Monday, 9 December 2013

Finns teach Finns rather well. Can they teach us?

All Finnish primary school children seem to look particularly fresh-faced, healthy, and actively engaged, a bit like their teachers, actually. The head teacher tells me (don’t the head teachers look young), the pupils at Ressu comprehensive school in Helsinki are not from particularly privileged backgrounds. The catchment area has three groups: academics, artists, and working class. The head teacher is polite, well informed, generous with her time, and very indulgent, given that I am not the first to make a pilgrimage to pray at the shrine of Finnish education. Ever since the PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment) showed Finland’s 15 year olds scoring particularly well compared to other European countries on standard tests, people have been wondering how they do it.

The UK made its reputation as being a brainy country – a great many discoveries, wonderful creative arts, brilliant universities. Despite that, we don’t do very well on PISA tests. The US is no slouch when it comes to innovations and skills, either. Why do the Finns do so brilliantly and the British and Americans so badly on internationally standardised tests? It’s quite a neat natural experiment because the UK and Finland do things so differently.

PISA scores in Finland (blue) and the UK (red), 2012[1].


The current approach in the UK to improving education for our children, is for the relevant minister to take central control: abolishing meddlesome local authority control of schools, setting the national curriculum, setting out a programme of school visits by inspectors to make sure they are up to scratch (the schools not the inspectors – might be interesting if it were the other way round), setting the criteria for what children should be able to achieve at various stages of their school career, examine at each of these stages, publish league tables of school performance to name and shame schools; abolish minimum qualifications for teachers in order to stimulate creativity. Oh, and freeze pay of teachers and criticize them as obstructing progress. Throw into the mix repeated discussions of whether abolishing grammar schools in favour of comprehensives didn’t rather lead to mediocrity. One last thing: make everything that goes wrong the fault of the last set of politicians to be in charge, whoever they were.

Finland has followed pretty much the obverse. There is a national curriculum but teachers have a great deal of autonomy in deciding what they teach; schools are under the control of local authorities; there are no tests to see if children have reached the relevant competency at various ages; there is one national test at the end of nine years of basic education in comprehensive schools but the results are not published, not fed back to pupils, and are used by the schools for statistical purposes so they can see how they are doing compared to other schools; all teachers have a master’s degree – unthinkable to have less; teaching is highly prized and teaching jobs are much sought; teacher training is research-based so teachers are encouraged to develop an enquiring approach to sort out solutions for children who are having difficulties.

The Finnish system is based not on managerial control of teachers but on teachers taking responsibility and students taking responsibility. The lack of emphasis on national exams represents not only a judgement that they are not necessary for high levels of performance, witness the high PISA scores, but they represent too narrow an approach to education. Finland is interested in educating future citizens who know how to work with people from diverse backgrounds, are educated in music and culture, have learnt traditional Finnish skills such as working with wood and textiles, and know how to cook.

I put two counter-hypotheses to my hosts – the head teacher and an official from the teachers’ union – one is that school reduces the effect of social disadvantage on educational performance. The other was that the school amplifies the effects of social advantage and disadvantage because the kids from more stimulating backgrounds are better placed to take advantage of what schools have to offer. No question in the teachers’ minds: Finnish comprehensive schools reduce the effect of social disadvantage on educational performance. Children who are having trouble get special attention, up to 30% of pupils. Equality is the most important word in Finnish education.

I suggested that if educational performance follows a bell-shaped curve, their special attention to the children in trouble may have reduced the prevalence of dumb-bells, but it may have reduced elite performance, fewer Nobels. (I am grateful to Helena Cronin for this terminology). They were not having any of that. The teachers work not only at helping the slower kids, but at challenging and extending the more able.

Might it not be the case that Finland’s good performance educationally may have less to do with schools and more to do with a relatively homogeneous population with low levels of child poverty? Typical academic’s question, wanting to isolate relevant variables. They chided me gently. You cannot separate the performance of the schools from the society and culture in which they are embedded. Schools are influenced by culture and society, and their mission is to contribute to society and culture in a positive way.

[1] Creating using the PISA ‘compare your country’ tool at

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