An English Educator’s Take On Finland

I have pieced together (with his permission) Derry Hannam’s posts from a fascinating two week back and forth that occurred on the AERO list-serve with people asking him questions about the Finnish education system.  I have added links occasionally, but otherwise it is his words.  Here’s Derry:

The country that seems to have statistically decoupled the link between parental income and student outcomes, which as Gatto says is firmly in place in the USA and UK and most other countries, is Finland. Have you seen ‘Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?’ by Pasi Sahlberg – published in 2011 by Columbia University Teacher’s College. It is a great read and describes what I’ve seen for myself in a series of working visits in the last 10 years. In the ’70s the Finns made fee charging illegal at all levels of education from kindergarten to university.

In the ’70s the Finns had private fee paying ‘grammar’ schools for 55% of the kids aged 11 and upward. These schools selected their students by ‘academic ability’ and ‘parental ability to pay.’ Research showed that student outcome at 16 and 18 was almost entirely predicated on parental income (what a surprise!). After much political debate eventually sufficient consensus was found around an agenda that created the comprehensive and local ‘nine year school’ (7-16) for everybody; fee charging was abolished, as was academic selection at 11. Selection and ‘streaming’ into classes by academic ability within schools was also made illegal in further reforms a few years later. A collaborative ethos systematically replaced a competitive one. Special needs education was provided on such a large scale that over 40% of students benefit from it for something at some point in their schooling so there was absolutely no stigma attached to it. There are no nationally applied tests until 16 and these are largely used formatively to guide students as to how best pursue their upper secondary education from 16 to 19/20 where there is a choice between academic and vocational routes. There is no system of national inspection. The national curriculum is fairly unprescriptive and teachers are trusted to adapt it to local circumstances and students’ interests. Both the Swedish speaking and the Finnish-speaking students have their own national organizations that are frequently consulted by government policy makers. Add to this that all teachers from kindergarten to university have to have masters degrees with a research component, there is no merit pay for the ‘best’ teachers and all is achieved for less % of the national GDP than is spent on education in the UK or the US.

As to the private schools when fee charging was made illegal – well most of them chose to become part of the new comprehensive system but 75, most Steiner Waldorf schools, chose to remain independent. They are free to users and are funded partly or mainly by the state and partly by trusts and charities. My guess is that Sudbury or Summerhill type schools would be treated in this way if they existed. This is based on my experience in advising the Swedish speaking national board in Finland on the creation of a student initiated project in 2005/6 whereby more student democracy was introduced into a small network of schools in Helsinki. The senior adviser proudly produced some articles about the school that she had attended 40 years before that had been modeled on Summerhill inspired by the ideas of AS Neill.

In 2007 Finland spent 5.6% GDP on education – figure for the US was 7.6% – average for all OECD countries was 5.7%. I think these figures have remained fairly stable. They certainly spend less on the military but they also spend less on education as a % of GDP. It is not so much how much they spend but more how they spend it. Virtually nothing on high stakes testing and examinations and the whole industry of marking them, absolutely nothing on inspection regimes, they have low teacher turnover even though salaries are on average lower than the UK and the US.  Teaching hours are low and the school day is short on the basis that ‘less is more’ but teachers are given a lot of time to talk to each other, sharing approaches and planning themes though there is not a lot of directly collaborative teaching – there is talk in some of introducing more. Very little homework is set in the peruskuola 9-year comprehensive school – though plenty is done from choice by upper-secondary students. Students do not start school until 7 years of age and no formal learning is attempted (unless requested by the child) in Kindergarten, which is play-based. Money is spent generously on special education within the comprehensive school but little to nothing is spent on ‘disciplinary and exclusion’ processes.

The ‘GERM’ systems that we have created in the US and the UK (Pasi Sahlberg’s acronym for Global Education Reform Movement) are not only toxic for many kids and nationally inefficient they are also absurdly expensive – though you always have to ask the cui bono question! If it’s not the teachers and not the kids who benefit then who is it – the publishers of test papers perhaps?

It seems to me that our (US and UK) systems are built on lack of trust of teachers, prescriptive curriculum, high-stakes testing, punitive/competitive accountability between isolated market choice driven schools, and telling public schools they should aim to emulate their ‘betters’/private schools – and it doesn’t work. Finland by contrast feels like topsy-turvy land – trust the teachers by preparing them to a high level and letting them get on with it, flexible curriculum, no money wasted on testing, encourage mutual support and collaboration between schools and between teachers with local community schools for local communities, and buying a privileged ‘elite’ education is illegal,  - but it works!

 

 

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An English Educator’s Take On Finland — 1 Comment

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