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.
If you haven’t read Part One, you can do so here.
Sunday 10 May (cont’d)
I’m in a perpetual state of wonder about modern technology, despite being what you might call ‘an early adopter’. When I say ‘state of wonder’, what I probably mean is ‘state of wonder-ing if it’s going to work’. Maybe my doubt stems from my teaching days when I quickly learnt to expect technology to fail me in the classroom and always planned a contingency.
And so it was with the various technological means by which I would make my way to Finland.
For example, I checked in online and, rather than printing a boarding pass, downloaded one onto my mobile phone which automatically stowed itself in my ‘passbook’ app (apparently I have a ‘passbook’ app). It contained a QR code (about which I am also in wonder) which could be scanned at passport control to wave me through to the departure gate.
I booked my airport parking online, too, and was assured by email that the car park would automatically recognise my car when I arrived at the barrier and would grant me access without me having to do so much as wind my window down. If, in the unlikely event it didn’t welcome me with open arms like an old school friend, I was given another QR code to download to my phone which I could scan into a machine. (I sometimes wish people had QR codes for faces. It would help me recognise them and I could download their bio to help me start conversation. Left to my own devices, I am useless at remembering faces. And names. And why I walked into rooms.)
So technically, thanks to technology, I didn’t need to take anything with me to the airport except my intelligence. And passport. And suitcase. But, being of a naturally suspicious disposition, I printed everything out just in case. I should point out to the environmentalists amongst you that I don’t ordinarily do this – in fact, I am leading the way in my organisation as a paperless sort of person, my life – like rain and celebrity selfies – is stored in the cloud. I spend whole meetings making colleagues feel anachronistic for scribbling on bits of old tree like troglodytes. But foreign travel is different. It always pays to be safe, I find. And the carbon footprint of an international flight surely renders somewhat inconsequential a few sheets of foolscap.
I left the house in earnest at 7 on a grey Sunday morning and headed west along the M62, bound for Manchester Airport, arriving in good time. The car park did indeed grant me automatic access by reading my number plate. Machines are starting to rule the world, you know.
Excepting a small panic when I discovered my flight wasn’t listed on the departures board (I still don’t know why), my journey through check-in and customs was smooth and stress-free and I even had time for a quick coffee whilst I skimmed the morning news before heading to the departure gate.
The plane was small (I expected to see someone spinning a propeller on the nose) and yet was still half empty. Where are all the education tourists these days? That’s budget cuts for you.
In the week leading up to departure, I was bombarded by emails from Finnair imploring me to upgrade to Business Class. Public funds (my trip was paid for by the EU) can’t be used for this and my inner-Yorkshireman wouldn’t allow me to pay for the luxury out of my own pocket. In the event, my decision to stick with cattle class seemed more like good planning than thrift: the only thing separating the plebs from the toffs was a net curtain; the only advantage to be gained on the other side of that fabric class divide was a blanket and I have no need of such frivolous ornamentation.
The flight felt shorter than its two and a half hours and the landing was relatively smooth for a small plane (smoother, at any rate, than the landing I’d endured on my return from Dublin a few weeks earlier, after which I’d been tempted to get out and kiss the tarmac – that tumultuous tumble towards terra firma had rivalled a rotting wooden roller-coaster for its ‘will we or won’t we die’ kind of thrill).
Passport checked and baggage reclaimed, I headed for the bus station and, from there, to the railway station in downtown Helsinki.
I know it’s a cliche but Finland – or at least the bit I saw from the bus’s window – looked clean and green and clinical, just what I’d expected.
I lugged my case from the train station to my hotel (a sort of low-rent Finnish Travelodge – that’s what you get for protecting the public purse). The staff were extremely welcoming and polite. My room was functional and the bathroom was the first bit of Finland I’d seen that betrayed the national stereotype, being neither clean nor clinical (although the gaps between the tiles were green).
I’d lost two hours due to the time difference and so the day was almost over by the time I’d unpacked and freshened up. But I took a brisk stroll around town and grabbed something to eat before returning to the hotel to catch up on some work.
Monday 11 May
After a light breakfast at the hotel, I was collected from reception by S, an unfalteringly polite administrator based at the international office of a large vocational college in nearby Espoo, who was to be my guide for the day.
We walked to the station and took the train east to Espoo, Finland’s second city. As someone who spends about five hours a day on the train shuttling back and forth between the north of England and the midlands, I was immediately impressed by the quality of the Finnish rail system. It was, as you might expect, efficient, clean, and well-run, a world away from the graffitied rust-buckets that carve a path through the Pennines back home.
The journey took half an hour during which time I quizzed S on Finnish politics (I sure know how to win friends and influence people). I learnt that, like us, the Finns had recently gone to the polls. In April, Juha Sipilä of the Centre party won 49 seats with 21% of the vote – the biggest share of the vote but not an overall majority – and was tasked with forming a new coalition. In early May he announced that he’d form a right-leaning coalition consisting of the three largest parties – the Centre Party, the Finns Party and the National Coalition Party. Unlike in the previous parliament, this time there were no liberal or left-wing parties (such as the Greens) to add balance and moderation to the coalition. Sounds familiar. I could tell S was nervous about the future of her country under a conservative administration that placed the church at the centre of its mission.
