such as how to cooperate and compromise and how to inhibit aggression. Eliminating or reducing recess destroys these learning opportunities.”

7. Every school draws from the same pool of university-trained teachers

Therefore there is much less chance of a child ending up at a bad school, regardless of where a child lives. In contrast, in Britain properties in desirable catchment areas cost on average 42 per cent more, meaning that places at the best schools are usually snapped up by the children of middle class parents.

8. No grade retention or expulsions

According to the OECD, countries where schools hold back or kick out students with low academic performance “tend to have weaker, more expensive, and more socially inequitable education systems”.

9. Strong teacher trade unions

96 percent of Finnish teachers are unionized, according to the New York Times. Starting pay for teachers is relatively modest, but high school teachers with 15 years experience make 102 per cent of what other Finnish college graduates make.

10. High quality pre-school and maternity leave for parents
Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidised daycare for parents. It also provides preschool for all five-year-olds. 97 per cent of six-year-olds go to public preschool.
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  • Mattie Val Rees

    Why can’t I post this re Finland on my timeline please?

  • JR

    It is good that Finland has a strong school system. It is also important to remember that Finland has a total population of 5.4 million. This is just over half the size of London.

    People keep highlighting the successes of countries in a range of fields where the pressures are dramatically different. It is good to recognise where things have worked, but it is also essential to think about why they have worked in context.

  • RP

    Other than investment, there doesn’t appear to be anything above that would be limited by the size of a country.

    The problem is that changes to the education system, rather than poking at the edges, would require a generational change which would require the kind of leadership no major party shows.

    One of interesting ones to me is the lack of private schools. What a natural way to force rich people to care about public provision – but not giving them an option.

  • swatnan

    Finland is not a multicultural society. We are.

  • Joy Orbison

    Good spot ‘swatnan’! I’ve done some more digging and also found that they are Scandinavian, and use the Euro! Keep up the good work.

  • Joy Orbison

    Even if it is impossible to replicate on such a scale as would be necessary in the UK (I don’t think it would be), this case study still shows that British politicians are pushing policies that are the complete opposite of what has worked so well in Finland.

  • frank100

    Well Gove uses non valid comparisons with much less jusification, e.g he cited Sweden ( population 9.5 million) to justify adoption of free schools even though doubts are being raised about their educational standards and contribution to grade inflation (Prof Vlachos, Stockholm University)

  • TM

    Because they are not obsessed with social class and raising people high because their ancestor was some slave trader or landgrabber or boring self important aristocrat. They achieve equality and better results because that is their aim as a people and government. We are too blinded by all this class nonsense to see the chaos and inequality it creates. Until we stop living in the past, we will not move forward.

  • Martin Yarnit

    The Finnish example doesn’t appeal in a country in the grip of the grammar school myth.

    Grammar schools account for only a tiny percentage of all secondary age pupils in England. To expand them or to create new ones to raise that percentage to 10 or 20% would take years and vast resources. It is not a realistic option.

    But nor is it desirable. Selection creates winners and losers. For every story of the man or woman made by grammar school there are dozens of untold stories of people failed by them. It is a well nourished myth that large numbers of working class children benefit from grammar schools. The OECD’s study of school systems around the world concludes that selection depresses standards overall.

    So what’s the alternative? Not to accept poor standards in state comprehensives for a start. There are three key changes that make a real difference:
    1. a balanced intake – neither skewed towards the least or the most able
    2. visionary and professional leadership
    3. the best teaching

    If we concentrate on bringing those about rather than trying to turn the school system upside down every five years, there is a good chance that we will eradicate the achievement gap that Michael Gove rightly excoriates. But he’ll have to resist the temptation to meddle with the curriculum. Trust the professionals to get on with it. There’s a revolutionary policy for you.

  • Martin Yarnit

    The Finnish example doesn’t appeal in a country in the grip of the grammar school myth.

    Grammar schools account for only a tiny percentage of all secondary age pupils in England. To expand them or to create new ones to raise that percentage to 10 or 20% would take years and vast resources. It is not a realistic option.

    But nor is it desirable. Selection creates winners and losers. For every story of the man or woman made by grammar school there are dozens of untold stories of people failed by them. It is a well nourished myth that large numbers of working class children benefit from grammar schools. The OECD’s study of school systems around the world concludes that selection depresses standards overall.

    So what’s the alternative? Not to accept poor standards in state comprehensives for a start. There are three key changes that make a real difference:
    1. a balanced intake – neither skewed towards the least or the most able
    2. visionary and professional leadership
    3. the best teaching

    If we concentrate on bringing those about rather than trying to turn the school system upside down every five years, there is a good chance that we will eradicate the achievement gap that Michael Gove rightly excoriates. But he’ll have to resist the temptation to meddle with the curriculum. Trust the professionals to get on with it. There’s a revolutionary policy for you.

