Why Are Finnish Schools So Successful?

The way you measure a society’s soul is by the way that it treats its children.
Nelson Mandela

Kidz Newz no. 151 – 4 May 2016

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Why Are Finnish Schools So Successful?

Although Finnish schools don’t necessarily top the international testing rankings across all subjects, nevertheless they are consistently in the top 10 and have been for some time, giving rise to the general acceptance that things are done differently in Finland compared to the rest of the world. Most countries seem to struggle with their education budgets and here in Australia we are always hearing about reforms but not a lot seems to change in terms of outcome. Our students, along with those in other countries, do not achieve as well as expected. I decided to do a bit of research to find out what Finland does that other countries seem not to do.

I thought it might have been that their taxes were very high compared to other first-world countries and so they had more money to spend on education but that is not the case. Their taxation is high but then that’s the case in similar countries. The middle-income earners, for example, are taxed at a rate of 46% but then there are deductions taken off. This is no higher than in most advanced economies.

Perhaps it could be an emphasis on where the education budget sits compared with other spending, but again it comes up fairly consistently with other like countries which place equal value on housing, health and other social services.

Maybe it was the education level of their teachers? It is true that Finnish teachers have to have a Master’s Degree in Education before they can teach and competition is fierce to get into such a prestigious occupation, but then the USA requires teachers (well, secondary anyway) to have a Master’s Degree and they also have education outcome issues.

So if it is none of the obvious scenarios above, what is it that makes Finnish schools so successful? It turns out to be a number of factors, all of which have to do with the attitude to education on the part of the government, the teachers, the parents and the children. The assumption is that school is a desirable place.

First of all, their system is very unusual compared to other countries. Children go to daycare because it is seen as an educational environment which parents want their children to experience. It is not seen as a babysitting place while parents work. Children spend 1-5 days a week in daycare up to age 5. This environment is stimulating and challenging, not just safe. Placements are means-tested which means that for many parents it is free. The children then go to kindergarten at age 6. From age 7-15 they go to compulsory school where the classes have a maximum of 20 children.

The school curriculum is quite different too. The children learn two other languages apart from their local Finnish language – usually English and Swedish – and can take a 4th later if they wish. They have 4-11 periods each week of art, music, cooking, carpentry, metalwork and textiles and outdoor activities are emphasized despite the weather. Homework is minimal to leave time for extra-curricular activities. These often include music, the methodology for which is usually Kodaly, and most children learn to play instruments. Books and reading are very important in school and I discovered Finland publishes more children’s books than any other country. In school, books and travel to and from school (if required) are free, along with lunch. From age 16 children can attend what is the equivalent of college to prepare them for university or a technical/trades career. There is only one national exam and it is the matriculation exam for university entrance. Students not going on to university are given a school certificate by their schools. Assessments during school are not graded.

I think the main point is that it is a publicly-funded and comprehensive system that does not track or stream students. The emphasis in the early years is on play-based learning and the focus then is placed on learning rather than testing. Children are ‘prepared for life’ rather than prepared for an exam. Self-direction is evident and students who struggle are given extra tuition rather than having them repeat a year which is almost unheard of in Finland. Special education is conducted within the mainstream classroom with support staff. Teachers are left with a great deal of autonomy.

There are no tuition fees for school or beyond and given the emphasis on white-collar workers in their economy, most children opt for a professional career which means a university education and higher pay. Teachers are well-paid, the profession is respected and university entrance is highly competitive. Finland is considered the most democratic country in the world. Interestingly, 12 of the 20 government ministers are women as is the President. It is a sparsely-populated country of only 4.5 million people. All facts point to the attitude to education being different. It is not about money or population or taxes. The Finns don’t just excel in academe. Their sporting prowess is also well-documented and the Helsinki School of Music is internationally renowned. These are all outcomes of the school system which is a result of the attitude the Finns have towards education. Education is for life, not for an exam.

They are currently looking at changing their system to keep pace with an ever-changing world. For this they are coming under fire because their system is considered fault-less. I think if the Finns think the system needs a tweak then let them do it. They’ve done pretty well so far.

Move to Learn and Kidz-Fiz-Biz Workshop 4th June Perth

Owing to the success of the last workshop, Winsome Richards in Perth is running a full-day training session where I will also be presenting. Click here for details.

Quotes of the Week

If we want to achieve outcomes never before achieved then we must employ methods never before attempted.
– Francis Bacon

Education is the mother of leadership.
– Wendell Willkie

If you think education is expensive, think of the cost of the alternative.
– Dale Beaumont, author


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About The Author

Marlene Rattigan B.A., Dip. Ed. (ECS), CELTA

Marlene Rattigan is an Early Childhood teacher, a teacher of English as a Second Language, and from 1987-2000 was a nationally accredited fitness leader. Her background is in music education. A keen interest in motor development in children led to the creation of Kidz-Fiz-Biz which she taught successfully for 13 years. Marlene also conducts workshops for children, teachers and parents at schools, in the community and at festivals. She has produced teaching manuals complete with audio CDs which are an extension of her ‘Kidz-Fiz-Biz’ program.

PO Box 6894, East Perth WA 6892, Australia
T: +61 8 9355 4890 M: +61 (0) 410 64 2781 E: info@kidzfizbiz.com

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Marlene Rattigan, Editor
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