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26 June 2013

The real lesson of Finland’s education miracle

From a British perspective, Finland is one of the more obscure countries in Europe. There’s a Monty Python song about the country, suggesting that even Belgium has a higher profile.

However, Finland is second to none when it comes to the performance of its schools. In fact,  on the best-known system of international comparisons, Finland leaves the rest of Europe behind in cloud of dust (or rather snow). 

Writing for the Spectator, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren notes that Finland has become somewhat of an icon for those who oppose choice in education:

  • “Does Finland have the best schools system in the world? There are many who think so, pointing to its place atop the PISA league tables and explaining this success by the supposed lack of Swedish-style competition. So why is Britain copying Sweden, runs the argument, with these private ‘free schools’ when it would do better to look at the less competitive Finnish model?”

But is Finland’s education miracle all it's cracked up to be? Sahlgren is Swedish, so one might dismiss her scepticism as a case of Nordic sour grapes (or sour lingonberries, perhaps); nevertheless she makes some noteworthy points.

For a start, PISA isn’t the only measure of success:

  • “The Finnish fan club rarely talks about its mathematics performance in TIMSS, an international survey focusing more on curriculum-based knowledge – which plummeted over the last decade. Finnish eighth-graders today perform slightly lower than seventh-graders did in 1999, lagging the top-scoring nations by a considerable margin. Not so miraculous after all. It’s perhaps not surprising that over 200 Finnish academics in 2005 warned about complacency as a result of the PISA success.” 

The Finnish system isn’t that monolithic anyway:

  • “In Helsinki, 37% of compulsory-age school pupils attend free schools. Most Finnish councils also have at least one Swedish-language school, to which all pupils have access. The choice is there.
  • “Furthermore, in Finnish sixth form, which is not compulsory, choice is extensive... Crucially, admission to all schools is determined by, firstly, pupils’ choices and, secondly, their grades in compulsory school – without any concern for where pupils live. This makes all sixth form schools in Finland more similar to grammar schools than comprehensive schools.”

There’s something else worth noting about Finland and its education system. It isn’t mentioned in Sahlgren’s article and definitely wouldn’t be mentioned by leftwing opponents of school choice.

Though Finland is a comparatively egalitarian society, this stems a lot less from Nordic social democracy than it does from the Finns’ powerful sense of national identity. Theirs is a distinctive culture that, despite centuries of foreign rule, was nourished by a deep respect for language, learning and education.

This goes well beyond mere national pride. Whether at home or at school, Finnish children are raised with the idea that sustaining their identity is a shared national project in which they all participate.

Perhaps it might help if our own schools instilled the same sense of purpose in British children.


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