Education reform in Finland and the comprehensive school system

Before the Second World War, Finland was a largely agrarian society and the population lived mainly in rural areas. However, in the postwar period, the country witnessed significant changes to both the economy and its population. As increasing numbers of Finns entered the middle-class, there were demands for a better education system, accessible to all children regardless of their socioeconomic background or where they lived. In 1968, parliament introduced legislation to reform the education system. Free comprehensive schools for children between seven and sixteen replaced the two-tier system of grammar schools and civic schools. Initially, the comprehensive school system was centrally controlled, before the eventual transfer of authority to local municipalities and teachers. The outcomes of the reforms are clear: education standards have increased in Finland, educational inequality has decreased, and Finland has a competitive economy based on its highly-educated, skilled workforce.

The challenge

Finland found itself facing great changes after the Second World War, with a growing population and a changing economy. In the postwar period, Finland witnessed a rapid increase in population with the number of annual births reaching over 100,000 each year between 1946 and 1949. By comparison, in the prewar period from 1935 to 1939, the number of annual births ranged from 69,000 to 78,000. [1] What had previously been a “class-bound, farm-oriented society” underwent not only a growth in industry but also a significant shift in its very nature from traditional wood-processing to metal. “Traditionally, the wood-processing industry had dominated the economy. Soon after the war, however, the metal industry soon became the dominant driver.”[2] 

A growing population, coupled with a stronger economy, led to increasing numbers of parents seeking high-quality education for their children. Grammar schools had to accommodate unprecedented numbers of students, as enrolment increased almost tenfold in 15 years, from 34,000 in 1955 to 324,000 in 1970.[2] However, there were clear inequalities in who could access this kind of education. Children from agricultural and working-class backgrounds attended grammar schools in low numbers, making up only 4.8 percent and 8.9 percent of the grammar school population in 1940 respectively. Similarly, there was a stark urban-rural divide. In 1960, almost 62 percent of Finns lived in rural areas; however, only 20 percent of students living in the countryside attended grammar schools. Conversely, 38 percent of Finns lived in urban areas but 47 percent of children there attended grammar schools.[3] More than ever, parents wanted an “improved and more comprehensive basic education” for their children.[2] Both the increase in student numbers and inequality of educational access and attainment led to the need for serious reforms. It was necessary to provide quality education for all children regardless of their socioeconomic background or where they lived.

The initiative

Reforms to the Finnish education system were the result of many years of consideration and research. Three reform commissions after the Second World War lay the foundation for later reform. In 1968, parliament introduced legislation to abolish the two-tier system of grammar and civic schools and create a new, centrally managed comprehensive school system.

In the decade following the end of the Second World War, the Finnish parliament created three successive reform commissions, each of which aimed to create an education system that would provide equal educational opportunities for all Finns. The first, in 1945, considered the primary school curriculum and it “offered a compelling vision of a more humanistic, child-centred school”.[4] A decade later, the idea of the comprehensive school had gained traction, and the commission recommended that compulsory education in Finland should take place in a nine-year, municipally-run comprehensive school. In 1963, the Finnish parliament decided to officially reform the education system “after much committee work, experiments, pilot programmes, input from the elementary school teachers’ union and above all, vast political support and consensus”.[2] 

In November 1968, parliament enacted legislation to create a new basic education system built around that common model. The Basic Education Act was passed in 1968, introducing the new comprehensive school system and replacing the existing two-tiered one. Students would now enter comprehensive school at nine years of age and remain until sixteen. In total, there were nine grades, divided into six years of primary school and three years of lower secondary school.[3] The new system was introduced gradually, starting with Northern Finland in 1972, “which was considered to require the reform most, and to resist it least”, and it reached the rest of the country by 1977.[3] The new system offered three academic levels in mathematics and foreign languages: basic, middle and advanced. What had been taught in civic schools corresponded to the basic level, while that in grammar schools equated to the advanced level.[4]

When the reforms were implemented in the 1970s, the education system was run centrally, and by “reflecting the radical change begot by the basic school reform, the first national curriculum for basic education in 1970 was very detailed and the steering system strictly centralised”.[5] In this early phase, the Finnish government had strict control over most aspects of the new system, including the curriculum, external inspections and general regulation, giving them “a strong grip on schools and teachers”.[6] However, educational reforms in the 1990s gave more authority and autonomy to municipalities. For instance, teachers were entrusted with planning their own curriculums and assessments. These reforms brought about “a new culture of education characterised by trust between educational authorities and schools, local control, professionalism and autonomy”.[6]

However, there was stronger state intervention in 2004 when a new core curriculum was introduced, which “reinforced anew state control by narrowing the licence of municipalities and schools in planning their respective curricula”.[5]

The public impact

The success of the comprehensive education reforms is evident from the subsequent excellent student performance and national educational outcomes. These outcomes can be attributed to a number of factors, including the focus on providing equal access for all to quality education and the role of local municipalities and teachers in designing and implementing the curriculum to meet students’ needs.  

