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_Schools in Finland

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									Why do Finland's schools get the best results?
Wednesday, 7 April 2010 16:19 UK
Last year more than 100 foreign delegations and governments visited Helsinki, hoping to
learn the secret of their schools' success.
In 2006, Finland's pupils scored the highest average results in science and reading in the whole
of the developed world. In the OECD's exams for 15 year-olds, known as PISA, they also came
second in maths, beaten only by teenagers in South Korea.
This isn't a one-off: in previous PISA tests Finland also came out top.
The Finnish philosophy with education is that everyone has something to contribute and those
who struggle in certain subjects should not be left behind.
A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those
who struggle in a particular subject. But the pupils are all kept in the same classroom, regardless
of their ability in that particular subject.
Finland's Education Minister, Henna Virkkunen is proud of her country's record but her next goal
is to target the brightest pupils.
''The Finnish system supports very much those pupils who have learning difficulties but we have
to pay more attention also to those pupils who are very talented. Now we have started a pilot
project about how to support those pupils who are very gifted in certain areas.''
Late learners
According to the OECD, Finnish children spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in
the developed world.
This reflects another important theme of Finnish education.
Primary and secondary schooling is combined, so the pupils don't have to change schools at age
13.
They avoid a potentially disruptive transition from one school to another.
Teacher Marjaana Arovaara-Heikkinen believes keeping the same pupils in her classroom for
several years also makes her job a lot easier.
''I'm like growing up with my children, I see the problems they have when they are small.
And now after five years, I still see and know what has happened in their youth, what are the best
things they can do. I tell them I'm like their school mother.''
Children in Finland only start main school at age seven.
The idea is that before then they learn best when they're playing and by the time they finally get
to school they are keen to start learning.

Less is more
Finnish parents obviously claim some credit for the impressive school results.
There is a culture of reading with the kids at home and families have regular contact with their
children's teachers.
Teaching is a prestigious career in Finland. Teachers are highly valued and teaching standards
are high.
The educational system's success in Finland seems to be part cultural.
Pupils study in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.
Finland also has low levels of immigration. So when pupils start school the majority have
Finnish as their native language, eliminating an obstacle that other societies often face.
The system's success is built on the idea of less can be more.
There is an emphasis on relaxed schools, free from political prescriptions.
This combination, they believe, means that no child is left behind.
Finnishing school
Comment | Published in The TES on 6 May, 2011 | By: Richard Vaughan
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
Can UK schools really go Finnish?
Analysis | Published in The TES on 5 February, 2010 | By: Edward Dutton
Edward Dutton: Finland’s uniquely egalitarian society makes the model almost inimitable
Original paper headline: No simple task for the UK to Finnish what it’s started
Finnish schools are repeatedly described as the best in the world. So it was no surprise when David Cameron
recently praised them, and promised that his Conservative Party would emulate their “unashamedly elitist”
attitudes to teacher recruitment.
The fact that Finland has topped such international education tables as the Programme for International
Student Assessment (PISA) shows that, aside from the school shootings it has suffered, it must be doing
something right. But whether the UK can copy it is another question.
One of the clearest differences with the UK is that there is no stark social divide in secondary education.
“There are no private schools in Finland,” explains Sampo Backman - despite being head at the simply titled
Swedish Private School in Oulu, in the north of Finland. The name, he explains, reflects the school’s funding - by a
cultural foundation rather than the state. “I suppose you could say we have tuition fees of zero euros!” he says, with
a laugh.
The only real divide in Finnish schooling is linguistic, reflecting the country’s status as a former Swedish colony.
Though numbering only 5 per cent, the Swedish-speaking population have the right to state-funded schooling in
their native tongue in municipalities where 6 per cent or more speak Swedish, Finland’s second official language.
Sociologists confirm that the minority are - on average - better-off, more educated and over-represented in elite
professions but, for Mr Backman, this kind of research is misleading. “It is inaccurate that Swedish-speakers are
somehow a higher class than the Finns,” he insists.
