Most people know very little about Finland. They might be able to name the capital, they know it’s very cold and they know that they have an excellent education system. In recent times much has been written about this system, as, on the surface, it looks miraculous. They have less teacher contact hours, less years at school and less homework and yet they get great results. Journalists, education specialists, bloggers and anyone with an axe to grind against Australian education will bring up Finland. Interestingly, they aren’t as interested in Singapore and its methods, which have garnered equally successful results. The problem is we aren’t Finland. It is misleading to infer that if we just followed their lead everything would be great. I’m not saying we can’t learn from Finland, we can learn a lot, but we need to keep in mind that Finnish education is a product of Finnish culture…So, let’s look at that.
Respect for Education
The main reason Finnish schools are successful is because Finland takes education very seriously. When asked by a TV reporter what was the key to Finland’s success Par Stenbeck answered, “It takes about 150 years of enduring respect for learning and the teaching profession.” Everything stems from that fact. Par Stenbeck is Finland’s former Minister for Education, he knows! It’s important not to gloss over this point. It is a fundamental difference. All sectors of society, including government highly value education and teaching. Schools, children and teachers flourish in such a supported and validated environment.
Teaching is a highly regarded profession in Finland. Teachers are esteemed in the same way that we value and respect doctors. The process for becoming a teacher is very difficult. You have to not only get very high grades; you have to be deemed the right sort of person. There is no point being the brightest if you are not the best with children. Dr. Lawrence Ingvarson, from The Australian Council of Educational Research, says that Finland takes all of its future teachers from the top 25% of high school graduates. In Australia less than 50% of university teacher training positions come from the top 30% of the Year 12 cohort.
Once a person passes the rigorous Finnish selection process, they have five to six years of university and exit with a Masters in Education. The end point is a well-qualified teacher who then receives a salary comparable with other respected professions. The teachers’ union in Finland has high membership and is very strong. Working conditions are good. This all adds up to happy teachers who are taken seriously. If the biggest variant in learning is the relationship between teacher and student, this has to be a winning situation.
Discipline in Finnish schools is not problematic. Bad behaviour is simply not tolerated. Moreover, this approach is supported by parents. Due to the culture of respect for teachers there is a less combative approach taken by parents, reminiscent of an age gone by in Australia. If there is less disruptive behaviour, there is more learning. As parents place a high value on education, so do their children. Consequently students are highly motivated and happily engaged in learning.
A lot is made of the starting age for education in Finland. Students begin formal education at age seven. However, to say they have no education before that age is not true. 90% of children attend pre-primary education. It is play based, but it provides a strong foundation to learning and it does an excellent job of identifying learning difficulties in children who need intervention. Children who struggle receive individual learning plans. This very early ‘first wave intervention’ helps schools begin with a more homogenous group of learners. In Australia these problems tend to be identified later and so the gap in abilities is greater and is more difficult to overcome.
The population of Finland is about 5.5 million. It is a small country with an unusually small spread in income and backgrounds. There is not the enormous variation in population that exists in Australia. In Australia the difference in life experience between a child from outback Western Australia and the western suburbs of Sydney has to have an effect on education. This is borne out in our hugely varying NAPLAN results from region to region. One system and curriculum cannot equally service the needs of all Australians.
Staff of Finnish schools have a great deal of input into how their schools are run. They have a highly decentralised system, with municipal councils taking most responsibility. There is no Federal or State Government Department constantly monitoring them and measuring them with standardised testing. All schools are government funded equally and there are no private schools. Imagine the cost of this in Australia! There are no comparison tables or testing that pits one school against another. All schools are expected to be equally good. All decisions about schools are made by education professionals for the good of children. Staff even have a say in the design of the buildings so they are based on education philosophies instead of economics and design trends.
What About Australia?
The AHISA* National Chair, Phillip Heath, sums up our educational experience beautifully when he says, “The Australian scene has a range of diverse cultural realities that mark out our experience to be very different.” He talks about our English and European ancestry, our egalitarianism, our remoteness, the long presence of a thriving non-government schools sector, the rise of post-war immigration, our agreeable climate, our proximity to Asia, the vastness of the Australian continent and the federal political system. He says, “We should embrace this identity and explore its influence on the educational systems we create rather than yearning to be Finland.”
So yes…Finland has a very successful education system and we can learn a great deal from the Finns. However, Australian schools are great in different ways. We have the capacity to address our hugely varying population. We are recognised as highly innovative and we teach our children to question ideas and norms. The Australian education system absorbs a great deal of social responsibility. It delivers education in everything from the environment to drug education to mental health. We also teach general skills that will allow our students to be prepared for careers that don’t even exist yet. Our system is evolving constantly and embraces change. It is a good grounding for living in Australia…not Finland.
*AHISA is the Australian Heads of Independent Schools Association
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here