Does Finland have it right when it comes to education?

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Finnish education is simple. No league tables, no uniforms and some of the shortest school days in Europe. Yet the country has a claim to A*s across the board, consistently topping world rankings.

In the UK, standardised tests are today’s hot topic – an increasingly controversial pillar of all our school years. In Finland, such a thing is almost non-existent, with the only state-regulated assessment coming in the form of one exam which can determine a pupil’s entry to university. Otherwise, testing is down to a teacher’s prerogative. When data is collected by the regulating body, it’s with improving the service in mind.

Akseli Huhtanen is a philosophy teacher by trade and is now CEO of Helsinki learning festival Dare to Learn. “We’re motivated for longer, it delivers better results and spreads from learner to learner,” she said about removing standardised testing, calling it “the single most valuable factor” in the sustainable learning Finnish schools strive for.

Is Germany top of the class? 

No prizes for guessing where the concept of ‘kindergarten’ – a transitional pre-school easing kids into formal education – originated. German primary education lasts

They have an unprecedented level of freedom in their classrooms, with no one-size-fits-all teaching style prescribed, in what is commonly referred to as a ‘culture of trust’. And, even more alien to the UK, it’s a competitive business. Less than a quarter of Finnish applicants were admitted to study teaching in 2016.

Huhtanen insisted that the importance of teaching to the Finnish public shouldn’t be understated. “Education has lifted Finland from conflict-torn poverty into a modern welfare state in 100 years, and this makes most Finns respect it very highly. There are no dead ends, meaning that despite your school choices earlier, there’s always a route to higher education.”

Is China top of the class? 

Like their Finnish counterparts, children in China begin primary school at age seven, with most of the week spent studying Chinese and maths (known as ‘the big two’). Pupils prepare for the gaokao, the exam which determines their entry to university. This exam is a staggering nine hours long and only 40 per cent of pupils pass it first time. For the rest of the country, test time is certainly not business as usual – factories are closed, cars are banned from honking their horns and building sites shut down to avoid distracting the stressed students.

She also denied the idea that the freedom afforded to teachers has led to an overly traditional, textbook-dominated learning experience. “The problem is rather that the new methods don’t spread from one classroom to another,” she said. “Every teacher has to discover the same ideas themselves!”

But while Finland boasts a generation of kids who would make University Challenge hopefuls quake, the country’s educators are adamant that the journey there begins with one thing: play. Finnish children don’t start school until the age of seven, making them some of the oldest kids in the world to make their formal education debut. There’s a firm belief in the importance of letting kids be kids, and data shows the later starting age is in no way to the detriment of their learning. Even once in school, kids are sent for 15 minutes of play for every 75 minutes of learning; led outside for breaks and encouraged to be physically active, with exceptions made only when the outside temperature drops well below freezing. The value of when-I-stand-inside-this-tyre-it-will-be-a-rocket-ship kind of play is something we’re only now beginning to embrace in the UK, despite plenty of evidence backing it up. Ofsted research showed that play and learning outside the classroom significantly improved pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.

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So revered is Finnish education that experts have mobilised to see just how far their methods can go when packaged as a desirable product. Education Finland, a branch of the Finnish National Agency for Education, is a programme delivering their native teaching style as an export, offering Finnish educational know-how to anyone in pursuit of the same results. Providing consultation, training and a fresh perspective, the body targets governments and schools as well as private organisations. Included in their sales pitch – referred to as “a 360-degree solution to the ‘Finnish school abroad’” – experts tackle everything from the design of a classroom to how to gather digital data on pupils to help customise their education.

Is South Korea top of the class? 

While primary and middle school comes free of charge in South Korea, parents must pay tuition fees for their children to attend secondary school from age 15 to 18 (it’s not compulsory). This is an intense time for pupils and education very much encompasses their lives, with 16-hour school days not uncommon. Most pay to attend a hagwon, or private crammer school, each evening to prepare for their all-important exams. For many South Korean pupils, studying is the only extra-curricular there is – and they see results, regularly topping international league tables in maths, science and literacy.

Within school walls, their education seems holistic and very, very human; outside, an opportunity to cash in has been recognised, and the bare bones of their education system is a commodity offered to the world.

Dennis Hayes, University of Derby professor and director of group Academics for Academic Freedom, has a bad feeling about this. “Finland should export a debate about what education means,” he says. “Whatever else it packages up to sell will just be snake oil – but it may sell well.” Many countries are looking for shortcuts, he added, rather than taking up Finland’s supposed commitment to knowledge and the belief that all children can
be taught.

Hayes is concerned by the deeply child-centred approach to education, too, and worries that some of Finland’s methods are the teaching equivalent of wrapping pupils in cotton wool.

Whether Finland is top of the class or not, that seems like a decent place to start

“Today they have been taught – by teachers, policy-makers and armies of counsellors – that education is all about them,” he explains. “They are told they should want to know about themselves. This therapeutic culture undermines education and the authority of teachers.”

Some may find Hayes’ concerns puzzling, as other analyses of Finland’s schooling prowess point to the country’s social make-up as a major factor. With the smallest wage inequality gap in the EU (the UK holds the largest), there are fewer children to fall through the cracks and fewer cultural chasms to span.

According to some, the reality is that the effects of poverty and cuts on British education could make the Finnish model impossible to replicate.

In a report for the Finnish Institute in London, Vilja Kamppila noted that obstacles for UK teachers won’t be found in teaching methodology but in the system itself, as it “inherently recreates undemocratic and polarising structures in society”. She concluded that “alleviating the situation of deprived neighbourhoods and schools under strain should be a priority”. Whether Finland is top of the class or not, that seems like a decent place to start.

for four years before pupils are separated into different schools depending on ability (and parents’ wishes). The Gymnasium is for children who intend to continue on to university; the Realschule is mostly vocational, with the option for pupils to switch to the Gymnasium; and Hauptschule is also vocational, with subjects taught at a slower pace.

There’s little variation in results between schools across the country – suggesting that to an extent, good education can level the playing field for pupils. Children are grouped together in classes by age rather than ability, driven by the notion of equality at the system’s core. The result is a shrinking achievement gap and, most likely, fewer kids discouraged by school from the off.

Some of their success has been attributed to the calibre of teaching staff, who need to pass exams with flying colours well before they can lead a class to do the same. Required to have at least a Master’s degree, teachers are some of the most respected workers in the country and, crucially, better paid than their British counterparts. Finnish teachers with 15 years’ experience earn on average around 38,000 euro (£34,000) a year, while their UK counterparts earn roughly £28,000 annually.