Student performance at school has improved considerably since the implementation of comprehensive school reforms. While there are other factors at play – such as a more extensive build-up of the welfare state – the reforms are seen as at least partly responsible for the improvement. By the 1980s and 1990s, students educated in the comprehensive system performed better academically than those educated in the two-tier system of the 1960s and early 1970s.[2] In the early 2000s, Finnish students began to score exceptionally well in international assessments such as the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA), which evaluates “the extent to which 15-year-old students, near the end of their compulsory education, have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies”.[7] In 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009, Finland took nearly all the top spots for mathematical and scientific literacy and reading. Although there has been a slight drop in its position in mathematical literacy since 2012, Finland still places highly overall.[8] In addition to an improvement in educational outcomes, the number of students staying longer in education has increased as a result of the comprehensive reforms and subsequent upper secondary school reforms in the 1980s.[4] In 1970, only 30 percent of Finnish adults had a minimum of an upper secondary diploma, but by 2010 this figure had risen to over 80 percent, while it was 90 percent for 24-35 year olds.[4]

The motives for the reforms were twofold: on the one hand, improving educational quality and access would provide an educated workforce for the increasingly industrialised, post-agrarian economy; on the other hand, there was a demand for greater social equality as Finnish society underwent considerable changes. The objective of reducing inequality within the education system was achieved by the late 1980s.[2] All Finnish children received the same basic education, and there were real opportunities for all students to progress to upper secondary school.[2] Equality of educational outcome is demonstrated by the small variation in results between different schools and high numbers of student enrolment.[4] Moreover, the gap between the highest and lowest performing schools was the smallest in all countries assessed by PISA.[2]

Another key aspect of the reforms’ success was the eventual transfer of authority to municipalities and the schools themselves. Between 1985 and 1988, there was a shift from “external school inspection to self-evaluation of the profession”.[3] In 1994, there were reforms to the national curriculum which gave teachers more autonomy in how and what they taught. Before that point, Finland’s performance in international education surveys had not been particularly notable.[3]

Not only has Finland scored highly in assessments such as PISA but also in the OECD’s 2016 Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). The survey measures the performance of 16-65 year olds in key skills such as literacy, numeracy and problem-solving, which are necessary in social and work contexts and “for fully integrating and participating in the labour market, education and training, and social and civic life”.[9] Finland ranked in the top three for each skill.[9] Furthermore, Finns whose parents have low educational attainment are far less likely than their international counterparts to have lower levels of literacy or numeracy themselves.[9]

Although no research has confirmed a positive correlation between improvements in education and economic growth, it seems likely that they were mutually beneficial.[2] Between 2001 and 2004, Finland was ranked as the most competitive economy in the world three times by the World Economic Forum, which “suggests that the country boasts a very high level of human capital, widespread use of information and communication technologies, and education and research institutions that have been redesigned to foster innovation and cutting-edge research and development”.[2]  

Finally, teaching is a highly respected career choice in Finland with many more applicants than places on teaching courses. The president of the Finnish Teachers Union, Olli Luukkainen, explained that “the fact that teachers have so much independence and respect influences young people as they are deciding what programme they will follow in the university. If they choose teacher education they know they will be entering a profession that enjoys broad trust and respect in the society, one that plays an important role in shaping the country’s future.”[4]

An interesting feature of the reforms is their implementation over the long term. Different waves of reform brought new changes in the decades following the first reforms of the 1960s. Despite differences of opinion and debate as to the nature of such reforms, the “current success [of the comprehensive schools] is due to this steady progress, rather than as a consequence of highly visible innovations launched by a particular political leader or party”.[4] Perhaps this success can also be attributed to a set of values that emerged among Finnish baby boomers in the postwar period. Pasi Sahlberg, Director of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation explained that “the comprehensive school is not merely a form of school organisation. It embodies a philosophy of education as well as a deep set of societal values about what all children need and deserve.”[4]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Strong

There was strong public confidence in the reforms to the education system, as Finns valued education highly. Moreover, as a result of economic growth and greater personal wealth, parents wanted to educate their children well, and they put pressure on the government to enable them to do so.

