Do miracles only happen in Finland?
Like most people working in the area of Education, I find myself constantly reminded of the shining beacon of success that is the Finnish education model. So I was eager to attend a recent conference by the Finnish Institute and the Embassy of Finland which claimed to explain “the Finish Miracle”.
An even mix of Finnish and English educationalists presented their views on the key features of the Finnish system compared to the English, exploring the measures that have led to success and why. It was an extremely enlightening day that I won’t attempt to summarise in full. The key observation that I took is that when searching for the differences between the Finnish system and our own, we need to look beyond specific measures to an underlying cultural ethos towards education.
Whilst it has been widely noted that the Finns have seen positive results from measures such as children starting school at age seven and no national inspection of schools or league tables, the event’s first speaker, Professor Auli Toom from the University of Helsinki, attributed Finland’s success to their educational approach. She highlighted the fact that Finnish culture regards education as a source of hope for a better society and life. This requires the same educational opportunities for every child, hence a completely comprehensive system. At the forefront of this are excellent quality teachers, who are trained to at least Masters Level, with only ten per cent of those that apply being accepted onto the teacher training program. Although teachers are not paid especially highly, prestige and status attracts the best candidates into the profession, who are then given the freedom and trust they deserve.
Next Professor Andrew Pollard, from the Institute of Education, stood up to give a markedly different story from the English perspective. Whilst he acknowledged that there are good and even excellent aspects of our education system, he queried why it is that we settle for one that is, overall, mediocre. Like Professor Toom, his answer referred to an entrenched cultural approach to teaching and learning, one that he regarded as characterised by a history of reform followed by compromise. He cited instances, including the English Civil War, the 1870 Education Act and the 1944 Education Act, as key milestones in our history where we fought for equality. However, our gains were quickly followed by some form of retreat. According to Professor Pollard, this lack of commitment to equality has resulted in an inconsistent education system, where some schools improve at the expense of others that flounder. It remains to be seen whether the National Curriculum Review will be another instance to add to his list, as it allows more freedom for teachers and schools to define the curriculum on the one hand, but places greater emphasis on core knowledge on the other.
Although Professor Pollard’s view is slightly pessimistic I do think we can learn a lot from Finland in terms of equality in education. What lies at the heart of their ethos is an understanding that schooling provides an opportunity for all children to gain not just knowledge but ways of thinking and the broader skills to contribute to an effective and inclusive society. Perhaps we are stuck in the past, with our traditional concepts of achievement that only allow a minority to succeed. But instead of looking back we need to join the Finns in looking forward and ensure that we prepare every child for life in an ever changing world and trust the people who know best, teachers, to get them there.