  • TM

    Very balanced comment Martin. Now If only Gove or someone else could look at that and take it on board. Simple common sense.

  • Patch LovesNora

    I reccomend watching the videos Paradign Of Education and Education kills creativity on youtube by Ken Robinson it will help understand the process of learning :)

  • D H Made Simple

    Did they not use the UK education model in Norway, which has a similar cultural and population background as Finland?

  • Raf Feys

    View of Finnish
    teachers versus view of Pasi Sahlberg

    Oxford- Prof. Jennifer Chung ( AN INVESTIGATION OF REASONS
    FOR FINLAND’S SUCCESS IN PISA (University of Oxford 2008).

    “Many of the teachers mentioned the converse of the great
    strength of Finnish education (= de grote aandacht voor kinderen met leerproblemen)
    as the great weakness. Jukka S. (BM)
    believes that school does not provide enough challenges for intelligent
    students: “I think my only concern is
    that we give lots of support to those pupils who are underachievers, and we
    don’t give that much to the brightest pupils.
    I find it a problem, since I think, for the future of a whole nation, those pupils who
    are really the stars should be supported, given some more challenges, given
    some more difficulty in their exercises and so on. To not just spend their time here but to make some effort and
    have the idea to become something, no matter what field you are choosing, you
    must not only be talented like they are, but work hard. That is needed. “

    Pia (EL) feels that
    the schools do not motivate very intelligent students to work. She thinks the schools should provide more challenges for the academically
    talented students. In fact, she
    thinks the current school system in Finland does not provide well for its
    students. Mixed-ability classrooms, she
    feels, are worse than the previous selective system: “ I think this school is for nobody.
    That is my private opinion. Actually I think so, because when you have
    all these people at mixed levels in your class, then you have to concentrate on
    the ones who need the most help, of course.
    Those who are really good, they get lazy. “

    Pia believes these students become bored and lazy, and float
    through school with no study skills.
    Jonny (EM) describes how comprehensive education places the academically
    gifted at a disadvantage: “We have lost a
    great possibility when we don’t have the segregated levels of math and natural
    sciences… That should be once again taken back and started with. The good talents are now torturing themselves
    with not very interesting education and teaching in classes that aren’t for their
    best.

    Pia (EL) finds the PISA frenzy about Finland amusing, since
    she believes the schools have declined in recent years: “I think [the
    attention] is quite funny because school isn’t as good as it used to be … I
    used to be proud of being a teacher and proud of this school, but I can’t say I
    ’m proud any more.”

    Aino (BS) states that the evenness and equality of the education
    system has a “dark side.” Teaching to the “middle student” in a class of
    heterogeneous ability bores the gifted students, who commonly do not perform
    well in school. Maarit (DMS) finds
    teaching heterogeneous classrooms very difficult. She admits that dividing the students into ability
    levels would make the teaching easier, but worries that it may affect the self-esteem
    of the weaker worse than a more egalitarian system Similarly, Terttu (FMS) thinks that the
    class size is a detriment to the students’ learning. Even though Finnish schools have relatively
    small class sizes, she thinks that a group of twenty is too large, since she
    does not have time for all of the students: “You don’t have enough time for everyone
    … All children have to be in the same class.
    That is not so nice. You have the
    better pupils. I can’t give them as much
    as I want. You have to go so slowly in
    the classroom.” Curiously, Jukka E.
    (DL) thinks that the special education students need more support and the
    education system needs to improve in that area.

    Miikka (FL) describes how he will give extra work to students
    who want to have more academic challenges, but admits that “they can get quite
    good grades, excellent grades, by doing nothing actually, or very little.” Miikka (FL) describes discussion in
    educational circles about creating schools and universities for academically
    talented students: 3 Everyone has the same chances…One problem is that it can
    be too easy for talented students. There has been now discussion in Finland if
    there should be schools and universities for talented students… I think it will
    happen, but I don’t know if it is good, but it will happen, I think so. I am also afraid there will be private
    schools again in Finland in the future … [There] will be more rich people and
    more poor people, and then will come so [many] problems in comprehensive
    schools that some day quite soon …
    parents will demand that we should have private schools again, and that is quite sad.