Finland has long considered education to be very important and has embraced values such as “a law-abiding citizenry, trust in authorities, and commitment to one’s social group, awareness of one’s social status and position, and patriotic spirit”.[2] Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish scholar and education expert, commented in 2010 that “over the last half-century we developed an understanding that the only way for us to survive as a small, independent nation is by educating all our people”.[4] Owing to such values, and parents’ increasing interest in providing high standards of education for their children, public interest in educational reform was high. The governmental reports into reforms of the postwar period started to help “build public support and political will to create an education system that would be more responsive to the growing demand for more equitable educational opportunities for all young people in Finland”.[4]

As the generation of baby boomers reached school age, more and more parents were sending their children on to secondary education in grammar schools. In the academic year 1955-56, there were 34,000 students enrolled in grammar schools, and this figure climbed to 215,000 in 1960, rising further to 270,000 in 1965 and reaching 324,000 by 1970.[2] Such significant increases in enrolment numbers “reflected the aspirations of ordinary Finns for greater educational opportunity for their children, a message that the country’s political leaders heard as well”.[4]

Stakeholder Engagement Good

The various stakeholders involved in the education reforms were supportive of the planned changes to the education system, although some did voice concerns about how they would be implemented and with what success. 

Finland has long employed the “Tripartite” concept in politics, which involves cooperation between the government, trade unions and employers’ organisations.[2] This tripartite policy “came to education with the advent of comprehensive school reform”, and the key stakeholders were the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Finance, the new Teachers’ Union, the three municipalities’ central organisations, and teachers themselves.[2] 

There were many negotiations between the stakeholders when developing the policy. The National School Council and the Ministry of Education worked in tandem, and corporations also had an important role in the negotiations. Although there were different interests and priorities within these groups, thanks to Finland’s “contract” society, “where important social policy decisions are accords between the government and labour organisations”, it was possible to come to a positive agreement on education reform.[2] 

Teachers had legitimate concerns before the launch of the reforms about changes to their salaries and professional autonomy. Not all teachers had the same employer: some worked for local municipalities, others for the state or private associations. Their salaries were directly linked to the type of school they were working in. For example, elementary school teachers typically earned less than grammar school teachers.[2] With the introduction of the comprehensive school system, teachers were concerned about the payscale that would be applied to their jobs.[2] Furthermore, some expressed concerns about the freedom they would have when teaching lessons, as they worried that “the reform’s centralised planning and execution would stifle their traditional didactic freedom”.[2]

Despite their concerns, teachers were involved throughout the planning phase of the reforms, and committees such as the Comprehensive School Curriculum Committee (1966–1970) permitted collaboration between teachers and central government officials on key issues.[2] Reforms would affect “content and curriculum – not just teaching methods”, so it was essential to receive teacher input to ensure their commitment to the new changes.[2] One reason why the committees were successful was that when choosing committee members, the government “took pains to select a balanced mix of people with different political ideologies, professions, experience, and areas of expertise – including scientists and teachers”.[2]

Political Commitment Strong

There was sustained political commitment to implementing educational reform in Finland in the immediate postwar period and following decades. As early as 1945, the government started planning changes to its education system; however, it was not until the 1960s that the comprehensive school system began to take shape.[4] 

Increasing pressure from the Agrarian Party and from parents, who wanted high standards of education for their children, led parliament “to start building legislation to abolish the parallel school system and to replace it with the comprehensive school.”[3] In the 1966 parliamentary elections, left-wing parties gained power and formed a majority coalition, which consisted of the largest party in parliament – the Social Democrats – and the Finnish People’s Democratic Party, which included the Communist Party and the Agrarian Party.[2] This new government “made education reform its primary goal, and set out to mould primary and lower secondary education into a comprehensive basic school for all children”.[2] Furthermore, many believed that improving the quality of education would advance social justice and stimulate economic development.[2]

