Teacher autonomy, only a small national curriculum, no inspections and no league tables … Is this what makes Finland an international chart-topper?
“If you would have asked the Finns about their schools in 2000, you would have found a strong trend saying the system needed to be overhauled,” Patrik Scheinin, dean of the faculty of behavioural sciences at the University of Helsinki, says. “When the results from Pisa came, it was a bit of a shock.”
When the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) figures were published in 2001, it showed Finland’s 15-year-olds coming top of a list of 27 countries in reading tests.
According to Professor Scheinin, it took the country three years to come to terms with its schools’ surprising over-performance, by which time the next Pisa results were published - and Finland came out top again.
“If we didn’t have the Pisa results when we did, parents would have made the politicians change things because they were so sure their children weren’t getting the best education possible,” he adds.
As a result of its success, Finland has become a Mecca for foreign teachers, heads, academics and politicians who make the pilgrimage in the hope of enlightenment. Our own education secretary, Michael Gove, regularly applauds the merits of the country’s education system, pointing to the highly selective nature of its teacher recruitment. Citing Finland’s recent feats in international league tables, Mr Gove is now pressing forward with changes to England’s teaching profession in a bid to emulate its success. But what works in one country doesn’t necessarily apply in another.
Sitting in a far corner of Europe, Finland was for a long time largely forgotten. Having gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1917, it is, comparatively, a young nation with a population smaller than London in a country twice the size of England. Its capital, Helsinki, sits on the edge of the Baltic Sea, which is frozen for nearly half the year.
“The Finns are an introspective people,” Professor Scheinin says. “Perhaps it’s because we have such long, dark winters,” he jokes.
But if Finland is cold - even hard - outside, this is in stark contrast to its social attitudes, particularly in its schools. Support is a guiding principle in a country which, for years, has believed in a social democracy that means everyone deserves the very best on offer. The phrase “no-one is left behind” is often used by Finland’s teachers.
Children do not start formal schooling until the age of seven. Before then there is an emphasis on emotional development and play, with many staying at home. Just one in five Finnish five-year-olds is able to read. At seven, they enter the comprehensive system lower stage, where they stay until 13. They finish their formal schooling in the comprehensive system, from 13 to 16. The vast majority then continue their education through academic or vocational routes.
At Suutarila Comprehensive, an upper-stage school to the north of Helsinki, deputy principal Tea Byholm, a stout, cheerful woman, looks as though she has stepped off the set of a 1970s US high-school comedy. She says the school serves a “lower middle class” community. But to British eyes the area looks much like everywhere else in Helsinki, which is not riven with the same socio-economic divides as other European capitals.
For Ms Byholm, an English teacher, the explanation for the success of Finland’s schools is simple. “One of the main reasons is because we trust the teachers. We have a national curriculum, but it is very small. I can teach whatever I want. We are very, very autonomous. Every group is different so you can change the way you are teaching if you see that a pupil is struggling.”
There are also no school inspections and the final matriculation exam taken by all students at 16 is assessed by teachers. The government merely takes a random sample of test sheets to check everything is running smoothly.
It sounds like every teacher’s heaven. The school even has its own sauna for its staff, although Ms Byholm is quick to point out this is not a standard feature.
And in what some see as a backlash against Finland’s sober, Lutheran roots, schools are relaxed, laid-back places. Uniforms are non-existent, and pupil relationships with teachers are highly informal.
There is also very little discipline. Teachers say that behaviour is not a serious issue, and it is easy to understand why there might be fewer problems than in England.
Finland is built upon equity. In fact, it is only in the major cities, Helsinki in particular, that there is anything that resembles social disparity, and even then it is relatively slight.
But this is beginning to change. As the country continues to grow, it is becoming a popular destination for immigrant families.
Indeed, the combined pressures of increasing numbers of “outsiders” and economic uncertainty lies behind last month’s election of nationalist party True Finns to form a coalition government with the National Coalition Party and the Social Democrats.