The teachers at Mr Backman’s school are certainly highly educated. To become teachers at all, they have had
to get masters degrees from elite universities - only nursery school teachers can get away with a polytechnic
education. According to Birgitta Vuorinen, a civil servant in the Department of Education and Science Policy, in
2008, 68,000 Finnish secondary school students applied for just 18,000 first-year university places. To gain a place,
they must not only do well in their school matriculation exams but pass a rigorous examination set by their chosen
department and - if they want to become a teacher - an interview as well.
Heikki Blom, another civil servant in the Department of Education and Science Policy, explains that Finnish degrees
normally involve a “track system”. If you wanted to do a Theology degree, for example, you would decide when
applying if you wanted to follow the “Lutheran priest”, “teacher” or “academic” line. “If you decided to do the
teacher track degree then you would study social science and pedagogical modules as well as the academic
modules,” Mr Blom explains.
Though last year’s Higher Education Act in Finland has tightened things up, until this year Finnish students received
10 years of term-time funding to do a masters degree that could be completed in five (they now receive five years of
funding but can apply for more). This left students with the possibility of pursuing a broad, in-depth education. Even
now, all university graduates have to produce a 60,000 word masters thesis and, therefore, achieve a rigorous
understanding of a particular area of their discipline.
The former history teacher at Mr Backman’s school has published a number of books and his history of the school is
on display. And Finland has among the highest per capita number of PhDs in Europe.
It may not be that easy to introduce such a culture into British teaching. Education is deeply respected in Finland.
According to historian Pekka Hamalainen, highly educated Finns have always been accorded a kind of elite status
even if they are not wealthy. The respect for education can be seen throughout the society. Finns do not use titles
such as “Mr”. In similarly formal circumstances, they will put their academic qualifications before their names.
Posters for elections stress the academic clout of the candidates. As a teacher, you are automatically paid more if
you have a PhD. The approximate equivalent of the insult “chav” in Finland is amis. The word derives from
ammattikoulu - the “vocational schools” attended by around 40 per cent of school-leavers, generally those who are
not especially academic.
By contrast, British people can be suspicious of the highly educated. Gordon Brown could emphasise that he has a
PhD - but he doesn’t.
While there may be no Etons or Harrows in Finland, there also no “bog- standard comprehensives”. Teachers do not
have the problems with discipline that some in the UK do. Their pupils will likely be entirely Finnish and
conforming in their Finnishness - 90 per cent of Finns are confirmed as Lutheran at 15 after a week-long
“Confirmation Camp” (80 per cent of Finns are paid-up members of the Lutheran Church). Indeed, at some point
between the ages of 18 and 26, the boys all have to do national service.
Schools in Finland do not compete with each other in the way that British schools do, and social class is not a
significant source of media debate. Finland lacks areas of pronounced poverty or wealth.
Anthropologist Professor Pertti Anttonen argues that a very successful myth has developed, since the Finnish Civil
War of 1917/18, that there are no “social classes” in Finland and the only major difference is between Finnish and
Swedish-speakers. According to the Legatum think tank, Finland remains a very united society. People trust each
other, they trust those in positions of authority and the country is homogenous. Immigration is only now becoming a
political issue, with some parents withdrawing their kids from schools in Helsinki because 40 per cent of their
classmates have a mother tongue other than Finnish, according to the country’s public service broadcaster YLE.
Schools here are co-educational and comprehensive. From age seven to 12 you have a class teacher and from 13 to
15 subject specialists. Up until the age of 15, you simply attend your local school and parents seem to assume that
these are all of much the same standard.
Finnish classes are not academically streamed, a practice which was abolished in 1985. But at 15, students must
either attend an academic high school, or lukio, or a vocational ammattikoulu. According to Mika Tuononen, of
Statistics Finland, almost 51 per cent of 15-year-olds go straight on to lukio, while 41 per cent go straight to
ammattikoulu. The other 8 per cent take a break before, often, going to lukio later. Lukio prepares you for
polytechnic and university further education, vocational school directs you towards a job such as a chef or a
mechanic. As with FE colleges, there is no upper age limit to these schools. To get into a lukio, students must do
well in regular assessments throughout their time at lower secondary school. There are no national exams - akin to
key stage assessments - in Finnish primaries or secondaries. At the end of their three years at lower secondary,
pupils are presented with their summary grades and it is on this basis that they start to apply to upper school.
