Is Finland really so great?

The story of Finland is a good example of the complexities of understanding the causes of school success. When the PISA 2000 results were released in December 2001 Finland emerged as the top performer in the world. People flocked to the country to work out what it was that they did so well.  They looked at the schools as they were and came up with a number of conclusions which they carried back to their own countries: Finnish schools have high degrees of autonomy; there is no national inspection or testing; there are no private schools etc.

Tim Oates (2015) and Gabriel Heller Sahlgren (2015) looked closely at the ‘Finnish miracle’ and concluded that in fact the achievements of Finland in PISA 2000 were the result of reforms made in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In the immediate post-war period Finland was poor, it had experienced civil war and the nation lacked a cultural identity; the government sought to use education to tackle all three problems. Finland’s schools improved very rapidly, as fast as countries like South Korea and Singapore in the 1980s. Reforms pushed Finnish school standards to a high level but by 2000 many of these reforms had been abandoned – and Finland has been falling in the PISA rankings since 2000.

In other words, a system may be doing well as a result of things which happened in the past.  Drawing conclusions by looking at how things are done now can be a mistake. It takes years to improve a system and years for a system to lose the benefits of such improvement.

For example, Finland’s schools today are quite autonomous. But up to the 1990s the system was centralised and controlled by the state. The national curriculum was very prescriptive and detailed.  All textbooks had to be approved. Teachers had to undergo lengthy training and were required to keep a log of what they taught hour by hour to prove they had taught the mandatory content.  Pupils were expected to be obedient and work hard. Decentralisation began in 1985; test scores show that Finland’s academic rise took place during the period when the system was most centralised.

Here are some other Finnish myths:.

1 There are no independent schools in Finland.

3% of schools are independent.

2 They have no high stakes tests.

They make extensive use of testing and have high stakes exams at age 18.

3 Teachers are very respected

In an analysis by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, China comes top on this measure, Finland is below the UK.

4 They have no inspections.

Not true, they are inspected by the municipalities.

5 They do not learn to read until they are aged 7.

Not so, 70% of Finns can read by the age of 7.  They are taught at home.

Politicians often quote Finland as having ‘the best education system in Europe’ and imply that we can learn lessons from that country.  But Finland has a tiny population – 5.5 million – much like other areas which seem to so spectacularly well in PISA (Singapore and Hong Kong for example).  We have very little to learn from Finland.

Professor Barnaby Lenon, Dean of  Education


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