Education has been a national priority in Finland for over three decades, with the country developing a unique holistic approach that continues to evolve and has produced significant results; often being hailed as a world-class education system. One of the basic principles of Finnish education is that all people must have equal access to high-quality education and training. The same opportunities to education are available to all citizens irrespective of their ethnic origin, age, wealth, language or location. The basic right to education and culture is recorded in the Constitution, while education is free at all levels from pre-primary to higher education. Key elements of Finnish education policy include quality, efficiency, equity, well-being and internationalization. Geared to promote the effectiveness of the Finnish welfare society, education policy is built on the lifelong learning principle. Education is also seen as an end in itself. Recent reforms aim to further develop schools as learning communities, emphasizing the joy of learning and a collaborative atmosphere, as well as promoting student autonomy in studying and in school life. Finland’s holistic and trust-based education system produces excellent results, ranked near the top in reading, maths, and science as well as in overall child well-being levels.
- The Basic Education Act covers all children of compulsory school age. The local authority has an obligation to arrange basic education for children of compulsory school age residing in its area and pre-primary education during the year preceding compulsory schooling.
- Key elements of Finnish education policy include quality, efficiency, equity, well-being and life-long learning.
- Results from the international PISA tests comparing 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, mathematics and science, show that Finland has ranked near the top in all three competencies since 2000.
The National Core Curriculum for Basic Education is one of the other key frameworks.
Many aspects of the Basic Education Act are complemented by the devolved nature of decision-making in Finland whereby municipalities have control over strategic decisions and budgeting.
Finlands’ Basic Education Act and general education policies won a ‘Silver Award’ in the 2015 Future Policy Awards for its unique, holistic approach to education. Key elements of Finnish education policy include quality, efficiency, well-being and life-long learning with an overarching goal that all people must have equal access to high-quality education and training irrespective of their ethnic origin, age, wealth, language or location. Finland’s trust-based education system produces excellent results, both in terms of child well-being and international test scores for reading, mathematics and science where Finland has ranked near the top since 2000.
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Sustainable use of natural resources
- Finland has maintained strong efforts to provide sufficient funds for education. The country increased its expenditure on education in absolute terms at all levels by 8% between 2008 and 2011. In 2010, annual expenditure per student by educational institutions for all services for all levels of education was US$10,950, above the OECD average of US$ 9,487. Likewise, levels of expenditure in education relative to GDP (7%) were above the OECD average (6%) the same year.
- However, during the interviews ongoing financing was a concern for 2 interviewees who cited, for example, recent cutbacks in funds allocated for classroom sizes and the ongoing educational commitment of government.
Equity and poverty eradication
- Promoting equity, equality and the well-being of children is a key pillar of the Basic Education Act. The country has one of the narrowest gaps in achievement between its highest and lowest-performing schools and continuing efforts are made to reduce differences in quality between schools. This happens inter alia through the financing system (tuition fees are banned and even the few independent schools are publicly financed.)
- The best interests of the child is also a central component that all educational decisions emanate from. Instead of working to memorize information for standardized tests, Finnish students are encouraged to think creatively and learn simply for learning’s sake. Creative play and problem solving are central in the classroom, creating an informal and relaxed setting.
- There has been significant focus on innovation and piloting new evidence-based approaches in the Finnish education system, including the use of combinations of alternative pedagogical approaches.
- Many of the guidelines and principles that have been introduced are based on sound scientific evidence, such as the benefits of allowing children adequate free time between lessons and not overburdening them with too much homework. Finnish students do the least number of class hours per week in the developed world, yet get the best results over the long term.
- Long term teacher based assessments are used by schools to monitor progress and these are not graded, scored or compared; but instead are descriptive and utilised in a formative manner to inform feedback and assessment for learning.
Public participation, access to information and justice
- There is a very transparent and participatory process for formulating education policy involving all stakeholders, including children. For example, during the recent reform of the core curriculum the National Board of Education sent a survey to all Basic Education and Upper Secondary students for feedback. Over 60,000 students participated. Municipalities are also asked to undertake similar participatory exercises.
- Over 60 civil society groups such as the Finnish Parents League and teachers’ unions were actively and widely consulted, continue to serve on education working groups and even wrote key sections of the core curriculum.