Their commitment was evident: although “it would have been easy to tinker at the margins, crafting new in-service education and training for teachers,... Finland’s policymakers understood that for comprehensive school reform to work, the entire teacher-education system had to change”.[2] In November 1968, parliament passed the Basic Education Act, which stated that “all children should attend the same school for the first nine years of education”.[10]

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

There were clear, broad objectives set out at the start of the reform programme. Rather than proposing specific details, objectives focused on wide-scale goals at the national level. The primary aim of education reform was to establish social justice in Finland “to guarantee all children equal opportunity to a nine-year basic education regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic status”.[2] 

As the Finnish economy developed, shifting towards a service-based economy in the 1970s, it was important to elevate “the population’s general educational level and [to continue] to develop education in a scientifically, technologically, and socially sound manner”.[2] Further goals were “to reinforce educational equality and to reform educational content to reflect democratic values and attitudes” and “to reform the education system so that a larger proportion of citizens would be able to continue their studies at upper-secondary and tertiary levels and to become lifelong learners”.[2]  In a country with two official languages, it “was also important to secure the interests of the linguistic minority, the Swedish-speaking children”.[2] In 1981, the Ministry of Education reaffirmed that students could not be streamed into tracks based on ability or personal characteristics. [2] 

Evidence Strong

Legislators drew on a wealth of evidence as part of their approach to planning comprehensive school reforms. They considered information from a variety of sources, such as the pilot programmes of the 1960s, extensive consultations with key stakeholders from 1965-1970, and the Swedish education model.

In the 1960s, “legislators and educators rallied to craft a blueprint for reform”, using a combination of “committee work, experiments, pilot programmes, [and] input from the elementary school teachers’ union” to develop a model for a system of comprehensive education.[2] Trials of the proposed comprehensive system were put in place in the 1960s, and by 1965, 25 municipalities where teachers had contributed to developing the new curriculum had partly adopted the new system.[2] The Swedish system also served as a model that had a distinct “influence on the structure of Finland’s new comprehensive schools as well as on the teaching content”.[2]

Feasibility Good

Several mechanisms were in place to make the comprehensive school reforms feasible, including state funding, teacher training, and the implementation of reforms over a five-year period. However, owing to the scale of the reforms, challenges of some kind were likely during the implementation phase, such as restructuring teachers’ payscales and providing suitable training for teachers about the new system.

Financing for the new comprehensive system was the responsibility of the Finnish government, which increased the proportion of its budget it spent on education from 9.1 percent in 1960 to 16.9 percent in 1975.[3] Municipal education institutions received high state subsidies to fund reforms. State subsidies covered 81 to 90 percent of teachers’ salaries, 84 to 93 percent of school transport and pupil accommodation, and 5 to 77 percent of other expenses.[2] This funding allowed local governments to cover other costs without much difficulty. Since “teacher wages comprised 70 to 80 percent of total operating expenses, and the state subsidised as much as 81 to 90 percent of salary costs in communities that often had a 15 percent tax rate, hiring teachers could bring direct financial benefits”.[2]

To ensure the success of the comprehensive school system, it was essential that teachers were suitably trained to deliver the desired outcomes. As a result, in-service training was provided and “teacher training was transferred from teacher colleges and seminars to universities”.[3] In 1964, parliament enacted urgent measures to reorganise basic and continuing education, so that teachers could meet the new needs of comprehensive schools, and in the following years a committee was assigned to prepare and implement these reforms.[2] Once the comprehensive school system was introduced, “teachers had five days of in-service training for comprehensive school pedagogies including the social and administrative implications of the reform”.[11] The training, given by instructors regionally and nationally, helped teachers familiarise themselves with the new system, although there was some criticism that it was “too superficial and official”.[11]

As the reforms were to be implemented on such a large scale, “a multilevel guidance system was developed to gather input and connect the various national, regional, and local planning groups”.[2] The reforms were first introduced in remote, rural areas of northern Finland, “gradually spreading to the more populated municipalities and towns in the south. The last southern municipality to implement the new comprehensive system did so in 1977.”[4]

Action

Management Good

The management structure of comprehensive school reforms was clear at the outset and changed over time to respond to the emerging needs of the system. The National Board of General Education (NBGE) was initially responsible, before the eventual transfer of authority to local municipalities in the 1980s.

