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Finland Update - Standardised testing, Digital Technologies and more.

Twenty years ago, Finland was under the international educational average in testing and had large gaps between affluent and poor schools. It has topped the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) recently, a test of fifteen year olds covering literacy, maths and science and is seen as a leading educational model. Recently, Singapore has topped PISA (standardised tests are not the best measurement of success) but even they are doubting the wisdom of the emphasis they have made of a focus on this type of testing. Finland meanwhile has never really decided to deliberately be top and this article explains some thinking behind this, but continues to have strong a showing in academics. Finland seems to be more concerned with other things.

Finland is a small country of five million, with industry comprising of services 65%, manufacturing and refining 31.4% and rates reasonably well in innovation indexes also. It is a strong welfare state with high taxes, a high respect for education by Finnish parents and society in general with surveys demonstrating Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police.

The most prominent feature of Finnish students’ performance in PISA, is its constant high level of results combined with small variance. Finland still stands out with its weak performers, scoring well in all domains, apart from the more recent slip of boys results. It was interesting teasing out the factors that I think have combined to produce their high international results. My perspective is from the context of New Zealand education, a country that has also scored highly on these same international tests.

Society Statistics
  • Family statistics 2016 36% married couples without children, 28% married with children, 15% co-habitating couples without children, 8% co-habitating with children, 12% one-parent families
  • Crime statistics Generally, on the low side in most categories
  • Child poverty statistics 4% child poverty in Finland. Very low compared to other countries.
  • Current % of government (public) debt to GDP is 63%, large increase last four years.
  • Median age 41 years (the oldest of most European countries)
  • Low infant mortality, high productivity and relatively high taxes
  • Happiness index 8th on table I
  • Judged to be the world's 3rd least corrupt country (Transparency International)

Finland's Education History

In the 1960's, a 9 year plan was adopted with the goal of "education for all". Significant teacher training was carried out, especially to accommodate whole age cohort teaching (a Finnish teacher in the primary area will teach the same children from 7- 16.) The system was government centralized with a detailed curriculum prescription. By 1985 municipal and school level freedom was allowed around a core curriculum. The Education Law of 1999, established a new evaluation policy with sample based NBE-implemented evaluations in key subjects, obligatory for the sampled schools but also available by fee for others for internal use. This lead to local flexibility and diversity with a strong emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy concurrent to provide wide-range education for all.
Finland, possibly has a narrower focus in the breadth of its curriculum than other countries. PISA examinations are similar in contract to the style of the curriculum that FInland focuses on which may also give its pupils an advantage in the PISA exams.
See also this very good overview of the history of education in Finland.

Notable Features
Philosophy as I summarize
  • No pupil should be left behind
  • Equity
  • Trust
  • Free education, including university and polytechnic

Education Statistics

  • Typical class size 18-20
  • Teachers work about 40% less class hours than US teachers do. Average 570 teaching hours a year for teachers in Finland (1,100 hours in the US)
  • 27 % of students having received some form of special support for their learning during basic education.
  • School year 190 days
  • Retention rate of teachers is 90%
  • Average spending on education compared to other OECD countries.
  • Zero illiteracy
  • Homework is minimal with an emphasis on extra-curricula
  • Pupils spend the fewest hours in the classroom
  • Finland has more than 4,000 comprehensive schools, 750 upper-secondary schools, 20 universities, and a great many other educational institutions.
  • 99 percent of students now successfully complete compulsory basic education, and about 90 percent complete upper secondary school
  • Two-thirds of these graduates enroll in universities or professionally oriented polytechnic schools.
  • More than 50 percent of the Finnish adult population participates in adult education
  • Comprehensive network of libraries
The Flavour of Education in Finland
  • Informal atmosphere in the schools.
  • No formal exams and ranking of schools. The outcomes of all Finnish nine-year comprehensive schools are followed by sample-based surveys. The results are published only on the system level. Formal examination grade 9 (leaving high school) the National Board of Education makes occasional assessments in other subjects and at other grade levels in representative samples of schools and pupils and, lately, longitudinal assessments in key subject. There is no separate school inspection and inspection visits to school are no longer held. Self-evaluation and external examination are emphasized. Emphasis on formative assessment.
  • In Finnish culture, significant political conflicts and sudden changes in educational policy have been rare.
  • Teachers and schools are autonomous from state education system. Devolution of power.
  • Teachers are trusted to do their best as true professionals of education. They are entrusted with considerable pedagogical independence in the classroom, and schools have likewise enjoyed significant autonomy in organizing their work within the national curriculum.
  • Finnish teachers set high standards.
  • Flexible, school-based and teacher-planned curriculum along with student-centred instruction, counseling, and remedial teaching.
  • Schools coordinate with social service providers.
  • Teachers all require a masters degree with thousands turned down for training each year, 10-15% of those who apply are accepted. They see teaching as a life-long career. The teaching force is 100% unionized.
  • Starts with preschool (kindergarten), school starts at seven. The emphasis is on, "play". 62 %, or 229 000 children in 2013, participated in early childhood education (ages 1-6).
  • Finnish high schools have two clearly separate streams with both academically oriented general upper secondary schools and vocational institution. Most young children will stay with the same teachers for their entire education, up until 16 when they go to high school.
  • Free daily school meals
  • Right to attend closest school with school based curricula
  • Performance based funding for universities and polytechnics based on: Effectiveness (job placement and further studies); Processes (dropping out, % ratio of qualification certifications holders to entrants); Staff (formal teaching qualifications and staff development).
  • Emphasis on broad knowledge within a depth of curriculum rather than a wide curriculum. Equal value to all aspects of individual growth and learning: personality, morality, creativity, knowledge and skills.
  • The phonetic character of Finnish language makes decoding easy, leading to easier literacy success.
  • Finland research and development (around 3% of GDP , top in world is Israel on 4.3%).
  • Each family gets three free books on birth of child…. for parents and child.
The Gotchas
Cost: the teasing out the figures of the Finnish education finances may enable others to see the split between education department costs and school costs (frontline). It will also be important to see how education budgets integrate with funding from other areas such as Social Services. Secondly, Finland is a homogenous society. It has not had significant migrant or multi-cultural change over last twenty years. However, recent immigrants, prior to the latest refugee crises in the last four years, have become part of Finland's current success and Finland certainly out-performs other homogenous societies.

