A model system: school education in Finland
Finland’s school system is considered the best in the world, and the man in charge is in demand. Dr Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Finnish Ministry of Education, recently delivered a lecture at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, where he shared some of Finland’s secrets with a near-capacity audience.
Dr Sahlberg explained that Finland never aimed to be a top performer in education. Instead, their driver for educational reform had always been equity. “We want to have an equitable system of education that is serving particularly those who find it more difficult to be successful in education,” he said.
Dr Sahlberg explained that, in Finland, “We have almost the opposite way of thinking about educational reform than other countries.” These other countries, Australia included, follow a model for educational reform that Dr Sahlberg calls the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM.
Finland, Dr Salhberg argues, has so far remained immune to the GERM, which has four particularly problematic elements.
The first of these is competition. “What does it mean when we see education systems or schools as entities that are competing against one another and what does it mean when we open education to a marketplace idea?” he asked.
“Schools, principals and teachers are increasingly competing over resources, over students, over good staff and parents among other things,” he explained. “The simple idea is when we enhance competition it will raise quality of service.”
However, they have rejected this notion in Finland, instead opting for a collaborative approach.
“We see education as something that we do together and try to share and to help one another rather than compete against our neighbours,” Dr Sahlberg explained.
The second problematic area of the GERM, according to Dr Sahlberg, is standardisation.
“Trying to educate everyone to the same standards – there is nothing wrong with this idea,” said Dr Sahlberg. “But how I see this world today is that we should be trying to educate everybody to be different – to different standards.
“We are asking students to do things that the teacher knows some of them will never be able to do – only because it’s standardised,” he said.
In Finland, however, teaching is individualised. “Every school in Finland is responsible for its own curriculum,” Dr Sahlberg explained. “So all the 3500 curricula in Finland are different.”
The third element of the GERM that Dr Sahlberg regards as problematic is school choice. He is emphatic on this point.
“We have to decide whether we want to have choice for parents or equity for the system,” he said. “There is no education system within the OECD that would have an open market for parental choice and high equity. You have to take a position as to how much you allow choice in your system.”
Finland and other Scandinavian countries have been better managing school choice by postponing it to upper secondary level, he explained.
“We have managed school choice so that it is not disturbing equity,” Dr Sahlberg said. “In Finland the schools are basically very similar but if you go inside the school there is a lot of choice there for parents and students.”
The fourth problematic area of the GERM is test-based accountability. According to Dr Sahlberg, this element has had the most serious consequences for education systems.
“Rather than having test-based accountability we try to build trust-based professionalism. There are two important words here: one is trust and the other is professionalism,” Dr Sahlberg said, advocating “more trust and trust-based responsibility before test-based accountability.”
Dr Sahlberg also outlined particularly important aspects of the Finnish system, including a strong emphasis on wellbeing and play, little homework in the early years of schooling and very strict quality control with regard to entry to teacher education degrees.
In Finland teaching is a highly desirable profession. Last year, they had 7000 applicants to eight universities, with only 660 available places.
“We are having young people going into our schools year after year who will stay there. They go into the teaching profession because they want to be teachers,” Dr Sahlberg said.
Watch Dr Sahlberg’s lecture in full at: