Why Finnish pupils are top of the European game
Finnish pupils have once again outperformed their European peers – and most of the world – in the OECD's international reading, maths and science tests for 15-year-olds.
The country came second in the international rankings of the 2009 Pisa survey, which is conducted every three years in 34 OECD countries. When the results of partner economies were included, Finland ranked third overall, beaten only by Shanghai-China and Korea (although Hong Kong-China, Singapore and Taipei-China had slightly better maths results).
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Finland has performed so well over the past decade that the OECD has devoted a whole chapter in its Pisa report to examining what lessons the US can learn from it. So what is it that gives this small northern European country the edge?
According to the OECD, Finland's current success is due to slow and steady improvement over the past four decades, "rather than as a consequence of highly visible innovations launched by a particular political leader or party".
A key factor behind the country's success rests on its claim to be one of the most undivided education systems in the world.
The principle of inclusion is taken seriously even before children begin compulsory education at the age of seven. All municipalities are required to provide daycare for children and most infants attend full-time nurseries that charge a modest fee depending on parental income. Since 2001, all six-year-olds have had the right to free pre-primary education.
State schools are not selective, each student is guaranteed a place near their home and education is almost completely free – this includes learning materials, school meals, healthcare, special needs education, remedial teaching and transport in rural areas.
There are very few single-sex schools and all children, including those with severe learning disabilities, go through the same basic education programme. Schools have effective early prevention techniques for pupils at risk of dropping out or displaying anti-social behaviour, and most large institutions have a dedicated psychologist.
The 2009 Pisa results seem to show that Finland's inclusive strategy has paid off. Although there are still gender disparities – girls did better significantly better at science and boys had slightly better maths results – results are remarkably consistent across the country and there is little variation between schools in urban and rural areas.
Crucially, children's socio-economic background does not have a strong bearing on their performance, in common with other European countries such as Norway and Estonia.
Where the system really seems to have paid off is in getting the poorest performing pupils up to a certain standard. "The strength of the Finnish education system is that less successful pupils still have a higher level of skill than in other OECD countries," said Professor Jouni Valijarvi, director of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyvaskyla.
The Pisa results also show that the brightest pupils in Finland outperformed other European countries in reading and science, and came second only to Switzerland in maths.
"It looks like paying attention to the weaker schoolchildren raises the average level of performance but on the other hand it doesn't discourage even the best pupils," said Prof Valijarvi. "In other words, emphasising equality as well excellence of top pupils are not alternatives but rather objectives that support each other."
OECD analysts wrote that countries such as Finland "combine high average performance with equity and have a large proportion of top-performing students, which demonstrates that excellence and equity can go together".
Finland has been so successful that it has inspired international institutions and education systems across the world. Hundreds of teachers from around the world have visited Helsinki as 'education tourists' to see which ideas they can export back home. The current curriculum for three to seven-year-olds in Wales, for example, was explicitly modelled on pre-school systems in Finland and Germany.
But there are certain social and cultural aspects to Finland's success that may not be as easily transported across borders.
The fact that young people are in touch with current affairs, for example, may be behind their excellent reading scores; 85 percent read newspapers several times a month. The 2009 Pisa results clearly show that young people who read for pleasure perform better at reading tests.
Crucially, being a teacher is a highly respected occupation and to teach in a Finnish school, even at primary level, you must have a postgraduate degree which takes about five years. Primary teaching is the most popular profession among young people and only about 15 percent of teacher training applicants are accepted.
"The Finnish system is largely based on trust," said Prof Valijarvi. "The population trusts teachers and maybe teachers trust pupils more than in many countries. Teachers' autonomy is strong and exterior control is minor. These have kept the status of teachers high in Finnish society."
Teachers set their own timetables and decide how to deliver the national curriculum. There is standardised testing in schools but pupils' results are also not used allocate resources.
Salla Koskela works as a supply teacher in Finnish hospital schools' psychiatric wards. She trained as a primary teacher but is considering doing the additional one-year full-time course required to teach special needs: "I am very proud of the Finnish education system. It is difficult to name one thing that contributes to the good results but I feel that the high quality teacher training is a key factor. In addition to that, Finnish schools are homogeneous when it comes to quality of teaching. In other words, the quality of teaching and pupils' level of knowledge in different schools is very similar."
The average class size in Finland is already comparatively small at under 20 pupils, but Miss Koskela believes even smaller groups would benefit her pupils. It is not the only problem; teachers have voiced concerns about their low salaries.
On average, comprehensive school teachers earn about €2,500 per month plus €100-300 for overtime and specific jobs. After five years they start getting roughly five percent pay rises every few years. In 2009, the average salary for private school teachers was €2,939 so the pay is roughly the same as the state system.
"Teachers should earn a better salary that would reflect their level of education," said Kare Jantunen, a PE and health education teacher in Vantaa, a large city near Helsinki. "I fear that financial matters are the threat of the future as group sizes might increase, we might not afford school psychologists, special needs classes, teaching assistants, small groups etc."
Prof Valijarvi said the recession is a serious threat to the quality of teaching and equality: "In practise we can see that activities apart from traditional classes have been reduced. The possibilities of getting new equipment and modernising the learning environment are only possible thanks to certain schemes that are often funded by the EU. On the whole school activities are worse off."
One of the main reasons that Finnish education has been so consistent is that, although municipalities are responsible for schools, the government has traditionally provided a lot of financial support to maintain them. Prof Valijarvi said government cuts endanger this equality because the schools become increasingly dependent on the municipality budgets, which vary widely.
The Pisa results have not been immune from criticism. Some educationalists have pointed out that Finland is highly economically developed and has very low immigration compared to other countries.
It is true that less than five percent of Finnish students have a socio-economic background below that of the least advantaged 15 percent of students in the OECD. But many of the poorest pupils are considered 'resilient,' meaning that their background does not determine how well their achieve.
There also is a gap in performance between first generation immigrants and native pupils/second-generation immigrants in Finland, but the country has experienced a sharp rise growth in immigration recently, according to the OECD.
OECD analysts said these gaps "highlight the disadvantage of first-generation students and possibly the different backgrounds across immigrant cohorts. However, they could also signal positive educational and social mobility across generations."
Small size an asset
In fact, there may be more prosaic reasons behind Finland's success. Finland is a sparsely-populated country with just 600,000 pupils attending 4,000 schools. Organisation on such a small scale is potentially easier and more efficient than in more populated countries.
Prof Valijarvi suggested that the country's small size may be an incentive to use resources better.
"Our mental resources are more limited than the resources of large countries and therefore we have to utilise them more. Being excluded from education can result in exclusion from the job market and life in general. Long term, this will cause large financial expenses including social costs and criminal activity."
The OECD report seemed to back this up. "In some of the high-performing countries that have very few natural resources, such as Finland, Singapore and Japan, education appears to have a high status at least in part because the general public understands that the country must live by its human resources, which depend on the quality of education," it said.
"Unlike many other high performing countries, Finland's reforms have evolved slowly and carefully over decades, have enjoyed broad and sustained political support across many changes in government, and are so intertwined with deep cultural factors that they are firmly institutionalised in the fabric of everyday life in schools," said analysts. "They are not the result of bold new policies or big programmatic initiatives that one can identify with a particular government or political leader. Rather, they are now almost taken for granted as the way schooling is done in Finland."