Education, Equity and Social Mobility – Finnish Lessons Part 4

These are interesting times, with big debates going on about some very fundamental issues, such as how we provide education for children and young people, how we regulate and supervise our banking and financial systems, and how we achieve ‘social mobility’.

As a result of author & ex-children’s laureate Michael Rosen triggering a lot of online discussion over the past few days about the success of the education systems in Singapore and Finland, we’ve had a lot of page views of this 3Di blog (3D Eye), with interest focused mainly on our first two posts describing Finland’s approaches to education. (Michael reproduced in his blog a paragraph that 3Di had written in response to his recent article in the Guardian – under our Guardian CiF name, IronEye)

Today we’d like to suggest to our readers that they should now take a look at Part Three of our Finland series, assuming it wasn’t seen at the time of posting. In it there are quotations from an article in The Atlantic that describes a visit by Pasi Sahlberg, author of a recently-published book called Finnish Lessons, to a fee-paying school in the USA.

On the face of things there’s no linkage between creating what’s arguably the best education system on earth and the world of banking, finance and economics, but wait.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland – unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway – was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year – or even just the price of a house in a good public school district – and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

Sahlberg said during his visit to New York . . . “Finland’s dream . . . was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important – as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform – Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

[To read an introduction and extracts –]

It’s not for 3Di to suggest what America might or might not need, but as educationalists we obviously have tremendous admiration for Finland’s education system. And yes – we do believe what’s happened in Finland can and should happen in England. As we’ve said before and we’ll say again – if the high-performing East Asian countries (Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and other parts of China such as Shanghai) see fit to emulate the learning revolution they’ve witnessed in Finland, then so should we. Failure to do so will be extremely harmful to our children, our society and our attempts to achieve social justice.

Please note also the contribution made to the change of direction in education in China by “The New Learning Revolution” and other work published by authors Gordon Dryden and Jeanette Vos, 10 million copies of which have been translated into Chinese and distributed to China’s teachers. Of course we’ve said this before, and we’ll no doubt say it again – this is a seminal and essential book for anyone interested in the future of education and what schools need to do to equip young people for life in the 21st Century.


PS (1) Here’s a link to an article about “The Finland Phenomenon” in the Huffington Post:

It’s well worth reading.

PS (2) Our second IronEye comment on Michael Rosen’s article gave details of the Grattan Institute and one of its research publications that ought to be read by anyone who’s interested in the improvements to teaching and learning in these East Asian countries since they reformed their education systems to resemble Finland’s.

PS (3) This is an extract from Cathy Rubin‘s blog that highlights the changes in Singapore:

Andreas Schleicher is Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General. He also provides strategic oversight over OECD’s work on the development and utilization of skills and their social and economic outcomes. This includes the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), and the development and analysis of benchmarks on the performance of education systems (INES).

What are your thoughts on the Singapore system?

“Singapore is easy to understand because the system is well documented and highly institutionalized. Singapore’s National Institute for Education as a university-based teacher education institution provides the theoretical foundation to produce “thinking teachers” but has strong partnerships with key stakeholders and the schools to ensure strong clinical practice and realities of professionalism in teacher development. Singapore’s new TE21 Model seeks to enhance key elements of teacher education, including the underpinning philosophy, curriculum, desired outcomes for our teachers, and academic pathways. These are considered essential prerequisites in meeting the challenges of the 21st century classroom. Their model focuses on three value paradigms: Learner-centered, Teacher Identity and Service to the Profession and Community. Learner-centered values puts the learner at the centre of teachers’ work by being aware of learner development and diversity, believing that all youths can learn, caring for the learner, striving for scholarship in content teaching, knowing how people learn best, and learning to design the best learning environment possible. Teacher identity values refer to having high standards and strong drive to learn in view of the rapid changes in the education milieu, to be responsive to student needs. The values of service to the profession and community focuses on teachers’ commitment to their profession through active collaborations and striving to become better practitioners to benefit the teaching community. The model also underscores the requisite knowledge and skills that teachers must possess in light of the latest global trends, and to improve student outcomes.

The rest of the post is also well worth reading.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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