- There are a number of provisions for vulnerable groups and minorities in the law (for example, the statutory duty to provide education in a child’s native tongue, have education provided in hospital and have tailored religious education for minorities), although the NGO interviewee saw some room for improvement in terms of more active participation of all groups.
Good governance and human security
- One of the innovations in Finnish education policy is the development of a ‘trust based’ system that largely avoids monitoring, testing and inspections, though extensive evaluations occur. This has freed up resources to be spent on the many teaching innovations seen in Finland.
- Educational evaluations are undertaken every four years by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Evaluation tasks are then allocated to Finnish National Board of Education for follow up. Financial auditing is undertaken periodically by the National Audit Office.
- There is an active Ombudsman for Children in Finland who represents and consults children and youth council’s and has an action plan for children.
Integration and interrelationship
- Child rights are very much mainstreamed through the Basic Education Act and the National Core Curriculum which explicitly states that the highest principles of how to work with children come from the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other relevant international agreements.
- The system is responsive and the Act, general education policy and core curriculum are all adapted based on ongoing evaluations. This has led to regular (at least 6) revisions and reforms.
Common but differentiated responsibilities
- The law is well adapted to its cultural and historical context. Despite this, and its many innovations, key elements of the law could be transferred.
Starting in the 1970s, Finnish policy-makers realized that they could no longer rely on their natural resources or small industrial core to stay afloat economically, and instead started focusing on building a strong knowledge-based economy. The education system became part of a public mission to improve not just some of the students, but all of them. At the time Finland’s education system was in dire need of reform. Teachers had varying degrees of education, students didn’t have access to equal education resources and an emphasis on regular standardized testing and teacher tracking were showing mediocre results. Instead of focusing on creating schools that were the best, Finland’s education policy makers focused on creating a level playing field, where all schools offered excellent resources for learning. Since then, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location.
The purpose of education as defined by the Basic Education Act (1998) is: ‘to support pupils’ growth into humanity and into ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life.’ Education, furthermore, ‘shall promote civilisation and equality in society and allow pupils to develop themselves during their lives, aiming to secure adequate equity throughout the country.’ There is a strong general focus on the all-round development of each child’s personality.
Alongside these aims in the Basic Education Act, education and research policy priorities are outlined in the Government’s five-year Development Plan for Education and Research. The most recent plan (June 2011) aims to ‘strengthen the best comprehensive school system in the world to guarantee equal opportunities for all’. Key objectives include:
- Promoting equality in education.
- Enhancing the quality of education at all levels.
- Supporting lifelong learning and education as an end in itself.
- Reducing gender and regional differences in skills and education levels as well as the impact of socioeconomic background on participation in education.
- Combatting unemployment and exclusion among young people through education.
- On the international stage, aiming for the top in professional expertise, higher education as well as research, development and innovation activities.
There are a number of educational methods and modalities, stipulated in the Basic Education Act, core curriculum and through general guidelines that are integral to Finnish education policy:
- Teacher Training: teaching is regarded as one of the most prestigious and hard-to-master professions in Finland. In order to be employed as a full-time teacher a master’s degree either in education (primary school teachers) or in subjects that they teach is required. Teacher training programmes are among the most selective professional schools in the country. Only one in 10 will qualify and be accepted to teacher preparation programmes, where they are trained to work with all types of students, including those with disabilities, language barriers, and other learning-related issues. Selection is focused on finding those individuals who have the right personality, advanced interpersonal skills, and the right moral purpose to become lifelong educators.
- Teacher Autonomy and Trust: Finnish teachers have a lot of autonomy over their classroom. While education policy is set at the central Ministry level, including very general guidelines about what children need to know at each grade level, schools are free to use their own methods to comply with national standards. A national curriculum set by the local government – with input from the national teachers union – explains what should be learned but not how to teach it. Teachers learn to develop their own curricula, methods and tools, assess their own pupils’ progress, and continuously improve their own teaching. Teachers are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development throughout their careers.
- Absence of strict monitoring: While learning outcomes are monitored, there are no external inspections of schools or teachers, league tables, or standardized testing to constantly monitor student progress. Instead, parents trust teachers as qualified professionals and teachers trust one another and collaborate to solve mutual problems.
