Lessons from Finland, by Andrew Morris

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Pasi Sahlberg Source

Education in other countries sounds so much more interesting than our own! In Switzerland it’s the calibre of apprenticeships, in France the breadth of the Baccalaureat, in Scandinavia the quality of pre-school play. But as I see more and more examples used in political argument I begin to wonder how much we simply cherry pick from abroad to suit our pet criticism of the home system. Do we fall for the best features in other countries but fail to look at the whole, warts and all?

Despite this reservation I still cling on to the concept of a grand “natural experiment” in which contrasting approaches across the world can be usefully compared. It’s true that simply importing one fragment of a complex system – a reading scheme, a governance system, a work-related curriculum – is likely to lead to trouble when it runs up against the prevailing culture and policy environment at home. But surely there remain valid ways of learning from experience elsewhere. It’s not that it should necessarily instruct us in better ways, but surely it can inform and perhaps inspire us.

It was in this spirit that I welcomed an invitation from the Finnish embassy to hear the expert Pasi Sahlberg speak on “Finnish Lessons”, the title of his recently published book.  PDF of presentation used by Pasi Sahlberg [Big PDF – used with the Sahlberg’s permission.] His very first point confirmed my own thoughts about international comparison: “it is not about solutions, it is about continuous learning. Finland has taken a different path to England” he stated modestly and diplomatically. What follows is based on the talk he gave in the House of Commons in May 2012.

Although I had become aware of the great success of the educational system in Finland, it was news to me that this had not always been the case. Apparently, it had never aimed to be “top” and yet it has consistently been so in recent PISA comparisons of 15 year olds’ attainment in OECD countries. Even more interestingly, the success is not restricted to education– Finland also scores high in competitiveness, innovation, happiness and technology. So is there an explanation of this unique position in world rankings or are the causes too diffuse and complex to identify? Yes, claims Sahlberg, there is indeed.

Back in 1970, Finland was not a high performing country; it ranked well below the OECD average and even further below the UK. But in that same year a huge problem of inequity was identified and understood as the underlying cause of multiple social problems. Reducing it became a political priority. In one action amongst many, private schools were merged into the public system, because there was a sense of emergency – it had to be done to reduce inequality.

Over the following forty years Finland’s educational performance has risen steadily, exceeding the OECD average during the 1990s and rising subsequently to the top. Over the same period the OECD average itself has gradually risen whilst the performance of England (and other countries) has actually fallen. The cause is clearly attributed by Sahlberg to Finland’s pursuit of different policies, not simply to better implementation of similar policies. The key policy driver was an attack on inequity itself; funding was directed at tackling disadvantage. Investment in the early years led to a build-up in social capital through improved access and support, whilst a parallel investment in human capital led to improvements in leadership, professionalism and curriculum development. As a result 9% of youngsters at any given moment are classed as SEN, entitling them to smaller class sizes. In fact by the time they get to secondary school around one half of all young people have experienced SEN provision at some point. In effect, it ceases to be special. It simply provides the individual attention needed by individual learners. The fundamental intention of the investment is to help families and children before problems arise.

But has it made a difference? According to OECD measurement it certainly has. It has dramatically reduced the variation in outcome. By contrast England, whilst staying closely to the average on many OECD indicators, has a particularly wide spread between high to low attainment, in literacy for example. Similarly, schools themselves vary widely in performance compared to Finland where almost all schools are good. Parents there have little cause to shop around or move house to secure a school place.

As well as concentrating resources on the most needy, policymakers have also driven down teaching contact hours. In a system in which primary schooling doesn’t begin till age 7, total teaching hours are not considered the be-all and end-all. With one hour less per day than their equivalents in England, teachers are freed up for curriculum planning (a school responsibility), student assessment (without national testing), school improvement and student welfare. With less contact time and less homework, play is strongly encouraged. As Sahlberg put it, children need to become expert at playing.

A further policy driver is the emphasis placed on professionalism. Steadily improving quality attracts more and more of the best graduates into teaching. As a highly prized profession, only a small proportion of applicants now make it into initial teacher training. With the “best of the best” recruited, inspection has now become redundant, responsibility for curriculum and assessment delegated to the school and teacher retention is high. By contrast, high turnover of teachers is common elsewhere, with half of all teachers quitting within five years in many countries. Low regard for the professionalism of teachers can be a costly business!

Sahlberg summarises the Finnish approach by comparing its path of reform with that of most other countries. Where the latter emphasises competition, Finland favours collaboration; instead of standardisation, personalisation; in place of choice, equity; in place of test-based accountability, trust –based professionalism. England, together with Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Japan and many other countries, in taking the wrong path, is witnessing falling PISA performance where Finland, though already at the top, continues to rise. In Sahlberg’s characterisation, the English approach is “trying to do the wrong things righter”. His prescription is for more collaboration, personalisation and trust-based responsibility with less bureaucracy, standardisation and competition.

Despite the exceptional and continuing success of the Finnish system, Sahlberg is far from complacent. He worries about the gender gap, growing as boys read less. He also fears a “Nokia effect” in which professionals begin to lose out competitively by thinking of themselves as the best. The problem Finland faces (a nice one to have, you might say) is how to persuade people to improve and make changes when performance already tops the international league tables? There is always much to learn and Sahlberg cites the UK, for example, as a source of inspiration for mathematics and science education. But, concluding as he began, he warned against simply trying to replicate elements of the Finnish system in other countries. His advice was “just go there to see and to learn”.

So we return to the original question: what are we to make of international comparisons per se? Clearly the example of Finland provides extraordinary inspiration for educators everywhere. Not only, have social goods, like equity, been achieved at the same time as high levels of attainment but the system itself becomes less bureaucratic, less centralised and more efficient.

Sahlberg shows that the origins of this success do not lie in the introduction of piecemeal measures in areas such as inspection, target setting, school governance or performance management. In Finland they lay in a national determination to alter the culture underlying low attainment. By focussing on reducing inequity, gradual changes occurred in teacher professionalism, school autonomy and resource distribution which in turn raised the quality of teaching and consequently of schools. The changes were not rushed, the pacing of change measured in decades not years. Careful staging of change meant, for example, that freedom for parents to choose a school followed after differences in quality had been ironed out. Inspection and assessment systems were reduced or delegated once respect for teacher professionalism had been established.

So my plea for us in England, where so few of the Finnish conditions exist, is to slow the endless procession of short-term educational interventions imposed by Whitehall. Let politicians legislate to reduce the menace of social inequality but please, leave the gradual changes needed in pedagogy and curriculum design to the experience of professionals and evidence of research.

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