According to Teemu Honkavaara, who teaches religious education and philosophy at Kastelli Lukio in Oulu, pupils
study for three years to take their “matriculation exam”.
Anneli Roman, secretary general of the Finnish Board of Matriculation, emphasises that lukio matriculation is the
only public examination in the Finnish schooling system. The results are public, allowing people to discover which
are good schools - or, at least, which receive the highest number of good grades and in which subjects. “People have
complained about this because the lists don’t take, for example, social factors or the quality of the pupils into
account,” Mrs Roman says. “But some people will judge lukios by these results.”
Unlike with the British A-level, lukio students must study all the major subjects during their three years. In the exam
itself, there are certain compulsory subjects and other optional ones. Students are obliged to sit exams in their
mother tongue (Finnish, Swedish or Saami), their “second national language” (Finnish or Swedish), English and
maths. They can choose from an assortment of other exams including another foreign language, various sciences,
history, philosophy, religion and so on. As in Britain, there is a national curriculum. However, the concept of grade
inflation does not exist because the amount of particular grades is strictly limited. In the lukio matriculation exam
(first established in 1852) only the top 5 per cent, in a given subject in a given year, can receive laudatur (the highest
grade obtainable) and only the bottom 5 per cent can fail. As such, governments cannot boast about pupils’ grades
improving. As the pupils improve, so the standard needed to get laudatur increases. Universities can, therefore, be
relatively confident in the standard.
Professor Juha Janhunen, of the Department of Oriental Studies at Helsinki University, has been critical of judging
Finland’s educational success by its PISA ratings. He argues that it is difficult to compare Finland to the US or the
UK. First, as with Korean the spelling system in Finnish is very simple, meaning pupils have less trouble learning to
read and write. And second, Finland is a relatively egalitarian society. Though it may be slowly changing, there are
not the dramatic differences in standard of living found in the UK.
Professor Janhunen is also concerned by the lack of streaming in Finnish education. “Finnish schools are very good
at making everybody averagely good,” he said. “But this neglects excellence and talent.”
Dr Edward Dutton is a social anthropologist living in Finland and author of The Finnuit: Finnish Culture and the
Religion of Uniqueness (Akademiai Kiado, 2009)

Day-to-day life in Finnish schools
School start times vary depending on the time of year, the amount of light and the age of the pupils.
Schooling does not become mandatory until children are seven, though many working families make use of heavily
subsidised day centres for years before this.
At Oulu Swedish Private School, as with most schools across Finland, the Lutheran Church plays a noticeable role.
Priests are invited in to lead assemblies at Easter, Christmas and other occasions.
Yet compared with British schools, there is an informal air to Finnish institutions. None of the male staff wear ties at
the Swedish Private School, which - because it caters for the city’s small Swedish minority - teaches pupils from age
seven to 18. “We don’t want to be too formal,” laughs the history teacher.
There is no school uniform and no hiding of the teacher’s Christian name.
Classes are, on average, 15 pupils in size. For Seppo Backman, the tracksuit-wearing headteacher, if there are any
more in a class then there needs to be another class. In the “primary” part of Mr Backman’s school, only the teachers
are allowed to keep their shoes on. “I think it’s a sort of status thing,” comments one teacher, “and, in Finland, we
always take our shoes off in the house.”
Children start learning English around the age of nine. Thirteen-year-old Rami Klemets is keen to practice. “I speak
Swedish, Finnish and now English,” he says, with an American lilt. Pupils opt for an “A” language and “B”
language, receiving more tuition in the former. Surrounded by English-language TV, most pupils are keen to learn
more of it. By the age of 13, they are peppering their conversation with “cool” English phrases such as “for real”.
Finns traditionally eat their main meal at lunchtime and all schools must provide nutritious, balanced diet for their
pupils. Since the 1940s, these have been funded by the taxpayer, originally so that poorer pupils could get at least
one good meal a day. The menus are published on the internet for parents to inspect.
