Lessons from Finland – Part One

On Sunday 10 May I flew to Finland for a week of fact-finding.  My mission: to learn from Finnish education leaders and teachers what it means to run a world-class education system.  Over the course of several articles, I will recount my experiences and share my findings…
These articles are written in the form of diary entries based on the scribbled notes I made during various meetings with colleagues.  Any errors and inaccuracies are entirely my own.  I’d like to thank all the colleagues I met for their generosity and kindness.  They made me feel most welcome in their country and selflessly gave me their time and expertise.  I have chosen not to name these colleagues because I do not want to attribute opinions to them which they may not wish to be in the public domain.  They were disarmingly honest and yet utterly professional at all times.


Sunday 10 May

I left the house late because my youngest daughter wouldn’t stop hugging me. Or perhaps I wouldn’t stop hugging her.

I don’t like being away from home. The last time I spent so much time apart from my family was a year ago for a week-long Ofsted inspection. All our executive team holed up in a hotel next to our college. It was a bit like Big Brother: “Day four in the Ofsted base room and the Group Director is arguing with an inspector about matters of pedagogy.”

But I made an exception this time and agreed to a week away. You see, I’ve been keen to visit Finland ever since they topped the PISA hit parade back in 2000.

Over the last few years, it seems, we’ve all looked to Finland for some answers. The trouble is, we’ve all asked different questions.

When he was Education Secretary, Michael Gove asked Finland a question about structures and, unsurprisingly, found his answer in the way the country organised its education system. The Finnish example, he said, “clearly show[s] that the greater the amount of autonomy at school level, the greater the potential there [is] for all-round improvement and the greater the opportunity too for the system to move from good to great.” Which is why, he said, he wanted to reduce “prescription and [take] action to shed all unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on schools.” Wanted to but failed. Rather than reducing prescription, he increased it; rather than creating autonomous schools, he centralised power and dictated not just the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ of school curricula.

So Gove took from Finland the need to increase parental choice by creating free schools – a way, he said, to “tackle ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ which continues to blight the life chances of many children from deprived backgrounds”.

Gove asked Finland another question – this time about accountability – and found his answer in the way the country used data: “Great education systems [like Finland’s],” he said, are “so successful [because] they use data to make schools accountable and drive improvement. Data allows us to identify the best so we can emulate it, and diagnose weaknesses so we can intervene before it’s too late.”

“Because we want to limit the extent to which accountability mechanisms are ‘gamed’,” Gove argued, “[the government] will ensure much more information is put into the public domain” which will mean the creation of “new performance tables…which draw attention to particular areas of strength in our school system…including a new measure, the English Baccalaureate.”

So Gove also took from Finland the need to introduce new curricula and qualifications, and a new method of measuring and ranking schools.

Ultimately, he drew the conclusion that, in order to emulate Finland’s success, England needed “whole-system reform…to every aspect of our education system [in order] to build a truly world-class education system”.

As I say, we’ve all looked to Finland for some answers but we’ve all asked different questions…

Like Gove, I asked Finland the questions I knew would give me the answers I most wanted to hear. But unlike Gove I focused less on systems and structures and searched instead for a new model of teacher training and professional development.

I found in Finland evidence that students tend to do well in an education system where teachers are well-respected and highly trained. Students also do well in an education system where schools and colleges are autonomous, not hamstrung by governments and their bean-counting proxies.

In Finland, I learnt from the literature, teachers were on a par with doctors and lawyers for both status and salary and, as such, the profession was able to attract highly-motivated, well-educated people. Initial teacher training was lengthy and tough, and only the best trainees made it through to the classroom. Once there, continued professional development was taken seriously.

In Finland, I learnt, there was no equivalent of Ofsted. Schools and colleges were autonomous and quality assured themselves; a system of inspection had given way to one of self-assessment and feedback, to developmental processes of peer review and support.

We asked our questions and took away the answers that most closely matched our preconceived expectations and desires. It was a classic case of confirmation bias. But were we all misled or mistaken?

Readfigure02In April 2015, Tim Oates wrote a paper for Cambridge Assessment called ‘Finnish Fairy Tales’ in which he attempted to set the record straight. Oates pointed out that, since Finland had topped the PISA charts in the year 2000 based on tests taken by students who were, at that time, 15-year-olds, we were unlikely to find the secret of Finland’s success by analysing the system as it operated in 2000. At best, the year 2000 would give us a snapshot of the finished (or Finnish) product, not the means by which it reached that conclusion. Nor would 2000 allow us to compare the finished product with what went before.

Instead, we’d need to go back in time and analyse the education system these 15-year-olds had journeyed through. Since it was also unlikely that 1985 – the year the successful students were born – would have been the very same year the Finnish school system became effective, we would need to look back at what was happening in the 1970s, ’80s, and 90s in order to get a real flavour of what Finland had done in order to become world-class.

In short, we’d need to conduct a longitudinal rather than cross-sectional study in order to uncover the real secret of Finland’s success.

And Oates and his colleagues did just that and – in the 70s, 80s and 90s – found a period of genuine improvement in educational outcomes and a determined set of reforms to schooling. During this time of sustained improvement, “the system was very different; policy formation was distinctive, the way in which this policy was implemented was distinctive – and very different from the way things were in 2000”.

Having analysed this period of sustained improvement, Oates then set about using the evidence he’d uncovered to dismantle some of the myths people like me and Gove had perpetuated when looking to Finland for our answers.

