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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

Finland’s education system is tops: Here’s why

by Mike Lombardi

Finland, a country with a population of five million, has once again scored at the top in international tests in math, science, and reading literacy. This article summarizes policy directions that have made Finland the international academic star. Policy makers, educators, and the media can take a lesson from Finland.

Results from a comprehensive 41-country survey by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) during 2003 and released in December 2004 by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked Finnish 15-year-olds at or near the top in reading, math, and science. The survey showed that Alberta is the leader in Canada. B.C’s. 15-year-old students were ranked third in reading, seventh in math, and eleventh in science. OECD documents suggest that compared with the previous assessment, in 2000, the performance of the 15-year-old Finnish age group has risen in math and science. In reading literacy, Finland has kept her position as the leading country.

Even with the results from Finland, Canada’s media seem fixated on reporting the success of Alberta and other jurisdictions that are driven by data-madness and constant standardized testing. In those jurisdictions, evaluation and testing drive teaching and learning.

The successful performance of Finnish students is attributable to an array of interrelated factors, one of which is a comprehensive pedagogy. Prior to the OECD test, the 15-year-old Finnish students who participate in the assessment never experience any standardized testing in school.

Following are some of the factors that have led to the success of the Finnish education system. The results are summarized from a report about the 2000 OECD results:

High reading literacy

  • Formal reading instruction begins at age seven, when children enter the comprehensive school.
  • Parents, community, and the culture itself support reading.
  • Schools have aroused student interest in reading, and students are interested in and engaged in reading.
  • Students read highly diverse materials.
  • Finland has a comprehensive network of libraries, which have separate departments for children and youth.

High math and science performance

  • Students are confident of their mathematical abilities.
  • The math and science curriculum emphasize the use and application of knowledge and problem solving.
  • Since 1996, the Finnish education system has focussed on math and science literacy through a national program (LUMA) aimed at developing knowledge and skills in math and science at all levels of schooling.

High equality of educational outcomes

  • Finland provides all students with equal educational opportunities and removes obstacles to learning especially among the least successful students.
  • Finland has sought to provide all students, whatever their place of residence, with equal opportunities for high-quality education.
  • Finland has an extensive network of schools and recruits highly qualified teachers in all schools.

A philosophy that works

  • The comprehensive school is not only a system; it is a matter of pedagogical philosophy and practice.
  • With a population of more than five million, Finland has more than 4,000 comprehensive schools, 750 upper-secondary schools, 20 universities, and a great many other educational institutions.
  • The comprehensive school is for each child; hence, it has to adjust to the needs of each child.
  • Teaching and pedagogy are structured to work with heterogeneous student groups.
  • No student can be excluded and sent to another school.
  • The interests and choices of students are taken into account when schools plan and select the curriculum, content, textbooks, learning strategies, and methods of assessment.
  • All this calls for a flexible, school-based and teacher-planned curriculum along with student-centred instruction, counselling, and remedial teaching.
  • The teacher takes care of every single student and allows, in everyday school work, for a diverse student body.
  • Special education is usually closely integrated into normal teaching and is highly inclusive (approximately 2% of students attend special education institutions).
  • Every student has the right to student counselling, and schools provide students with guidance in study skills, options, and planning post-secondary studies. At grade levels 7 to 9, every school has a student counsellor who provides individual guidance to those in need or wanting it.
  • The class sizes in Finland are among the smallest in the countries in the study. Finnish teachers are constantly worried about what they consider too-large class sizes, finding it demanding to look after the individual needs of different students.

Highly qualified teachers and pedagogical autonomy

  • In Finnish culture, teaching is one of the most important professions of society, and substantial resources are invested in teacher education.
  • Teachers are trusted to do their best as true professionals of education. They are entrusted with considerable pedagogical independence in the classroom, and schools have likewise enjoyed significant autonomy in organizing their work within the national curriculum.
  • All Finnish teachers complete a master’s degree, either in education or in a teaching subject. They are considered pedagogical experts.
  • Additionally, the profession of classroom teacher is greatly valued and popular among post-secondary students. Only 10% of the applicants for teacher-education programs are admitted.
  • Finnish teachers set high standards for students’ literacy skills and interests.
  • Regarded as educational experts, Finnish teachers are relied on when it comes to student assessment, which usually draws on students’ class work, projects, teacher-made exams, and portfolios. In Finland, teacher-based assessment is all the more important because at Finnish comprehensive schools students are not assessed by national tests or examinations during the school years or upon completing school.
  • Teachers are vested with considerable decision-making authority as concerns school policy and management. They have almost exclusive responsibility for the choice of textbooks and have more say than their counterparts in the OECD countries in determining course content, establishing student assessment policies, deciding which courses the school should offer, and allocating budgets within the school.

Curriculum and governance

  • The comprehensive school is underpinned by an exceptionally broad cultural and political concensus about the purpose and direction for the school system. In Finnish culture, significant political conflicts and sudden changes in educational policy have been rare.
  • Since 1990, the national curriculum has become flexible, decentralized, and less detailed.
  • Finland has established national grading guidelines for performance that allow for student effort and activity to be taken into consideration.
  • The outcomes of all Finnish nine-year comprehensive schools are followed by sample-based surveys. The results are published only on the system level. Schools have a high degree of autonomy with regard to pedagogical practices.
  • Governing bodies of schools and local educational authorities have less decision-making power in Finland than in the other OECD countries.
  • Finland’s high performance in the OECD assessment is generally attributed to a high degree of school and teacher autonomy in decision-making.

Some educational commentators have stated that Finland’s advantage on the OECD tests comes from its relatively homogeneous population. While that may have some impact on the results, it is difficult to make the link when many other countries with homogeneous populations don’t do as well on international assessments.

In a recent article in The Globe and Mail (December 8, 2004), Pasi Sahlberg, a former official in the Finnish Ministry of Education and education professor at the University of Helsinki now employed as an education specialist by the World Bank, makes the following comments to highlight the reasons behind the success of the Finnish education system:

"Finland’s success is not attributed to any revolutionary reforms but to a long-term vision of a comprehensive basic school system.

"Teachers focus on learning and teaching rather than preparing students for tests or exams.

"It doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll always find fairly well performing schools and high quality school in Finland.

"In Finland students stay at the same school until they reach 16 and then attend either academic secondary schools or vocational schools.

"I credit Finland’s top marks to the fact that teachers are given the flexibility and, more important, the respect to manage their own curriculum under a national framework.

"Testing restricts potential and teachers in Finland are allowed to be innovative in their classrooms."

The Finnish system offers many workable and pragmatic education policy directions for creating a top-notch education system. Perhaps it is time for policy makers, educators, and the media to examine the education policy directions of Finland instead of continually duplicating the less-than-successful policy ideas that are regularly imported from the low-ranking American education system.

Mike Lombardi is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.