Off the Top of My Head

Relationships, however, are the deal-breaker in the success game. Relationships have driven a systematic reformation of the Finnish education philosophy. It started with leadership and co-operation between professionals to change a failing education system and the ongoing change has had a lack of political interference to derail it. Relationships also drive the start a pupil has in education, from the play in pre-schools to formal "primary" schooling (ages 7 to 16). Having the same teacher, who gets to know their pupils intimately (what happens with the personality conflicts I wonder?) over the first eight years they teach them, means that relationships become core to the child-teacher-parent partnership. Relationships between parents, teachers and pupils show a general trust and professionalism.

Possibly, due their tough environment and limited natural resources (except for large forest reserves), Finns have made a priority of investing in education. It seems they still have a strong family emphasis that must contribute to the stable and measured start that their children get to schooling. Finally, the lack of formal testing allows schools to develop programmes of learning that balance competition, equity and child-centred needs within the values they wish to emphasize, time is spent on learning and not on formal testing (and publishing of results) although they have a emphasis of assessment for feedback and learning within each school. For those in management who worry about this… just look at Finland's results and see that it works.

Resourcing and relationships summarize the keys of success in Finland. It would be interesting to explore further how, with an average OECD spend on education, Finland has free education, pays teachers well, provides free meals, gives teachers excellent non-contact time and has class sizes of 18-20. It is a state with high taxes, and Finland has a government debt to GDP ratio of 63% at this point in time indicating some financial stress.

Update 13/118: Change is continuing in Finland with the recently announced "no subjects" curriculum!

Where do we go in N.Z.? 

Our spending on education is high for what we are achieving, indicating I believe a range of inefficiencies, it would be interesting to compare statistics for various areas throughout the education budget with a similar breakdowns from Canada and New Zealand to pinpoint more accurately where the inefficiencies are ]. Our inequality in education results is still high, so I think a start would be look at the best of what Finland and Canada have to offer is important to help start our journey and educational conversations in a way that moves forward. To do so, we need professional and Education Ministry decisions made not just on what educationalists think, parents want, teachers want, pupils need, not just on the latest fad, but based on researched results. Charter schools is newer direction for instance, that seems to involve a higher percentage of education budget vote per school and international research shows minimum positive effect.We also should not desire to focus on testing, including PISA but also on creativity and collaboration, including  digital literacy and STEAM digital technologies based on a strong foundation of Reading, Maths and the Arts. Simplification of areas of curriculum and topics, less but deeper, could also bring benefits, so we really build a range of literacies and skills in reading, maths, digital, arts etc.) and then apply them to help us learn and create.  And a cautionary note, that in a system which has rightly tried to address girls education, results and learning opportunities that we need more awareness of lag now in boy's education and performance, something to address before we have generations of increasingly unengaged boys further affecting results, something that Finland's results in PISA have shown.

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This post is based on my previous Finland post found here.

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