    Linda (AL), however, feels the love of reading has declined
    in the younger generation, as they tend to gravitate more to video games and
    television. Miikka (FL), also a teacher
    of mother tongue, also cites a decline in reading interest and an increase of
    video game and computer play. Saij a
    (BL) agrees. As a teacher of Finnish, she feels that she has difficulty motivating
    her students to learn: “I think my subject is not the … easiest one to teach. They don’t read so much, newspapers or
    novels.” Her students, especially the
    boys, do not like their assignments in Finnish language. She also thinks the respect for teachers has
    declined in this past generation. Miikka
    (FL) also thinks his students do not respect their teachers: “They don’t
    respect the teachers. They respect them
    very little … I think it has changed a
    lot in recent years. In Helsinki, it was
    actually earlier. When I came here six
    years ago, I thought this was
    heaven. I thought it was incredible,
    how the children were like that after
    Helsinki, but now I think it is the same.

    Linda (AL) notes deficiency in the amount of time available
    for subjects. With more time, she would
    implement more creative activities, such as speech and drama, into her
    lessons. Saij a (BL) also thinks that
    her students need more arts subjects like drama and art. She worries that they consider mathematics as
    the only important subject. Shefeels
    countries such as Sweden, Norway, and England have better arts programs than in
    Finnish schools. Arts subjects,
    according to Saij a, help the students get to know themselves. Maarit (DMS), a Finnish-speaker, thinks that
    schools need to spend more time cultivating social skills.

  • Raf Feys

    Wat Finland-propagandist PASI Sahlberg hier (zie bijlage) en elders beweert over de toepassing van progressieve ideeën à la Dewey e.d. in het (eerder klassieke) Fins onderwijs is volgens Finse leerkrachten complete onzin.

    *oldspaper :This is complete nonsense. Here are five real things about Finland that are different:
    1. A terminal exam that you prevents you from getting an arbitur diploma unless you pass it. 2. Higher expectations and more independence for students.
    3. A vocational option for high school (tracking) 4. Less focus on school sports

    *@Popo: I’m not complaining about the education system, but this article just doesn’t match with any of my experiences
    *Ponderosa: I am not sure I trust Pasi Sahlberg entirely. I would like to hear another voice from Finland. He is the only one I ever hear. Clearly he loves progressive education. Surely there are elements of progressive education used in Finland –but how widely? And how do we know they cause Finland’s achievement? Maybe Finns achieve DESPITE the progressive practices they use. Perhaps there’s a hard core of traditional practice on which the progressive elements have been tacked.

    *@Alecaldi: What a bunch of crap. As a Fin with 18 years in the school system, now M.Sc Tech, I can’t recognize most of the stuff.And to remind you, there is no High school in any Scandinavian countries. It’s more like a pre-college for 3 years if you choose to go academic.

    *AM : This article is just unbelievable propaganda and it would be very interesting to know who fed you all this rubbish. Where are these so-called “facts” been taken from? Several of them are simply not true! Finnish teachers are not selected from the top 10% of graduates. All pupils take exams and have homework. All children are certainly not taught in the same classrooms. And what in the world is this “mandatory standardized test which is taken when children are 16″?! I’ve never heard of it and I work as a teacher in Finland. And excuse me…according to these “facts” I only spend four hours per day in the classroom?! That is so not true!

    *DI: This article explains why there have been so many Nobel prizes per capita in Finland, and why Finnish technology companies like Nokia are currently destroying the competition, and why Finland leads the pack on biotech.

    *PM I went through the Finnish education system so I can correct a few “facts”. 1. We start to get homework since the first grade. Of course not that much in the beginning, but there definitely is homework. 2. We definitely are measured since grade one (=eerste leerjaar) at school.3. All kids are taught in the same classroom except when a kid is having difficulties with learning, and then he/she can go to a special teacher’s little class to be taught. 4. Teachers spend way more than 4 hours a day in a classroom, except maybe when his/her class is the first or second grade and their days are shorter. But I remember being 10 and had 7-8 hour days and my teacher was there all the time.5.. Although teachers are highly regarded, they are not regarded as highly as doctors and lawyers. Especially if you teach Swedish in Junior High School.

    *Arto Pekkanen Lately the Finnish education system has started to fail, …. Now there are too many students in a single class, and individual students cannot get the support they need. There are a lot of misbehaving kids in schools, since there are too many kids and too few teachers and councellors. That’s my take on our education system anyways …

    *AL: “This piece is full of false ideas about Finnish education. Obviously the author is contributing to the current propaganda. when will these people stop and start promoting the great work of most American teachers?”
    merkkierkki | 2013/04/03

    *8% Of kids in Finland don’t get spot to study after middle school (=lagere cyclus s.o.). 14% of people aged 20-24 don’t have high school or vocational diploma. there are kids who don’t even finish primary school. There is estimated to be around twice the number of unemployed youth who are not counted anywhere as they haven’t applied as unemployed or applied to social services. Tell me more about no child left behind in Finland. ”

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