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Why Finland Is Tops in Education

Publication Date: 2005-03-21

Notice the emphasis on pedagogical philosophy and practice. Our policy makers think that the solution is in a box of (scripted) materials.

Mar 21, 2005
Times Colonist (Victoria)

The Finnish comprehensive school is not only a system. It is also a matter of pedagogical philosophy and practice. An essential part of this philosophy is the principle of equity, on which Finnish education policy has been largely premised.

Efforts have accordingly been made to provide all population groups and regions of the country with equal educational opportunities. The findings of PISA (the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment) show that Finnish comprehensive schools have built up key competencies which are both high quality and also of high equality.

One of the most interesting findings of PISA, therefore, is the one indicating that in Finland the gap between high and low performers is relatively narrow. It is most encouraging that high quality and high equality of educational outcomes can go together -- so it is not either/or, it can be both/and....

Until the end of the 1980s the school system was steered with traditional methods. There was a comprehensive national core curriculum in primary and secondary education. Textbooks were approved by central administration. The teaching process and its contents, the targets and the volumes were centrally determined. The traditional inspection system was still operational.

A profound change in curricular philosophy and practice, however, took place in the early 1990s. The national curriculum underwent reorganization, whereby it became more flexible, decentralized and less detailed. The curriculum gave more freedom to students, because they have more lessons for optional subjects. There is a lot of free space around the teacher and the pupil and their interactive work.

Today, the national curricula only give the general framework for teaching.
Within this framework schools and local authorities then form their own curricular regulations that are sensitive to the local context. The schools can develop individual profiles by focusing on some area, such as languages, mathematics, sciences, sports, music and arts. Teachers choose their own teaching methods.

The decision of using financial resources belongs to local decision-makers.
There is nowadays no school inspectorate in Finland. The national textbook approval system was abolished in 1993. Finnish teachers are vested with a considerable degree of decision-making authority concerning school policy and management.

The findings of PISA reveal that they have more influence than their colleagues in the OECD in determining course content, establishing student assessment policies, deciding which courses the school should offer and allocating budgets within the school. Teachers have almost exclusive responsibility for the choice of textbooks.

As a rule, in PISA testing, countries with greater degrees of school autonomy, including Finland, attained higher average levels of student performance than those with lower levels of school autonomy. A high degree of school and teacher autonomy in decision-making may thus be assumed to have been one decisive factor contributing to Finland's high performance in PISA.

In Finnish culture, the profession of teacher has been seen as one of the most important professions of society. Teachers have been trusted to do their best as true professionals of education. Teachers carry out assessment in their respective subjects on the basis of objectives written into the curriculum.

In Finland, the role of teacher-based assessment is all the more important because at Finnish comprehensive schools students are not assessed by any national tests or examinations upon completing school or during the school years. Finnish education authorities do not like any ranking list of schools although the mass media is interested in these lists.

Since 1998 National Board of Education has conducted national evaluation projects. The most important motive for the development of evaluation is to support educational equality with a new kind of administrative organization.

After the powers of decision have been delegated to the local level, evaluation is a significant tool for the steering on education. The evaluation of educational outcomes is also a tool for quality assurance....

The development of the Finnish comprehensive school has been underpinned by an exceptionally broad cultural and political consensus about the main lines of national education policy. In Finnish culture, grave political conflicts and sudden changes in educational thinking have been relatively rare.
Education has seldom been a subject of major political or social controversies in Finland after the comprehensive school reform in 1970s.

A very important factor for the implementation of educational policy is the fact that school authorities and the Teachers' Union have good co-operation.

The Teachers' Union is quite influential as well as the Association of Headmasters. Teachers and headmasters belong to same union. Teachers'
organizations are always represented in committees and their experts have important roles in the preparation of new laws and other rules.

Professor Jukka Sarjala is former director-general of the National Board of Education of Finland. These are excerpts from an address he will give today to the annual general meeting of the B.C. Teachers' Federation in Victoria.


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