Finland; home of Father Christmas, the Northern Lights, saunas, and one of the best education systems in the world. What can this small country of 5.5 million people teach the rest of the world, and what is the magic formula that has placed it at the top for education in the United Nation’s Human Development Index, and in the top ten rankings for individual facets of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment?
The Finnish system prizes learning ability above the accumulation of knowledge; the government vision for 2025 is that the country will be a place where everybody wants to learn more all the time, and teachers (who must be educated to Master’s level) are trained with a strong emphasis on pedagogical techniques to tailor the learning experience to individual needs.
Highly qualified teachers right from early childhood education
For many potential parents the prospect of paying for childcare, and the problems associated with returning to the workplace after leave, can be daunting. Finland has one of the best support systems in the world, with paid maternity and paternity leave of 105 and 54 days respectively, and parental leave of 158 days, which can be taken by either parent or split. Once parents are back working state subsidised early childhood education steps in.
Voluntary early childhood education and care (ECEC) takes children up to the age of six, when they enter a now-compulsory year of pre-primary education. ECEC costs a maximum of €290 per month per child for a five-day, 40- hour week. Low income families receive the service for free, and it has obvious benefits in ensuring that parents- particularly mothers- are able to return to work without crippling childcare fees.
Although Finnish children do not enter formal basic education until the age of seven, the emphasis of ECEC is on creative play rather than prescribed learning. Early years teachers have to hold a relevant degree, and other caregivers and instructors are expected to have an upper secondary level qualification in social welfare and healthcare. These requirements arguably make teaching pre-school children a more respected and aspirational career choice than in other countries where less training is needed. Although the children do not sit through formal lessons- and are encouraged to play outside and to develop social skills rather than hitting academic targets- each child has an individual action plan drawn up between the school and parents, and daily reports of the child’s activities are sent home.
Egalitarian system and small class sizes
Basic education, which is compulsory and lasts for nine years, starts at the age of seven. For the first six years the small classes (of around 20 students) are likely to be taught by one teacher. This continuity clearly builds trust and means that teachers get to know their students very well; despite the days being short and students typically spending fewer than 20 hours a week in school.
Schooling in Finland is extremely egalitarian; fewer than 2% of schools are classed as private, and all students are provided with free meals, books, stationery, tablet computers, and school trips. Mixed ability groups are standard, and although students may be offered formal support there is also an expectation that more able students will help those who are struggling. There are no formal assessments until university entrance exams at the age of 19, and neither schools nor teachers are evaluated on a competitive basis. As a result children tend to attend the nearest school rather than parents fighting to secure places at oversubscribed top performing schools.
The short school day includes plenty of breaks and time outdoors. These are often used for practical education; during lunch breaks children are taught about nutrition and table manners. The lessons themselves are said to focus on preparation for adult life and developing practical skills, but Finns still manage to study two foreign languages at school, finish at 2pm, and have minimal levels of homework. This is partly due to teachers spending the pupil breaks and the non-teaching part of their week on lesson preparation, meaning that contact time is focussed on learning and teachers are not spending their free time working.
Education beyond age 16
Post- 16 education is voluntary, but is again free. Students have the choice of a general or a vocational upper secondary education, which is designed to last three years but can take between two and four years to complete. Admission is based on an online application showing prior performance and general aptitude, and both streams can lead to tertiary education following a successful matriculation exam. Around half of students choose the vocational pathway, with the option to attend a university of applied science if they do not wish to immediately enter a trade.
The flexibility between streams means that future careers are not necessarily prescribed at 16 although there is an upper age for starting an upper secondary course. The general secondary qualification covers a range of topics with students able to decide on their individual study schedule. This means that while there is some scope for specialisation, the education given to students is not as narrow as the experience of taking three or four A level subjects in the UK.
Free university education
University education is also free, and students have a choice of academic universities or more vocational universities of applied science. As many professions require a Master’s degree it is unsurprising that the majority of students apply for a Bachelor’s leading immediately to a Master’s, and few students leave with a Bachelor’s alone. Finnish universities are highly acclaimed and attract international students who pay fees but typically at a lower rate than in their home countries.
So what makes Finnish education so enviable?
The whole system is underpinned with egalitarian principles, with a lack of formal assessment and competition, and an emphasis on creativity, freedom, and choice.
The social status and respect afforded to teachers encourages the best applicants into the field, which ensures that the quality of teaching is high. Finnish society facilitates and lauds learning for the sake of learning, with adults both attending evening classes and having high rates of library use.
Provision of free school meals for all limits economic stratification within schools; students have fewer clues to the social background of their peers, which possibly makes the experience easier and more enriching for all.
Lack of tuition fees and subsidised pre-school have obvious financial benefits as well as the latter giving students from all backgrounds the same educational start. While young children are not expected to meet educational targets they are equipped with learning skills and social habits that form a solid base for further learning and adult life.
Together all of these facets ensure that Finnish children leave the school system both with academic and personal skills that enable them to flourish regardless of their own innate ability.
Other countries can learn from the Finnish model by encouraging play, providing outdoor space, and reducing the time spent evaluating individual teachers and students. Making education accessible to all and reducing the costs associated with childcare help both children and their families, and fostering a fairer society makes for happier citizens. These things of course come at a cost, with taxes of up to 67% levered on those with incomes of €83,000.
Finland allows children to be children, while also respecting them enough to provide freedom and choice in their learning decisions. It may be a difficult model to emulate, but from the state level down to individual families there is something to learn from the Finnish school system. And those Northern Lights aren’t too shabby either.