As in the UK, the health of pupils is being taken increasingly seriously by Finnish schools. The North Karelia
Project was started by the World Health Organization in 1972 with the aim of reducing the startlingly high levels of
heart disease in the eastern Finnish region and across the country. The project - which introduced weekly health
education lessons to schools - cut heart disease by half in the ensuing years.
What Americans Keep Ignoring About
Finland's School Success


Anu Partanen | Dec 29, 2011
The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality
more than excellence.
Sergey Ivanov/Flickr
Everyone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest
trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower,
Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to
be missing the point.
The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known -- if it was known for anything at all -- as the home of Nokia,
the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life --
Newsweek ranked it number one last year -- and Finland's national education system has been receiving particular
praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.
Finland's schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by
the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in
different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on
every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent
survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are
still near the very top. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at
best.
Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model -- long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization
-- Finland's success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in
more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland
to visit schools and talk with the nation's education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media
marveling at the Finnish miracle.
So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education
reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility and author of
the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this
month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit
received national media attention and generated much discussion.
And yet it wasn't clear that Sahlberg's message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are
certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.
***
During the afternoon that Sahlberg spent at the Dwight School, a photographer from the New York Times jockeyed
for position with Dan Rather's TV crew as Sahlberg participated in a roundtable chat with students. The subsequent
article in the Times about the event would focus on Finland as an "intriguing school-reform model."
Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. "Oh," he mentioned at one point,
"and there are no private schools in Finland."
This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it's true. Only a small number of independent schools
exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no
private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school,
whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.
The irony of Sahlberg's making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of
America's best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to
attend -- not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the
room commented on Sahlberg's statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.
Sahlberg knows what Americans like to talk about when it comes to education, because he's become their go-to guy
in Finland. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a Finnish school. He taught mathematics and physics in a junior
high school in Helsinki, worked his way through a variety of positions in the Finnish Ministry of Education, and
spent years as an education expert at the OECD, the World Bank, and other international organizations.
Now, in addition to his other duties, Sahlberg hosts about a hundred visits a year by foreign educators, including
many Americans, who want to know the secret of Finland's success. Sahlberg's new book is partly an attempt to help
answer the questions he always gets asked.
From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of
students' performance if you don't test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no
accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the
private sector? How do you provide school choice?
The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to
do.
For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation
Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American
high school.
Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests
they create themselves.
All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized
grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample
groups across a range of different schools.
As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in
Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something
that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."
For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot
of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the
most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal's responsibility to notice
and deal with it.
And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more
uncomfortable.
In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: "Real winners do not compete."
It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the
Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland.
The main driver of education policy is not competition
between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings
us back to the silence after Sahlberg's comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don't exist in Finland.
"Here in America," Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, "parents can choose to take their kids to private schools.
It's the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they
want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same."
Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his
American audience heard it.
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland
instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.
***

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have
exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location.
Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even
out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for
children.
This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological
counseling, and individualized student guidance.
In fact, since academic excellence wasn't a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland's students
scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent
PISA tests confirmed that Finland -- unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway -- was producing academic
excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.
That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after
the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such
sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year -- or even just the price
of a house in a good public school district -- and the other "99 percent" is painfully plain to see.
***
Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for
fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out,
Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States.
Yet Sahlberg doesn't think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the
Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country -- as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had
been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born
residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn't lose its edge in education.
Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others,
yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys
across the same period.
Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and
homogeneity on a nation's education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like
Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education
that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy,
Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country's school system than the nation's size or
ethnic makeup.
Indeed, Finland's population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state -- after all, most American
education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in
Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-
born residents than Finland.
What's more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When
Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country's education system in the 1970s, they did so because they
realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn't rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had
to invest in a knowledge-based economy.
With America's manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. -- as articulated
by most everyone from President Obama on down -- is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same
thing.
Finland's experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well,
but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not
be good enough if there are children being left behind.
Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn't meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a
"pamphlet of hope."
"When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man
on the moon by the end of the 1960's, many said it couldn't be done," Sahlberg said during his visit to New York.
"But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland's
dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or
what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn't be done."
Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important -- as a challenge to the
American way of thinking about education reform --
Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on
cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.
The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of
society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just
be what America needs to be more competitive abroad

								
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