Sirkku Nikamaa is one of our leading language tutors and is also a teaching and learning consultant and a teacher trainer. She has many years of teaching experience having worked in some of the best schools in both Belgium and Finland. She is currently based in London and runs a consultancy that builds links between best practice in education in Finland and in the UK. We met with her to learn a little bit more about the Finnish education system.

Background

In Finland, teaching is a highly competitive career. Only 8-10% of applicants are accepted onto teaching degrees and there is high appreciation of the teaching profession.

A good education system has been key to the country’s post-WWII success. Education became a political hot potato in the early 1960’s. The key question was: “Is it possible, in principle, that all children can attain similar learning goals”.  The answer, after much political wrangling was affirmative. Equality is the cornerstone of Finnish education. Equality in the Finnish context does not mean ‘uniform’ or ‘the same’. It means equal access to quality education, which is defined as equal right to an individual education, personalized learning paths and a whole education focused on problem-solving skills and life skills, instead of mindless regurgitation of facts.

School Set-Up

Day care: Age 2/3 – 7

As the name ‘day-care’ suggests the Finnish early childhood education does not have an official curriculum. Children are not taught letters or numbers, unless an individual shows specific interest in learning to read and write. The emphasis is on interaction and play through which children learn about themselves and others. The goal is to support the children’s balanced growth, development and learning.

They learn the importance of building relationships and develop social, leadership and interpersonal skills. Learning happens through play, discovery and in interaction with others. Laying a good foundation for self-knowledge and social skills is considered to prevent struggles later in academic life when the lack of such skills might detract from learning.

Pre-school: Age 6-7, Grade 0

The 0-class or pre-school is an introduction to more structured learning. Most pre-schools introduce letters and numbers through play. Main focus is on thinking skills and problem solving. Teaching and learning is differentiated as some children might already be fairly confident readers. However, it is not compulsory to send your children to pre-school.

Primary School: Age 7-13, Grades 1-6

Unlike the UK, children in Finland go to their local school; hence there is a real sense of community amongst students, parents and teachers. Many children will walk or cycle to school from the age of seven. There is no competition between students to be accepted, and there is no difference between having a private or state education. In total there are 2800 schools that give children a good education (grades 1-9) in Finland. 75 of them are nominally ‘private’, but not in the sense parents in Britain would assume. For historical reasons these 75 schools have a board, but it has very little influence on the running of the school. They mostly resemble a PTA and are similar in their function. Thus, they will hold events and fundraisers. There are no real differences and students will not know they attend a ‘private’ school.

The Finnish National Board of Education sets the National Core Curriculum, which defines the broad objectives for education. The system is based upon the promotion of progressive values to create divergent and innovative learners who are curious, creative, open-minded and respectful.

Lower Secondary: Age 13-16, Grades 7, 8, 9

In comparison to the UK education system the Finnish system is not test heavy. Children are not taught to memorise pieces of information and at no stage will children sit formal or national exams. ‘What you learn without joy, you forget without grief’ is an old Finnish saying.

The Board of Education funds research projects and a large number of development programmes.  Some of the development includes cooperation with enterprises and companies to develop open source educational tools, games and learning materials.

There are several initiatives that are partly publicly funded, this ensures that the results of development and research can be made available for all schools. Schools are also an important link in the process. New technologies are piloted and perfected in collaboration with and sometimes by students in real classrooms. Children often find this type of learning very interesting. Students are also encouraged to develop and design their own learning games. Content learning is often a by-product of an otherwise engaging and instructive process.

Streaming and remedial teaching

Unlike in the UK, Finnish children are never separated into academic tiers. Streaming, in fact, is illegal. Teachers are well trained to teach mixed ability groups, to differentiate and create individual learning paths. Emphasis is on early intervention in case there are worrying signs and resources for remedial teaching are made available. Schools and municipalities also provide psychological and social support as needed by the students.

This student-centered model makes it possible for students to set goals and to achieve them in cooperation with teachers and parents. Extra resources are available for the fast learners and a support network is available for those who need it to meet their goals. It is a system that trusts its schools and its teachers. In other words, the absence of high pressure testing and lack of competition between schools enables an education that has a human face and a human pace. The teachers can focus on bringing out the best in each individual student, instead of wasting time on documentation, detailed planning and worrying about national tests, performance related pay or league tables.

When children leave school and complete their compulsory education after 9th grade at the age of 16, they receive a final report card. This report card is necessary when they apply to secondary education. It represents a measure of the student’s academic achievement. However, the most important objective for basic education is to support the student’s growth and learning in ways that she or he grows up to be a person who is creative, persistent, capable of positive interaction and who is open to change. A safe community for learning will equip them with good self-image and self-knowledge and provides support and guidance for them to assume responsibility for their lives and studies going forward.

Secondary education

Compulsory education ends after 9th grade at age 16. However, extremely few students choose not to go on to secondary education at this stage. Most students choose a 3- year high school, while approximately 40 % choose vocational education that offers a wide range of qualifications from auto-mechanics and plumbing to media production, IT, games design etc. There are no dead-ends in the Finnish education system. The well-rounded, comprehensive and challenging vocational education keeps the doors open for tertiary education i.e. realistic chance to apply to university or to schools for applied sciences. That makes vocational education attractive and the entry quite competitive.

High School: Age 16-18, Grades 1-3

Entry to high school is based on the grade point average of the final report card from 9thgrade. Some high schools offer specialisms like sports, performing arts or music e.g. Sibelius high school in Helsinki. Schools with specialisms conduct their own entrance exams.

In high school students study either the regular Finnish curriculum or the International Baccalaureate. Students who complete the Finnish curriculum will sit a national exam, the Finnish Matriculation Examination, in their final year, at the age of 18. The IB students take part in the international IB exams.

Tertiary education

Universities and schools for applied sciences organize their own entrance exams. Even tertiary education is free of charge.

Summary

Occasional random testing done by the National Board of Education shows little variance between schools nationally. However, unlike the UK this testing is only for internal purposes and school performance will never be made public. There are no ranking lists. Parents do not have to worry about league tables as there are none in basic education.

The only results that are published are the results of the High School Matriculation Examination. These results do not tend to affect the school choice a great deal as the quality of education is quite even. More important factors are the distance to school and of course, the student’s own motivation. Besides, comparing schools can be misleading. Schools that accept students with lower grade point average and achieve good results overall are the real winners.

If there is one overarching word to describe the Finnish School system it is trust. Everyone from the ministers to the board of education, to teachers, to parents, to students trusts each other.

Additional Points – Maternity/Paternity leave

Parents can choose who takes the time off work. The length of time they are allowed to take off work is also longer than here in the UK. Maternity leave is a year and mum’s can opt for an additional two years of parental leave. This can also be extended if they have a second child. Generally parents will choose a lighter workload, when their children are young. This means more parental support and interaction in the early stages of development, which is beneficial for language development and it lays a good foundation for cognitive and social development. Again, the emphasis at this young age is on social skills and interpersonal relationships, rather than academics.