Still Learning Finnish Lessons

For those who missed Peter Wilby’s excellent article in last week’s Guardian Education, the following is a summary. Regular readers of 3D Eye will know of our longstanding interest in Finland’s outstandingly successul system of education, and also our admiration for Pasi Sahlberg and his book Finnish Lessons. Sahlberg 8744789700_3c3b54cd1d_m

The Guardian and Mr Wilby are to be congratulated for keeping the Finnish approach to education in the spotlight at a time when our own system is becoming increasingly fragmented, and when our teachers are increasingly frustrated and demoralised by the pronouncements of HMCI and the Secretary of State. Since the majority of our teachers are amongst the best in the world this is an intolerable situation.

There is only one sensible way to go forward into a more enlightened future, and, as Pasi Sahlberg points out, that is not the way of GERM – the ‘global education reform movement’. A line must now be drawn, and the parliamentary opponents of Mr Gove and the coalition must now become part of the solution and not a continuing part of the problem.

Finland’s education ambassador spreads the word

Pasi Sahlberg, who now heads an international centre at the education ministry, was Finland’s last chief inspector of schools in the early 1990s before politicians decided that teachers could be trusted to do their jobs without Ofsted-style surveillance.

He has emerged as the global spokesman for Finnish schooling. His book, Finnish Lessons, has been translated into 15 languages, including Chinese, Russian and Arabic.

Finland, has consistently featured at or near the top of international league tables for educational performance, whether children are tested on literacy, numeracy or science. More than 60% of its young people enrol in higher education, roughly evenly divided between universities and polytechnics.

Even the management consultancy McKinsey, which has spearheaded the global movement for testing, “accountability” and marketisation, acknowledges that Finland is top.

There are no inspectors, no exams until the age of 18, no school league tables, no private tuition industry, no school uniforms. Children address teachers by their first names. Even 15-year-olds do no more than 30 minutes’ homework a night.

The gap between high and low achievers is the smallest in the world and nobody talks of failing schools because there isn’t that much difference between schools’ results.

The national curriculum is confined to broad outlines. All teachers take five-year degree courses (there are no fast tracks) and, if they intend to work in primary schools, are thoroughly immersed in educational theory. They teach only four lessons daily, and their professional autonomy is sacrosanct. So attractive (some might say cushy) is a teacher’s life that there are 10 applicants for every place on a primary education course, and only 10-15% drop out of a teaching career.

I met him the day after Gove had announced his plans to transform GCSEs, restoring traditional three-hour exams to their former glory. He’s never met Gove, but what would he say to him if he did? “I would say: ‘I am afraid, Mr Secretary, that the evidence is clear. If you rely on prescription, testing and external control over schools, they are not likely to improve. The GCSE proposals are a step backwards’.”

He is similarly dismissive about Gove’s enthusiasm for academies and free schools, largely modelled on those in Finland’s neighbour, Sweden. “In Sweden,” Sahlberg says, “everybody now agrees free schools were a mistake. The quality has not improved and equity has disappeared. If that is what Mr Gove wants, that is what he will get.”

Sahlberg insists: “Pisa is not what we are about. League tables are not a good measure of a school system. We never aimed to be the best in education, only to have good schools for all. Equity came before a ‘race to the top’ mentality.” Like many other educational researchers, he argues that most pupil achievement is explained by factors outside of school authorities’ control and that, if politicians wish to elevate children out of poverty, they should look to other public policy areas.

Which leaves the question of whether Finnish schooling is exportable. Finland is an unusually homogeneous society: child poverty is low, and the ratio of income share between the richest 20% of the population and the poorest 20% is only a little over four-to-one, against nine-to-one in the UK. Its proportion of foreign-born citizens, moreover, is under 5%, and was much lower a decade ago.

All this, critics argue, makes it easy for Finland to put all children through comprehensives without social or educational strain. Other critics point to the Finnish language which, like Korean (South Korea is also near the top of the Pisa tables), is written almost exactly as it is pronounced. Young Finns and Koreans have little trouble with spelling, which not only makes reading and writing easier, but leaves more time for other subjects.

Sahlberg doesn’t wholly dismiss either of these arguments, but suggests that other influences outside the schools are more important. Finnish adults, he says, are the world’s most active readers. They take out more library books, own more books and read more newspapers than any other nation.

Sahlberg’s fear now is that Finland’s educational success is breeding complacency.

“Ask Finns about how our system will look in 2030, and they will say it will look like it does now. We don’t have many ideas about how to renew our system. We need less formal, class-based teaching, more personalised learning, more focus on developing social and team skills. We are not talking about these things at all.”

Sahlberg himself is certainly talking about these things, and has written about them at length in his book. Our summary of his concluding chapter and his vision for the future is in this 3D Eye blog post – The Future of Education – in Finland and Elsewhere

On a recent visit to Rochdale we were able to talk with secondary phase colleagues who visited Finland recently. During the trip they were able to observe teaching in Finnish secondary schools, and confirmed that the ethos and the quality of relationships (pupil to pupil, and pupil to teacher) were outstanding. They did not, however, see much evidence that the actual pedagogy in those schools was any better than in the best of our own secondaries. This is particularly significant as the PISA tests are taken by pupils aged fifteen – ie prior to engaging with studies for exams at eighteen, for which there are no direct comparisons worldwide.

It’s our understanding that the real strength in the Finnish system is in the early years and in Primary education, where learning is clearly tailored to children’s needs (as distinct from efforts to teach to tests and “drive up standards”), in schools where teachers can determine their own curriculum offering and thereby enable learning to be personalised and highly engaging, where a love of learning for its own sake can take root. We are keen to study this at first hand ourselves, and in the meantime would very much welcome comments from those who have either visited Finnish primary schools or, better still, have worked within them.

See also:

Notes From Nina:

Explaining the Finnish Miracle – In Teachers We Trust

Explaining the Finnish Miracle – Part Two

Explaining Finland’s Miracle: Finland’s School Success – Part Three

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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