We have long been preoccupied with how New Zealand’s education system measures up by world standards. Finland’s focus on a non-competitive education system has seen it shoot to the top of the charts.

With our education system taking a different track, will we see similar success, or should we be looking closer at what the Finns are doing? JUDE BARBACK reports.

For over a decade, many have regarded Finland as the king of the educational castle. Finland has consistently been one of the top performers of all countries participating in PISA since 2000.

However, it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Finnish educational system was barely recognisable compared to what it is today. Back then, it followed an academic vs. vocational approach, forcing students to choose a path into tertiary education or drop out at 15 and find a job. Finland decided it wasn’t large enough to forgo education for all and began reforming its approach to education.

In the 1990s, Finland decentralised its education system, placing more emphasis on the municipalities to take ownership for the delivery of education in their area. Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s Minister of Education, says that while there is a national curriculum, the municipalities have a lot of freedom.

Ultimately, the reforms focused on providing an education system based on equality, on the notion that there should be a good school for every child in every community.

As a result, every single Finnish school is completely funded by the government. There are no private schools, in the New Zealand sense at least – private schools in Finland earn the descriptor by being a faith-based school or following an alternative model, such as Rudolph Steiner schools.

One of the main things to result from the decentralisation of the Finnish education system was the need for a highly trained and skilled teaching workforce. This has helped to dramatically raise the profile of teaching in Finland. Teachers are held in high regard in Finland, and as a result, people are drawn to what is seen as a highly valued and reputable profession. Timo Lankinen, director for Finland’s National Board of Education, says teaching ranks just under practising medicine or law in terms of its repute for young people choosing a profession. The teaching salary is not particularly great, yet the competition is very high for teaching jobs.

Professor Pasi Sahlberg, in his interview with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand, says there are no “alternative pathways” to teaching in Finland. Teacher training is based on the postgraduate model, with all teachers holding a master’s degree. Olli Luukkainen, president of the Trade Union in Education in Finland, says one of the key specialities of Finnish teacher training is linking the theory with practice, and the teacher training schools give student teachers the opportunity to progress.

Consequently, competition is fierce for teaching positions. Sahlberg says that many schools suggest that prospective primary teachers learn how to play a musical instrument or a sport, such is the competition for jobs.

Many have hailed Sahlberg, who established the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO), as the antidote for the unpopular education reforms currently taking shape in New Zealand.

Indeed, Sahlberg strongly opposes the GERM (global education reform movement), which he says has not worked for many countries – including New Zealand, Australia, UK, USA, and Japan – since its introduction in the 1980s.

He insists that trying to run education systems like a free market, based on competition, does not work. OECD studies show that none of the countries that have adopted GERM are improving. By contrast, Finland, which has avoided GERM, has shown upward trends.

It seems strange that the business metaphor, of a free market, where growth is driven by competition and choice, should not work in education, as Sahlberg suggests it won’t.

National standardised testing and charter schools, both notions being driven here in New Zealand, have their roots in this concept of competition-fuelled growth.

By contrast, Sahlberg says in Finland there is more emphasis on keeping choice open within the schools, rather than between them. He believes in more equality among schools and less marketisation.

Also, there are no standardised tests until the end of high school in Finland, which begs the question of how the Finns monitor achievement in their schools.

As the Finnish education system operates at a local, rather than a national, level, education covenants own and operate the schools and are responsible for quality assurance. Sahlberg says there is a lot of assessment and testing that takes place within these schools.

This part seems a little weak in comparison to other aspects of the system. With no standardised testing, what assurance is there that all schools are performing well and not merely setting easy tests?

Sahlberg says a systematic sample-based assessment of schools is undertaken, regularly testing a selection of random schools in different areas. He insists it is cheaper and just as effective for answering questions about achievement.

Schools with a higher number of immigrant children or children who aren’t achieving as well as they ought are allocated more funding and resources. Sahlberg describes it as “positive discrimination”.

At his presentation at the Principals’ Conference in Melbourne, Sahlberg made it clear that competition does not belong in a school. He claimed it was wrong to believe that competition and test-based accountability improves the quality of education. The Finnish system advocates collaboration, not competition; individualism, not standardisation, which Sahlberg perceives as the worst enemy of creativity.

The educational spend in Finland is less than many countries, including New Zealand. Children start school at seven years old, and in the earlier school years, there are typically four 40-minute lessons per day. As they do less, they spend less. The focus is on the quality of what they do.

However, it isn’t as simple as saying, ‘let’s copy Finland’. There are a huge number of other variables to take into account, not least the social and economic factors influencing education policies.

Finland, with its high levels of taxation, is in a better position to completely fund its education system, and in doing so, remove some of the sting and stigma of inequality.

Finland’s child poverty rate is approximately four per cent, while New Zealand sits at over 20 per cent. However, prior to its education reforms 40 years ago, Finland’s child poverty rate was higher. As part of the reforms, Finland introduced a wellbeing policy that ensured that every child received a free meal at school, along with free health and dental care. Sahlberg says schools have to take part of the responsibility to ensure children’s basic needs are met before we expect them to participate fully in education.

It is an all-too-familiar argument, and given the recent spectacle of empty lunchboxes, or more accurately, no lunchboxes, at many low-decile New Zealand schools, the thought of free food and health care is achingly appealing.

Sahlberg is conscience of the risk of continuing to evolve and change in order to make the system work well for the time. To draw a Finnish business parallel, he is mindful of Nokia’s complacency and inability to keep up with its competitors and is therefore keen to observe and learn from what other parts of the world are doing.

He is particularly compelled, for example, by the way Shanghai, another high-ranking educational performer in the world stakes, is addressing its lower-performing schools by building teams between high-performing and low-performing schools in the hope that the weaker schools might learn from the others.

As in many other countries, Finland’s approach to education has provoked much interest in New Zealand education circles, with many questioning whether we should be looking at taking a similar path. To do so completely would mean a major shift in political direction, away from standardised testing and other competitive measures. Yet, steps like raising the profile of teacher training through a postgraduate focus are within grasp.

In any case, watching and learning what other nations are doing – and doing well – is important, but so is considering our own unique challenges and circumstances that need to be addressed. The best path can only be taken when best practice fully meets the specific needs of the population – that is New Zealand’s real challenge.

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