- Student-centred approach: The local authority is obliged to provide education in each child’s native language (including Finnish, Swedish, Saami, Roma or sign language). Unlike some countries, the Finnish education system has no ‘dead-ends’ where subject or specialism choices at one stage restrict future study or career paths. Students can always continue their studies at an upper level of education, whatever choices they make in between. Students are given guidance counselling. Pupils that temporarily fall behind in studies are entitled to remedial teaching while a learning plan is prepared, in collaboration with the pupil, for those children that require regular support in learning. The pupil’s work load in basic education must be such as to allow him or her enough time for rest, recreation and hobbies.
- Pre-primary education: A majority (98%) of 6 year-old children attend free pre-primary education. The emphasis is on learning through active play, the child’s individuality and the importance of acting as a group member. Pre-primary pupils, as with all pupils attending basic education, also get a free meal every day. Pupils who live over five kilometres from the place where pre-primary education is arranged are entitled to free transportation.
- The principle of lifelong learning entails that everyone has sufficient learning skills and opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills in different learning environments throughout their lives. This viewpoint is integrated into education policy and other policy sectors relating to education and training. The aim is a coherent policy geared to educational equity and a high level of education among the population as a whole.
It is difficult to definitively point to causation when it comes to education policy. However, data from the OECD’s 2014 and interim 2015 education reports shows that Finland remains one of the top educational performing countries in the world and has one of the highest levels of educational attainment among OECD countries. In 2013, 86% of 25-64 year-olds had at least completed upper secondary education (against an OECD average of 77%) and 41% held a tertiary degree (OECD average: 33%). Results from the international PISA survey conducted by the OECD, comparing 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science, show that Finland has ranked near the top in all three competencies since 2000, on par with South Korea and Singapore.
The student-teacher ratio in lower secondary education is one of the lowest across OECD countries (9 students per teacher compared with 14 students per teacher, on average). While according to the World Economic Forum, Finland ranks third in the world for competitiveness thanks to the strength of its schooling.
More than traditional educational achievements, however, our expert interviewees highlighted the all-round classroom experience and development of students into ‘good humans’ with an equal focus on arts, play and ethics. Finnish schools are founded on promoting the total well-being of children, requiring by law that each school provide free food, access to health care, and on-site counseling and guidance. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school, creating a safe, healthy environment conducive to learning. Outdoor, practical learning opportunities and healthy related physical activity sessions are a regular feature. Unsurprisingly, the most recent UNICEF child well-being report card (2013) ranked Finland in the top 4 globally amongst advanced economies for overall child well-being.
The system has also benefited teachers, who are generally respected and considered trusted professionals who have earned the freedom to teach with a large degree of autonomy. At both primary and secondary schools, Finnish teachers spend over 100 hours less per year teaching than on average across OECD countries while often achieving better results. The salaries of upper secondary teachers are 9% higher than those of other comparable tertiary-educated workers (compared to 8% less across the rest of the OECD) and they paid to develop their skills throughout their careers.
Striving for equality also seems to have paid off. International studies have shown differences between Finnish schools in terms of quality and attainment are comparatively small, and the percentage of dropouts in compulsory education is negligible. This compares favourably with neighbours like Sweden who have striven for a different, market-based, educational model in the last decade and have seen inequality across schools rise and international education rankings fall sharply.
The main area of concern from the expert interviewees was in how to maintain educational excellence, equity and equality in light of recent cuts in the budget at state, municipal and local levels and at the National Board of Education. It is undeniable, however, that thus far Finland’s holistic model of education has led to remarkable results in the areas of child well-being, educational attainment and economic competitiveness that serves its students, communities and country very well.
While many aspects of the policy could be readily adopted by any country with a well-functioning system of state provided education, all the expert interviewees expressed the viewpoint that some elements of the Finnish model could not be fully appreciated without examining Finnish (or Nordic) culture. They suggested the widespread use of a trust based system using consensus techniques based on ‘the common interest’ without recourse to unnecessary competition, exams, school inspections and league tables is closely tied to Finnish cultural values and a Nordic way of operating. One of the interviewees was sceptical that this Act could be replicated in other countries that did not have similar societal attitudes towards education, unless it was preceded by a broad national conversation and agreement on a change of direction in education policy (like the one that happened in Finland itself in the 1970’s).