From the end of the Second World War to the 1980s, Finland engaged in a process of gradual reform to make the country’s education system serve the whole country. The quality of its teachers and the achievements of its students now make it the envy of the world.
In the last century, Finland “rarely appeared on anyone’s list of the world’s most outstanding education systems.” One reason is that, while Finland has performed well for many years in international tests of literacy, it had never risen above average in equivalent tests for maths and science. Another reason is that Finland adopted a gradualist approach to education reform at the end of the 1960s, aiming to achieve steady rather than meteoric improvement.
At the end of the Second World War, the dominant approach to education was the “Germanic, syllabus-driven model of schooling that characterised most Finnish schools.” The challenge was to move to achieve a more humanistic approach to learning that would serve all Finnish schoolchildren well in the years to come.
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, “focused on the primary school curriculum, and offered a compelling vision of a more humanistic, child-centred school.” A decade later, the idea of the common or comprehensive school gained traction and the commission recommended that compulsory education in Finland should take place in a nine-year, municipally-run comprehensive school. Eventually, in November 1968, parliament enacted legislation to create a new basic education system built around that common model.
Implementation began in 1972, initially in northern Finland, gradually spreading to the more populated municipalities and towns in the south. In this early phase, there was “strict central direction and control over schools, state-prescribed curriculums, external school inspections and detailed regulation, giving the Finnish government a strong grip on schools and teachers.”
In 1985, the traditional structure of the academic upper secondary school was replaced by a more flexible, modular structure, which gave more choice, “a new culture of education characterised by trust between educational authorities and schools, local control, professionalism and autonomy”.
The stage was set for the steady improvement in Finnish education that had begun in the 1970s to be confirmed, and for Finland to begin its steady rise up the international educational rankings.
The public impact
In 2001, the OECD published the first results of its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. Not only did Finland come top in the reading literacy rankings, it came third in scientific literacy and fourth in maths literacy. This was not a one-off. It has performed exceptionally well in all PISA assessments since.
In addition, Finland’s level of performance was remarkably consistent across all schools:
- No other country had so little variation in outcomes between schools.
- There was a relatively narrow gap in attainment within schools between the highest- and lowest-achieving students.
- Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socioeconomic status.
What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
The central government oversees the education policy in Finland through its agency, The National Board of Education. Education policy is drafted with the support and participation of other stakeholders such as local and regional authorities, trade unions, business associations, student unions and educators themselves. In addition, the teaching profession is generally well respected throughout the country by all Finnish citizens.
Political Commitment Good
Education is included as a basic right in the constitution of the country, evidence of its importance to all the political actors in Finland. “Public authorities must secure equal opportunities for every resident in Finland for study and self-development, according to their abilities, irrespective of their place of residence, language or financial status.”
“The quality of teachers and teaching lies at the heart of Finland’s educational success, and the factors responsible for producing that quality can be found at the intersection of culture and policy. One policy aspect was the 1979 decision to move teacher preparation into the universities and make it substantially more rigorous. Another was the subsequent decisions of governments in the 1980s to devolve increasing levels of authority and responsibility for education from the Ministry of Education to municipalities and schools.”
Public Confidence Fair
Finnish people trust their government especially when it comes to providing education. Finnish society is “characterised by a degree of social cohesion and trust in government that is partly a function of size and relative cultural homogeneity, but which also reflects the national temperament.”
Finnish primary teacher education programmes are able to attract ten applicants for every job opportunity. Olli Luukkainen, President of the Finnish Teachers Union also commented on the importance of trust when discussing the status of teaching in Finland.
Clear Objectives Good
The objectives of the reform process were part of national policy, beginning in 1945, and continuing through the subsequent decades. There have been significant pieces of legislation, for example, the 1968 Act and the 1979 teacher education reform act. These objectives have remained consistent in seeking a high quality of teaching, high and equitable standards of student attainment, and citizen engagement.
The Finnish education system was inspired by the systems of its Scandinavian neighbours, especially Sweden. Apart from that, there is no information to suggest that Finland referred to other working models.
“While Finland has jealously guarded its hard-won independence [achieved in 1917], in many areas of social policy it has been much influenced by its Scandinavian neighbours, especially Sweden. As noted above, the idea of the comprehensive school emerged in Finland as part of a larger movement in the 1960s for more social and economic equality, and over the next two decades the Finns adopted many features of the Swedish welfare state.”
Education in Finland is decentralized and is managed by a three-tier administrative structure at the national, regional and municipal level. This mechanism is responsible for sound policy formulation and implementation.
At the national level, parliament is responsible for the legislation and setting general principles of education policy. The Ministry of Education and Culture and the Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) are responsible for preparing education policy, for setting the general goals and steering the implementation.
At regional level, there are 15 Centres for Economic Development Transport and the Environment and six regional State Administrative Agencies. The centres and agencies are largely responsible for education in their areas.
Although there are no set parameters to measure the outcome of the various policy reforms in Finland, the national level assessments of learning outcomes are often considered as a yardstick to measure the impact the education policy on society.
The National Board of Education is responsible for national assessments of learning outcomes, analysing the extent to which national core curricula objectives have been reached. Evaluations are sample-based and conducted according to the Ministry of Education's evaluation plan. Results are sent to education providers for development purposes and are not used to rank schools.
One of the factors that explains the Finnish success in education is the quality of its teachers. The 1979 Act strengthened teacher training and it moved from teachers' colleges into universities, and primary school teachers were required to have a master's degree. Applicants for teacher education must have passed the Finnish matriculation examination (or a foreign equivalent) or completed a three-year vocational education programme.
A few of the statistics from the 2010 OECD report on Finland indicate the scale of its educational achievements:
- In 1970, only 30 percent of Finnish adults had obtained at least an upper secondary diploma. That percentage is now over 80 percent, and among 24-35 year olds it is 90 percent.
- In 1991, only five Finnish workers out of 1,000 were in the research and development (R&D) labour force. By 2003, this number had increased to 22 out of 1,000, almost three times the OECD average.
- The proportion of 15-year-olds who have repeated at least a grade in 2009 (2.8%) is among the lowest in OECD countries (OECD average 13%).
The schools provide free text books and food for student to encourage participation, and there are a number of measures to ensure the social, mental and physical development of its pupils.
There is a strong sense of cohesion in Finnish society in its approach to education. Teachers themselves are “are autonomous professionals, respected for making a difference to young people’s lives”. This sense of a common purpose applies to their students themselves as well as their teachers and to the wider society, including government, unions and the private sector.