NSL Blog

What makes the Finnish education system work?

May 18, 2012

Human nature is not like a machine - John Stuart Mill - 1859

“Human nature is not like a machine that is built like a model and set to the do the work exactly proscribed for it, but, should be seen as a tree that uniquely grows depending on the diverse and inward forces that make it a living thing”.

Sitting in a packed room in the House of Commons yesterday evening I thought of John Stuart Mill listening to Pasi Sahlberg  Director of CIMO, (CIMO is an organisation for international mobility and cooperation, providing expertise and services to clients at home and abroad. Established in 1991, CIMO is an independent agency under the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture) talk about how and why Finland consistently has topped the OECD tables for continued excellence in education. And mourned the dogma, and industrial top down management approach that still besets the UK education system, from both left and right and fails another generation. We have the Academy system, the system of inspection, testing, starting school at 5, league tables, competition for schools and places to the point parents move into postcodes that connects them to better schools – driving the cost of housing up. It just seems to point to years of stress and waste for all concerned.

A broader package than just education: Pasi pointed to the fact that it requires a broader more subtle and complex package of things that delivers a good education system. He pointed particularly to happiness and well being as a caveat.

Background: Finnish society as a whole is based upon more egalitarian, humanistic and mutual values than we have in Britain it is part of the Finnish DNA. Finland has no private schools, or private healthcare as we would know it. In fact private schools were abolished in 1970, and it is illegal to charge for fee-paying tuition that leads to a qualification. It is also illegal to stream children by ability. I might add Finland is a social democracy – it has a high taxation system, but this model is designed for well-managed wealth re-distribution. We wont be going there any time soon.

Policy drivers: There were a number of policy drivers, the first was ‘enhancing equity’. This was explained as the need to mitigate socio/economic backgrounds. That might become at some stage more divisive and resource(s) delivered where it is most critically needed. Plus the view that each and every child has a unique learning journey, the system desires and is designed for diversity not a monoculture.

This was a key point. Which broke down to [1] Resources [2] Access [3] Support [4] Early Childhood. So every child is entitled these from the very beginning of their schooling which starts at 7 years rather than our 5 years.

Special needs, there is no such thing as special needs: Pasi also pointed to the fact that 30% of the children have some kind of extra support – but this is NOT identified as special needs. It is necessary extra help and is supplied for as long as the child needs it.

This is I would argue in complete contrast to the UK. We have to say our kids are special, they then often get streamed ‘corralled’ into the special needs classes. The legal costs to get a ‘Statement of Special Need’ for dyslexia for example is £15,000 as the LEA’s will fight to ensure the child is not officially recognized as having a special need, as they then do not have to provide resource in the same way required by law.

These children suffer a certain subtle pervasive and ongoing prejudice, which will further erode their self confidence – I should know I have seen it happen to both my sons in the state education system.

Policy driver #1 Equity needs quality: Equity however does not deliver quality, so the key elements here is [1] infrastructure, [2] leadership [3] assessment [4] curriculum

The school and the child needs good infrastructure, the teachers need to be able to lead well, assessment is not made by inspection and the curriculum is geared towards the skills, abilities and the passion of the child. Quality is also achieved, consistently by not pitching schools against each other, in the experience of Finnish education, higher quality is achieved when the standards are self directed and that comes down to an evolved sense of professionalism and a personal desire to teach well and to be given the trust to do that.

Equity and Quality

Policy driver #2 Less is more, less teaching time leads to a better quality education. Finnish Teachers spend 60 minutes each day less than their UK counterparts and 120 minutes less than US teachers.

Less homework more play – the consensus is work is done during the day, children and teachers take a collective responsibility.

Policy driver #3: Teacher, leader professionalism = high quality of teaching, and level of respect. Teaching and teachers in Finland are a highly respected, there are high demands on the people that want to teach, they perceive their role as a professional like a doctor or a lawyer, and such is the standard that many primary school teachers could easily have followed that path. But they followed their calling.

Demand for places is high

The academic standards are high, but it is not enough. Another question carries great weight, what is your personal quest that leads you to teaching? So the profession for the last 20 years has been oversubscribed even though these people have qualifications to take them into law, medicine and other professions.

No School inspectorate: So the really hard work of quality over long periods has as much to do with a rigorous selection process, in the understated way that only a Finn could deliver Pasi observed we have no need for such top down control as we trust we have the very best people and they know what needs to be done.


What defines the Finnish system overall? Four points were made:

[1] collaboration [2] personalisation [3] equity [4] trust based professionalism were defining features on which consistent success had been achieved. What are the enemies of such success? Simply put:

  • Competition
  • Standardisation
  • School Choice
  • Test based accountability

So how does one assess students?: The assessments are individualised based upon the students own abilities and performance. At this point a senior member of the NUT observed, “It’s not a different world, it’s a different planet”.

The OECD report of 2012 called Equality and Quality in Education states, ‘that the highest performing education systems are those that combine quality and equity.

 Summary: In his closing remarks, Pasi made these personal observations

“More collaboration less competition”

“More personalisation less standardisation (diversity vs monocultures).

“Trust based responsibility, less test based accountability”

“More pedagogy, less technology”

“More professionalism, less bureaucracy”

In a recent speech, our Prime Minister talked about Britain in these terms, he used the word efficiency 7 times in one short speech. But my thought is this you can be as efficient as you like, but trying to be efficient in an inefficient system is never going to work. Efficiency is the mantra of the industrialised world. Today we live in a networked, non-linear one.

Britain did get a pat on the back for the teaching of maths and science not to be sniffed at but, this is not whole systems design work or thinking. My Finnish friends do feel that their system is good but needs more work on it to be more rounded. That British schools offers children interpersonal skills that the Finns could learn from. However, as Pasi observed there are no bad / failing schools in Finland in the way we would describe them here, and that is something we could learn from.

The Finnish system is first and foremost designed to be effective – the efficiency comes as a natural consequence – but its key performance indicators speak for themselves; well educated, well balanced (on the whole), multilingual children that top the OECD table, whilst we languish. My question is are we capable of planning and designing a long-term view of education that is not based upon an industrial model of command and control, a life-sapping tourniquet of bureaucracy and management speak. That could deliver true and valuable education to our children?

So what to do? A mass emigration to Finland is obviously out of the question, and we are not about to close Eton and Harrow etc., it also begs the question what do we want? Do we want a more egalitarian society, or are we always to be a country dominated by class, which ultimately translates to stratified power and control? Or do we want more opportunity, freedom, empowerment, mutualism, diversity, independence and even beauty?

Send a delegation from your local council / school / teachers and parents to understand how this system works in day-to-day practice.

Read Pasi Sahlberg’s book, share it with your friends, colleagues and perhaps more importantly with those that are still stuck with the birch and rote learning.

Understand that designing for humanity, and allowing it to grow and flourish, is common sense and intelligent. It requires some joined up long-term thinking / planning that cannot be based upon monoculture, political dogma and a slide rule.

In No Straight Lines, education plays and important role in what our post industrial future looks like. If you would like to read more you can buy a paperback or kindle version.

Or you can read the Open Access Participatory version.

Suggested reading from the living bibliography

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