Firstly, he tackled the commonly-held assumption that Finland had succeeded because it had no inspection system.

“It is indeed the case,” he said, “that Finland currently does not have [an] Ofsted-style inspection. But in the 1970s, during its period of transition to fully-comprehensive education, the system had highly centralised inspection and testing arrangements. The tests were administered by a university unit on behalf of the National Board of Education, on a sample basis across all grades, not just at key points of transition. These were perceived very much as an external check on attainment.”

Moreover, although Finland does not currently have an Ofsted-style inspection, it is entirely wrong – so said Oates – to assert that Finnish education is not evaluated. In place of Ofsted, local authorities and the Finnish National Board of Education “carry the obligation to evaluate educational outcomes and efficiency [and] the National Board of Education very much maintains the role of ‘external evaluator’, requiring constant submission of data, allowing evaluation of quality at school level as well as municipality level”.

Readfigure02Secondly, Oates tackled the belief that schools were autonomous:

“It’s true that the central, top level statement of the Finnish National Curriculum is a very general document,” he said. However, a little history is again important. Finland has a 120-year history of structured educational reform, using centrally-specified curriculum requirements. Far from a history of autonomy, he said, “there is a culture of negotiated social agreement about the aims and form of education”.

In 2000, the Finnish state “exercised a form of control that would cause outrage in England”. For example, it “specified how much teaching time should be allocated to specific subjects” and, in the period of rapid improvement, “used state-controlled textbooks to encourage and regulate movement to a fully comprehensive system”. The approved textbooks continued to be used in schools and continued to condition pedagogy during the period in which the ‘children of PISA 2000’ were educated.

Also, Oates argued, we cannot conclude that the Finnish education system has high autonomy simply by looking at the National Curriculum because a national curriculum is only one form of restriction. Teacher training, Oates argued, has long been recognised as another form of conditioning education and in Finland only 10% of applicants are accepted for teacher training and these are selected on the basis of capability in “developing – through the five to six years of research-intensive initial teacher training – high expertise in specialist subjects and in teaching approaches”.

In Finland, ‘restriction’ (by which we mean ensuring that some things are done and other things are not) is secured “not by applying inspection and accountability on minimally trained practising teachers (back-end restriction), but by ensuring convergence on high quality practice in the first place (front-end restriction).”

Using a motoring metaphor, Oates argued that you don’t need speed cameras and active traffic police if everyone is trained never to break the speed limit. In short, he said, look for restriction in the right places, and you’ll find it.

Thirdly, Oates tackled the belief (my belief) that teachers were more highly respected and better paid in Finland than in England.

“It certainly is the case that the teaching profession is highly respected in Finland, but this is not the result of excessively high pay,” he said. Rather, “respect for teaching comes from a complex set of cultural factors, including the vanguard role of teachers in resistance to the Russian occupation of Finland, with teachers refusing to teach Russian language in schools”.

He went on to say that “it is certainly the case that teacher working conditions are different – with teaching hours below the OECD average – [but] pay is a different matter…” When above average pay is moderated by the high cost of living in Finland, the country ranks well below England and has “the same order of difference between teaching and other professions”.

And finally Oates tackled the assumption that Finland was a model of good practice for the rest of the world.

“Even the Finns get very uneasy about this,” Oates said. However, Finns “talk constantly of the need for social consensus about education, about the value of education, of respect for educators”. In the late 1960s the Finns recognised the need to enhance human capital and did something about it, through common and systemic education reform, driven and monitored from the centre.

However, standards these days are not on the way up. In his paper, Oates quoted an unpublished study by Gabriel Sahlgren that showed that even in 2000 Finland was on a downwards trajectory. If we compare PISA – which looks at very specific skills and knowledge – with TIMSS – which takes a more curriculum-focused look at maths and science – we’ll see a different story – one of worrying decline.

Oates concluded that there were some fascinating insights to be gained by looking at Finland. But the greatest insights came from looking, with sensitivity, at history and a wide range of evidence. And the greater insights were concerned with system change. The primary source of Finland’s success was its move to fully comprehensive education in a feat of what Oates called “outstanding social consensus, policy formation and meticulous, centralised implementation strategy”.

So I ask again: were we all mistaken or misled by the Finnish example? Is there any truth in Gove’s belief that school structures and accountability systems are the way to improve outcomes for students? Is there any truth in my belief that improving the quality of teachers is the better solution? Or is Oates right that the real reason for Finland’s success is a move towards comprehensive education and a social consensus around what education is? What is the real secret of Finland’s PISA success? And is Finland – fifteen years after topping the international league tables – still a country to look up to as a shining beacon of world-class education?

I flew out to Finland to find out for myself…



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8 responses to “Lessons from Finland – Part One

  1. Pingback: What makes a great teacher? (Part Two) | M J Bromley's Blog·

  2. Pingback: Lessons from Finland – Part Two | M J Bromley's Blog·

  3. Pingback: Lessons from Finland – Part Three | M J Bromley's Blog·

  4. Pingback: Lessons from Finland – Part Four | M J Bromley's Blog·

  5. Pingback: Lessons from Finland – Part Five | M J Bromley's Blog·

  6. Pingback: Lessons from Finland – Part Six | M J Bromley's Blog·

  7. Pingback: Lessons from Finland – Part Seven | M J Bromley's Blog·

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