To the east of the capital, Vesala Comprehensive, another upper-stage school, serves one of Helsinki’s more deprived communities, and has felt these ructions. More than 30 per cent of the school’s intake is from immigrant families from the Baltic states, Russia and Somalia as well as Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. The school caters for 25 nationalities and its pupils speak 30 languages. Over 70 per cent of its students come from single-parent families.
Due to its disadvantaged intake, the school receives more state funding than its peers, but because of the higher numbers of migrant children principal, Juha Juvonen says Finnish parents are choosing to send their children to schools elsewhere in the capital.
“Parents usually choose the nearest school,” Mr Juvonen says. “But there has been a trend recently that parents are sending their kids to schools further away, which the parents think are better. But there is no real difference. The teachers are the same, we all have masters degrees and we get similar results to other schools.”
Niina Halonen-Malliarakis, a special educational needs teacher at the school, adds: “People have been making a lot of fuss over this; parents hope to send their kids to a school where they will make friends with kids who are from better backgrounds.
“It is happening more and more when it didn’t used to happen at all. Now you will hear parents say that a certain area has a ‘nice school’.”
The differences between Vesala and Suutarila seem almost undetectable. At Vesala, the children seem the same happy, carefree children as at Suutarila, albeit with one or two fewer white faces.
As at Suutarila, Ms Halonen-Malliarakis says behaviour is not a problem. But just as she finishes her sentence a lumbering 15-year-old boy steps out of the girls’ toilets, quickly followed by three girls. But with a few choice words he is quickly sent back to his class.
Ms Halonen-Malliarakis laughs. “Good timing,” she says. Behaviour may not be a problem, but clearly there is discipline when it is needed.
Having worked for many years abroad, including in England, Ms Halonen- Malliarakis says it took her time to readjust to the informalities of Finland’s system.
“It’s very different from England,” she says. “In Finland there is less of a barrier between teacher and student. Here they stand very close to you, not in a threatening way, but because teachers are seen as being more equal to them, which you would not see in England.”
Despite its intake and the large number of languages its pupils speak, the school says its results meet the national average.
Finland’s final exams - the equivalent of England’s GCSEs - are taken at the end of formal schooling at 16. But in spite of the curriculum freedoms, every child must study a core set of subjects, and choose from a number of additional options.
The exams are teacher assessed, with a point score on a scale of four to 10. At 16, Finland’s school system splits into three years of vocational or academic education, before students have the option of attending either a university or polytechnic.
Around 87 per cent of young people continue their education after 16, which sits well above the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average.
Approximately half join the academic route, upper secondary schools, and half enter vocational schools, although these are attracting growing numbers of applicants.
Anna Suur-Kujala, an English teacher at the Helsinki School of Natural Sciences, an upper secondary near the centre of town, says pupils can apply to up to five schools. Because hers specialises in the sciences, many of the students hope to go on to university to study engineering or medicine.
The differences between the schools, she says, are slight. Some are more popular than others, meaning they can afford to raise their entry requirements.
“No school has a bad reputation,” she adds. However, Ms Suur-Kujala admits an upper secondary carries more prestige than a vocational school.
“Because we are the only school in Helsinki with a specialism in natural sciences we are oversubscribed and students must score 8.5 or above to be considered,” she says. “Most of our students are very driven, so we do not have many disciplinary problems.”
With a school roll of 720, it is one of the biggest upper secondaries in the country. It has a university “feel” about it. As with all the other schools, there is a laid-back air. So much so that it is often difficult to differentiate students from teachers.
“Upper secondary students are very independent,” Ms Suur-Kujala says. “They can decide how fast or how slow they want to go (with their courses).”
After three years, the students take another matriculation exam. Nowadays, the results are published, a move that has gone down badly among teachers.
“We have far more freedom than teachers in England - teachers here are totally independent,” Ms Suur-Kujala says. “How the students pass the matriculation exam is totally up to us.