Enacting the 1968 legislation was the responsibility of the NBGE.[2] As part of the reforms, the NBGE was restructured into two branches, which each had its own role in the management of reforms. The School Department “generally oversaw school structure, network and planning for [schools] rebirth as nine-year institutions, and the Education Department became responsible for educational content, curriculum, teaching methods, learning materials, textbook approval, pilot programmes, research activities, and special education”.[2] In 1972, the majority of decision-making in relation to education was undertaken by the NBGE. By 1980, the Ministry of Education – which had been restructured in 1974 – increasingly had a role in decision-making, while by 2005, municipalities were the main decision-making authority. In 1991, the National Board of General Education (NBGE) merged with the National Board of Vocational Education (NBVE) to form the National Board of Education (NBE).

By the early 1980s, many considered the centralised management of the education system too restrictive and bureaucratic. There was increasing pressure to make changes to the system and give greater authority to municipalities and teachers. In 1984, the government set up a committee “whose goals were to decentralise management and reform the public administration apparatus in a way that would improve efficiency, democratic control, and legal protections”.[2] This marked a shift in the way the education system was structured, with local municipalities and authorities gaining control over decision-making processes: “central management steering systems were restructured, and the management structures rationalised. Norm and resource management was replaced by data-driven results based management.”[2]  

 

Measurement Fair

Evaluation of student and school performance has changed over time. Currently, measurement of student performance is based on a system of “flexible accountability”, which eschews standardised testing in favour of teacher-made assessment at the classroom level. At a national level, there are some legislative provisions requiring evaluation of school performance; however, schools’ high degree of autonomy means that evaluative processes are not homogeneous.

Rather than assessing all students through standardised testing, teachers currently evaluate student performance at the classroom level using teacher-made tests, which evaluate students' learning instead of standardised criteria. [4] This approach has been adopted in more recent years, replacing the previous system model of streamed classes, which prevailed in the 1980s and was based on students’ ability. This change was made because studies had shown that streaming was a key factor in “maintaining and deepening regional, social, and gender inequality”.[4] Consequently, the three levels – basic, middle and advanced – were merged into heterogeneous groups in 1985, and the tracking system was abolished.[2] In 1999, the NBE released criteria for evaluating students at the completion of basic education, while in 2004 criteria for “early and middle-stage evaluation” was published in the Framework Curriculum.[12] However, municipalities and schools have a high degree of autonomy, which means they can design and administer evaluations as they choose.

At the national level, there are national learning result evaluations, which were created by the NBE in 1998. The following year, the Basic Education Act introduced statutory requirements for evaluation measures requiring municipalities to evaluate the performance of schools.[12] National evaluations are currently the responsibility of the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC), a national agency that evaluates education from early childhood to adult learning.[13] The evaluation focuses on objectives set out in the national curriculum, and schools that are sampled receive feedback in comparison with national averages.[13] Contrary to the practice in many countries, there is no mandatory standardised testing in comprehensive schools in Finland: only 5 to 10 percent of students in a given age group participate in FINEEC evaluations. In addition to these results, FINEEC evaluate schools through feedback from principals, teachers and students about learning methods and student experience.[13] Despite these evaluation mechanisms, it has been argued that they have little influence on the development of schools.[12]

Alignment Good

The NBGE “endorsed the curriculum prepared by the Curriculum Committee as the basis for the national curriculum”, which was criticised by some for “limiting the autonomy of municipalities and local schools”.[2] However, the NBGE considered this necessary to ensure the punctual implementation of reforms as well as to prevent disagreements between teachers and special interest groups. Jukka Sarjala, who worked at the Ministry of Education from 1970 until 1995 and later became director-general of the NBE, was responsible for implementing reforms and he described the challenges they posed: “there were lots of municipalities that were not eager to reform their system, which is why it was important to have a legal mandate. This was a very big reform, very big and complicated for teachers accustomed to the old system. They were accustomed to teaching school with selected children and were simply not ready for a school system in which very clever children and not so clever children were in the same classes. It took several years, in some schools until the older teachers retired, for these reforms to be accepted.”[4]

To assist teachers in getting used to the new system, the government passed legislation that “mandated two days of teacher training in the first three years following their municipality’s switch to the comprehensive school system”. In addition to this, teachers agreed to a further three days of in-service training, which meant that “during the comprehensive school’s first three years, compulsory teacher training consumed five days each year”. This training was provided by “a network of instructors, led by so-called national level instructors… Each province had its own group of pedagogic instructors, and schools had mentors to assist and help teachers to adapt to the new school culture.”[2]