Finland: Education for the edu-Nation
This is part one of a seven part article series with Professor Jari Lavonen, professor of physics and chemistry education and Head of the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki in Finland. In this series he will discuss how the Finnish education system has come to be known as one of the best in the world, how Finland supports and develops its teachers, the skills children should learn and when they should learn them, things Australia could learn from Finland, the roles of entry requirements in selecting the best teachers, the impact of cultural attitudes, and the current renewal of the teacher education system in Finland.
The rest of the series will be published on the embassy website: www.finland.org.au
How is it that the Finnish education system is the best in the world?
This question could be answered in many ways. However, there is no right system for governing education. This is because education is very contextual and many topics, like parents, history, and economy, have an influence on how it is organised. Of course we can learn from other systems but rather than focusing on structures, it is more fruitful to focus on values and processes.
The Finnish education system successfully combines high quality with wide-spread equity and social cohesion through reasonable public financing. The success can be seen through the Finnish students’ results in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Not only have they achieved high scores, but they have done so with a low variation in performance scores, and this has been considered a consequence of Finnish education policy. There are four main reasons for this.
Firstly, Finnish politicians were cleverly looking towards the future in the 1960s when they decided to focus on education and offer high quality education for all citizens. This was a time when Finland was still recovering from the Second World War and working to overcome challenges in a wide range of fields. High quality education for everyone was considered as a solution to these challenges. The big picture was outlined and thereafter slow methodical progress has been supported, rather than a drive for frequent dynamic changes as occurs in many other countries.
Secondly, educational equality is the most essential issue to address in Finnish education policy, driven by the belief that all students should have equal opportunities to learn. As a result, both secondary and tertiary education is free, and this includes books, meals and healthcare. One important consequence of this equality policy is effective special education, where teachers adjust their teaching to meet the individual needs of each student, rather than teaching the class as one entity. This is supported by The Basic Education Act, which emphasises the different levels of support required for individual students.
Thirdly, quality in education is approached through decentralisation. The Finnish educational system, in contrast to the top-down systems of many other countries, is characterised by the devolution of decision making and responsibilities to the local level; teachers are responsible for developing the local curriculum based on the National Core Curriculum, student assessment, and evaluating their own teaching. There is no national-level testing or inspection in compulsory education which means teachers play a particularly influential role in education and allows teachers to feel true ownership over the education of their students.
Fourthly, and also closely connected to decentralisation, is the culture of trust in education. Education authorities and national-level education policymakers trust professional teachers to work together with principals, headmasters and parents, in order to provide the best education for children and adolescents under their care. There have been no national or local school inspectors in Finland since the late 1980s and since the 1990s, schools and teachers have been responsible for choosing learning materials and teaching methods. Teachers are valued as professionals in curriculum development, teaching and assessment at all levels, and have always enjoyed great public respect and appreciation.
Both Finnish education policy and the Finnish education system support teachers to fulfil their professional role. The knowledge and skills (competences) needed in the teaching profession, are learned through teacher education. Attainment of these competences means that teachers act as academic professionals, collaborate in school communities and strive to continually acquire new competences.
 OECD (2007). PISA 2006: Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World, Volume 1: Analysis. Paris: OECD.
OECD (2010). PISA 2009: Volume 2: Data. Paris: OECD.