Finland performs well on international rankings and its success reflects the value placed on teaching, the commitment to egalitarian public schools and infrastructure investment.
Finland’s remarkable education success is now reasonably well-known, and the reasons behind it sound surprisingly simple.
These include: valuing of – and rigorous entry requirements for – the teaching profession; comprehensive and egalitarian public funding; and teaching encouragingly for the purpose that students learn, rather than punitively for the purpose that they meet the requirements of high-stakes external tests.
Another important reason is that Finnish schools invest so substantially in ‘special needs’ education that it does not have the negative stigma there which is often associated with such education elsewhere.
Some further explanations emerged in my interviews last year, in both Australia and Finland, with Mr Ari Pokka, a leading Finnish school principal who is now president of the International Confederation of Principals (ICP), which will hold its world convention in Helsinki in August.
Mr Pokka emphasises that Finnish schools are very well-designed, with excellent, well-maintained facilities, which makes them stimulating and rewarding places in which to work.
Finnish schools may not have the heights of luxury available in some of the most wealthy, fee-charging private schools in Australia but most teachers in Finnish schools are working in better – including better-maintained – facilities than are most Australian school teachers.
Mr Pokka says that ‘normally in Finland, if you make a new school or renew an older school, the teachers and principals have a lot of say in what the school will look like, what the equipment is, what the architecture style is’.
He adds that the teachers also work with the people who actually construct the buildings. For example, in current plans for a new building at his own school (Cygnaeus Upper Secondary, in the central Finnish city of Jyväskylä), he and his colleagues are arranging for it to be able to practically demonstrate the use of solar power during chemistry lessons.
Mr Pokka emphasises that “in Finnish schools, not only the school cultures are different because of the autonomy of the school but also…the school buildings including the classrooms reflect how much teachers have influenced the things inside”. “The pedagogical approach, the way you work with the kids, is also [about] how you plan your environment and use it in your learning and teaching,” he says.
Another important aspect of Finland’s success is that students who are right at the top, who teachers feel might not be being extended adequately, benefit from the emphasis on special education support which the Finnish schools provide, in addition to the benefits gained by those who may be struggling.
It was also startling to have identified and translated to me, by a Special Government Adviser in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture in Helsinki, the fact that a recent historical study has found that 75 per cent of Finnish people view the formation of the free, compulsory comprehensive school as the most important event in the nation’s history.
They rate it as more important than their crucial Winter War of 1939–1940 against the Soviet Union, more important than the winning of universal suffrage, more important than the welfare state, and more important than Finland’s Civil War of 1918. That the creation of the nine-year public institution which provides basic education to all – in the local areas in which they live – is viewed in such an exalted way, is a striking indication of how deeply the Finns appreciate and value learning.
Finland’s approach of making vocational opportunities available in upper secondary schools in an equitable way is also central to its educational success. When I went into the teaching area of a Finnish vocational upper secondary school last year, I saw many full motor vehicles on the floor of a secondary classroom premises.
There, each year, approximately 200 students in years 10, 11 and 12, who choose to focus on Vehicle Technology, become licensed motor mechanics as part of gaining their vocational upper secondary school qualification. During year 10, they acquire basic skills in servicing cars, including oil changes. In year 11 they learn to repair both passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks, including checking brakes and undertaking wheel alignments. In year 12 they focus on electronics.
One of the projects on which the students had worked was the creation of a fully functioning racing car from a stripped-down old vehicle. The students, with their teachers, also run an actual automotive repair shop from the school, used by paying local customers, as part of developing their technical and business skills. The services which the automotive repair shop offer include the changing over of an entire car motor.
Meanwhile, as part of studying Logistics, these students learn to safely operate fork-lifts to transport vehicle wheels into warehouse storage. The vocational upper secondary qualification emphasises on-the-job learning and entrepreneurship studies. It also has a substantial general studies component including: languages, mathematics, physics and chemistry, health education, art and culture.
The connections maintained between both technical and general education streams, even while students develop their knowledge in one, are crucial for understanding Finnish schools’ successes, and for learning effectively from them. The new Victorian Government – given its plans to set up some new technical learning centres for secondary students to gain practical skills – should closely follow Finland’s approach to the successful provision of vocational education.
This article is reproduced with the permission of the author, Dr Andrew Scott. Dr Scott is Associate Professor in Politics and Policy at Deakin University. This is an edited extract from his new book, Northern Lights: The Positive Policy Example of Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway (Monash University Publishing).