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Education reform in times of crisis: Emulating Finland?

published 7 December 2012 updated 7 December 2012
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Education reform is an increasingly internationalised phenomenon. Governments seeking to reform their education system usually look to the international level for successful experiences, with a view to learning from their strengths and, as far as possible, emulating them. In Europe, Finland currently stands out as the principal international reference for education reform owing to its excellent results in standardised international tests such as PISA. The current economic crisis however, and the superficial manner in which  governments try to import international “good practice”,  are now major obstacles to making progress towards models of educational quality and excellence, such as the Finnish example.

The Finnish model

Over the last decade Finland’s education system has aroused great interest in many parts of the world.  Education in Finland has become the subject of many television documentaries and academic studies, as well as a point of departure for politicians and technicians seeking inspiration in order to improve education in their own countries and local areas.  The demand for information about the Finnish education system is such that the Education Ministry has translated its webpage into English and the University of Helsinki has created a service to organise group visits by foreign academics, technicians and politicians called “Eduvisits in Finland”.

Despite its progressive roots, the “Finnish case” has become a point of reference (or in some cases a stamp of legitimacy) for educational reform for a wide range of ideologies, not only those on the political left.  For the neo-liberal right, for example, Finland is upheld as an example of how education expenditure is not synonymous with good results, or how school independence or a business-minded management of education are conducive to effective education. During a recent appearance before the Congress of Deputies, the Spanish education minister, José Ignacio Wert, stated that the education systems at the head of the PISA rankings, such as Finland, allowed their education centres a lot of independence both organisationally and in their financial management.

Conservatives assert that Finland’s success is due to the fact that compulsory schooling starts at the relatively late age of 7 years and consequently to the active educational role of the family (read “mothers”) during early childhood, or to the “Lutheran cultural heritage,based on responsibility engendered by discipline and effort, together with a climate that encourages people to stay indoors” ( ABC, 22/11/2012).

These views are extremely simplistic, if not biased. The success of the Finnish education system cannot be explained so simply or by one single factor. Rather, it is due to the combination of a set of very solid education policies which, it is worth pointing out, are implemented in a context that favours the desired outcomes. We are referring to policies as diverse as:

  • Ahigh level of professionalism among teachers.Finnish teachers have a very high level of training and social status, and access to a teaching career is very difficult owing to the high demand and the high standards required. As one of the principal experts on Finnish education, Pasi Salbergh recently explained in The Washington Post:

“Teaching in Finland is, in fact, such a desired profession that the University of Helsinki, where I teach part-time, received 2,300 applicants this spring for 120 spots in its primary school teacher education program.”

  • A high margin ofindependence for schools when it comes to defining the curriculum and the system of pupil evaluation,which is directly linked to the professionalisation of teaching and the level of confidence that the Finnish government and society have in their teachers.  This type of independence has little or nothing to do, of course, with the kind of school independence based on financial management that the neoliberals often refer to.
  • Ahighly comprehensiveeducation system, meaning that students follow the same itinerary up to 16 years of age.
  • In addition to their hours in the classroom, teachers have numerous forums in which toresolve their pupils’ learning difficulties in a collegiate manner,both with their own education centre’s colleges and those of neighbouring centres.
  • Primary  school teachers stay withthe same group of students for between two and five years in a row,which enables them to take on a guardianship role, getting to know their pupils better and developing greater complicity with the children and their families.
  • A choice of school is permitted, but does not lead to inequalitybecause all schools offer services of a similar quality(high) and are obliged to accept pupils regardless of their socio-economic background.
  • There are no standard evaluation or ranking systems.The education ministry only evaluates a small sample of schools to detect potential or emerging problems, but not with the aim of creating competition between education centres.
  • Schools do not compete for students or resources.  The government uses various programmes to promotecooperation between education centres and teachersfrom the same area.
  • Education isfree at every level, from nursery school to higher education. The state also covers indirect education costs such as school dinners, books and school materials.
  • Class sizes are very small(between 15 and 19 pupils per teacher in primary school) and there are a large number of teachers and support staff for the least able students.

This whole range of policies goes a long way to explaining the success of the Finnish education model. Nevertheless, the level of success cannot be understood without taking into account the fact that in this country education is carried out in astrong welfare state and a far more egalitarian social structurethan is found in other countries in Europe, not to mention many developing countries.

Is it possible to emulate Finland?  A word of caution

Finland is currently an international point of reference for educational excellence of the first order. It would therefore be desirable for the Finnish model to provide inspiration for educational reform in other places, but this does not mean that it has to be taken as a blueprint to which other education systems have to adapt unquestioningly. Emulating Finland does not only mean adopting some of its praised initiatives.  What makes education work in a country is not the sum of a series of unrelated initiatives, but rather the coordination, feedback and integration of a broad range of diverse polices in a coherent and strategically planned system. Furthermore, let us not forget that an important element of Finland’s educational success is its level of welfare and social equality, and these cannot be imported from elsewhere as if they were specific policies or practices.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that taking Finland seriously as a model of educational change is certainly not free, nor can it be done in a context of budgetary austerity.  The Finnish system is not particularly expensive by OECD standards, but the level of excellence in this Scandinavian country was only achieved after a high level of investment, for decades, in fundamentals such as teacher training, the creation of education cooperation networks, compensatory policies, infrastructure and many other elements. As stated before, the assignment of resources, as well as the education culture and the “know how” developed over time, cannot be mechanically transferred.

What the Finnish model can help us do, however, is to define the guidelines and basic principles that should drive education reform aimed at equity and excellence to achieve something as close as possible to it, crisis permitting.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.