Finnish education is rarely out of the news, whether it’s outstanding Pisa results, those same results slipping, the dropping of traditional subjects, not dropping subjects, or what makes Finnish teachers special.
I worked in England for two years as a teacher before moving to Finland eight years ago. My colleagues in the UK were supportive and the headteacher gave me subject leadership in my second year. I didn’t want to leave but the pull of home for my Finnish wife was too strong, so we upped sticks.
Finland’s education policies have been highly praised and the country has started to export its model around the world. Much of what has been written about this has, understandably, focused on policy, but it’s somewhat reductive to think in such narrow terms. The ethos of the schools and the society in which the policies are implemented are equally important.
Naysayers might argue that demographic differences between Finland and the UK (among other countries) make comparing education policies pointless. The population of Finland is homogeneous; just 5% of the population was born outside the country and don’t speak either Finnish or Swedish. This puts less strain on schools to plug linguistic and cultural gaps that exist elsewhere, but it only tells half the story. The economic homogeneity of the population, and the equity of society that is reflected in its schools, has contributed to Finland’s success. And this isn’t limited to education.
Finland has the lowest wage inequality of any country in the EU, while the UK has the highest (pdf). Child poverty in the UK is double that of Finland (pdf). If legislators in the UK want to improve educational outcomes for all, they should start by closing those gaps rather than introducing more grammar schools. As it happens, getting rid of the grammar school equivalent and introducing a truly comprehensive system is said to have played a large part in the improvement of Finnish education.
But moving to a level playing field in the UK is inconceivable. The recent general election offers hope of a more equitable society, but even a Labour government would balk at attempts to “nationalise” schools such as Eton and Harrow in the name of a truly equitable system. But equity is not the only thing Finland’s education system has going for it.
Much is made of the stringent selection of candidate teachers and the world-class training successful applicants receive – and rightly so. But while getting into the profession is highly competitive, the conditions teachers work under here and the ethos of the schools, also have a huge bearing on allowing teachers and their students to flourish. And this is all down to trust.
Teachers in Finland are given a great deal of responsibility and are allowed unfettered flexibility in what and how they teach. Performance isn’t observed and graded. Instead, annual development discussions with school leaders provide feedback on a teacher’s own assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Detailed plans are not expected either. The notion that a teacher should provide evidence to prove what they’ve done is ludicrous. Each teacher marks work when it benefits them or the student, but not for anyone else’s sake.
While most six-year-olds in the UK are subject to national tests, those in Finland haven’t even started formal schooling yet. When they do, the teacher’s judgment alone is trusted in assessing students. No one, either within or outside the school, demands that it’s done their way and to their timetable. And no one uses the data to construct league tables or put pressure on schools.
Contrast this with the UK, where schools have data managers, where some teachers are told which colour pens to use for marking, and where books are periodically checked to ensure that learning intentions are neatly stuck in place. A teacher in a special measures school, somewhere teachers need the most support, must write a plan for every lesson they teach, perhaps for months on end. All of that time, money and effort could be put to better use.
Teachers enter the profession full of drive and enthusiasm. They are in the job for the right reasons. We must trust them and keep that drive alive. To do this, we must give them the tools and time they need to recover after a hard day at work. If teachers aren’t encumbered by tasks that don’t benefit them or their students, they’ll be able to do a better job.
What society in Finland does – perhaps better than anywhere else – is look after, value and trust each other. If visitors, legislators and commentators could take one lesson away from the Finnish education system, it should be that one.
John Hart is lead teacher for digital learning at the European School of Helsinki.