“But for the last five or 10 years, the government has been publishing these test results, which we’re not very happy about,” Ms Suur-Kujala says, before adding quickly: “But it’s nothing like you have in England.”
However, while the academic side of Finland’s education system is enjoying unbridled success, the vocational route is a little less rosy, despite its popularity.
Even though many vocational colleges are often oversubscribed, the graduation rate is only 50 per cent, and only around 2 per cent continue on to a polytechnic or university.
The Helsinki City College of Culinary Art, Fashion and Beauty trains the cooks, bakers, seamstresses and hairdressers of Helsinki. The college educates students from 16 up, and has a silver-service restaurant and grocery shop on site, all staffed by its students.
Kati Grundstrom, who teaches at the college, maintains there is no difference in status between vocational colleges and upper secondaries. But the college caters for a large number of students with learning difficulties, and Mrs Grundstrom says a lot have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
“Some of our students have a problem with sitting down and keeping still. So we work with them, first lying down and reading and then gradually moving up to chairs,” she says.
“We have quite a lot of emotional teaching - it’s not just vocational, it’s also to raise them up as human beings. And we have enough resources to deal with that because almost all of our teachers are trained to do it,” she adds.
At €11,000 (£9,800) per student, resources are certainly not in short supply. The facilities are jaw dropping, with row upon row of working kitchens that churn out bread and cakes for the local community to buy. The fashion classes look like professional tailors’ shops, and many of the textile workshops produce items that would not look out of place in an Ikea store.
But those that attend the college to learn table-waiting skills rarely stay to the end of the course, and the college has an annual drop-out rate of more than 16 per cent.
“To get into our college you will need to secure around a 7.5, but to get into the design courses such as tailoring you will need a 9.4,” Mrs Grundstrom says. “There is a big difference between learning how to make a bespoke tuxedo and bringing coffee to a table. You can become a great waitress in a year.”
Although vocational colleges are less successful than their academic cousins when it comes to graduation rates, the system still puts England’s in the shade.
According to Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Co-operation, which promotes Finland’s education success to the wider world, its achievement cannot be ascribed to an individual factor. However, he believes its students’ successes later in life can be attributed to early learning.
“There is no single reason we are doing so well,” Mr Sahlberg says. “It is very complex. Finnish society and culture is all about the work ethic and the trust. But we can pin down some things that we are doing better than others. One of them is primary schools.”
Finnish students spend less time in school than their peers elsewhere, and they also do less homework, yet are achieving better results - by the age of 15, at least.
“It has to do with the teaching force in primary schools,” Mr Sahlberg says. “In this country we think the opposite to others. We believe if we want to get good-quality learning in our schools we have to have the best people teaching our youngest.
“It is only in the last 30 years that we have redesigned our policies so we can recruit the best graduates into our primary schools.”
And it is true. Only the top 10 per cent of university graduates make it into the country’s teacher training. If you don’t make it, you will have to make do with a job in medicine or law. But to make this happen, the country made a conscious decision to put these policies in place, and has seen slow and steady progress. It was relatively straightforward to reach political consensus, partly because the country consistently elects coalition governments.
Indeed, Finland made significant recent improvements in school outcomes following its near economic ruin after the collapse of its financial institutions in the early 1990s. The crisis led to a determination to focus on developing a knowledge-based economy.
It is easy to make comparisons between England’s current position and Finland’s back then. But for real change to be made to our education system, common ground must be found between the political parties. Until then, England’s schools risk forever being in Finland’s shadow.
FINLAND IN FIGURES
5.3m - Population
5.9% - Proportion of GDP spent on education (OECD average: 5.2 per cent)
95.5% - Primary enrolment (OECD average 98.8 per cent)
87.2% - Secondary enrolment (OECD average 81.5 per cent)
42.6% - Tertiary enrolment (OECD average 24.9 per cent)
$32,513 - Teacher salary (average) (OECD average $30,750)
99% - Graduation rate: comprehensive
93% - Graduation rate: upper secondary.
Original headline: Finnishing school - Inside Gove’s favourite education system