I also sensed there were tensions in the country about increasing levels of immigration, with the majority of immigrants coming from Estonia, Russia and Africa. Much of Finland was unaccustomed to immigrants and didn’t know quite how to respond. I didn’t detect xenophobia, just a disquiet about the economic effects of immigration and the impact it would have on education.
I learnt that Finland had also suffered an economic crisis and that unemployment had risen. However, the country continued to be a model to others of how to run a welfare state. High taxes (up to 60% for those on the highest salaries) paid for free health care and education for all, and new mothers were entitled to three years of maternity and then guaranteed their old jobs back.
We arrived at Espoo station and took a ten minute walk to the college’s main campus, an impressive new building which also housed an innovation centre for entrepreneurial activity.
My host for the day was a vocational college which served 40,000 students, of which a quarter were full-time students aged between 16 and 19 on three-year programmes which would lead them to a university, a university of applied science (think polytechnic), or into employment. The college is owned by three towns and the education it provides is paid for by the state. The college employs 800 staff of which 600 are teachers. It is prestigious and the education institution of choice for a majority of the young people in the area. Indeed, I learnt that vocational colleges were becoming more popular than upper-secondary schools which provided traditional, academic qualifications akin to A Levels. More on this later…
After coffee and pleasant conversation, S gave me a presentation on the college and the Finnish education system.
I learnt that there are four levels of decision-making in Finnish education. On the first level are the Parliament of Finland, the Ministry of Education, and the National Board of Education. On the second level are the provinces. On the third are the Federations of Municipalities. On the fourth are individual educational institutions (schools, colleges and universities).
Parliament votes on legislation based on government policies and agrees the budgets; the Ministry of Education agrees educational policies and development plans, sets regulation and financing, and agrees lists of qualifications. The National Board of Education writes the core curriculum and skills requirements, sets learning outcomes, and provides services to schools. Individual providers are responsible for maintaining their own schools and colleges, planning and organising qualifications delivery, and in the case of vocational colleges creating local links with workplaces and advisory groups.
In Finland, there is no requirement for children to be in education until they are six years old. At 6, children have a year of pre-primary education, akin to Reception. At age 7, children enter basic schooling and must remain in education for 9 years up to the age of sixteen. At 16, compulsory education ends and there are currently no plans to widen participation like in the UK.
At 16, young people have a choice. They can enter the world of employment, go to an upper-secondary school to study towards matriculation exams (like A Levels), go to a vocational college to study vocational qualifications or undertake an apprenticeship, each with an element of work experience, or do nothing. If they do nothing, they will be encouraged to join a student workshop which lasts for six months (run by vocational colleges) and helps young people to develop transferable skills and decide on the most appropriate path to take next.
Actually, there’s another option. Some basic schools (9 classes, to age 16) offer students a tenth year if they cannot find a place at an upper-secondary or vocational college or haven’t achieved highly enough.
After completing three years in an upper-secondary school or vocational college, students can go to university to study a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and then a PhD, or they can go to a university of applied sciences to study a vocational bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.
There is no stigma attached to vocational education in Finland and vocational qualifications have equal status with academic ones. In fact, vocational education is proving more popular than the academic route, I’m told, because it offers a quicker route into paid employment (important during the current financial crisis) and the vocational colleges are more modern institutions with better resources.
Another reason why vocational education has equal – if not higher – status is that there is free movement between all the different education routes I describe above. Students can leave vocational college to go to upper-secondary and vice versa, they can leave vocational college and go to a university or a polytechnic. Students can move up and down and sideways whenever they want to. Indeed, some students, I am told, go from a university to a vocational college.
One reason for this free movement, it seems to me, is that education is free for all – no matter a person’s age or background or their experience of and achievement in prior study. Everyone is entitled to learn and can do so at any time. Education and learning is highly regarded by society and people of all ages are keen to develop new skills and knowledge. Therefore, all doors remain open at all times: there are no wrong turns or cul de sacs.
Education is funded per student from state and municipal budgets and is partly performance based. Vocational colleges are measured based on the number of students that go on to employment and sustain a job for more than six months. This is the ultimate goal although a slightly smaller financial incentive exists for students progressing onto a higher level of study or going to university.
Education has become increasingly decentralised and deregulated since the 1990s and has moved from a system of inspection towards one of evaluation and feedback.
In vocational colleges, courses last for an average of three years and currently carry 120 credits which is the entry requirement for university (this is changing in September 2015, of which more later). 1 credit equates to 40 hours of work. Of the 120 credits, 20 are for core units such as mother tongue, a foreign language (usually English and/or Swedish), maths, and the sciences. 10 credits are for free choice units. Of the remaining 90 credits which make up a vocational course, at least 20 must be derived from on-the-job training.
Qualifications contain three elements: knowledge, skills, and competences. Learning outcomes are divided into four areas: mastering work processes; mastering tasks, equipment and materials; mastering knowledge; and key competencies (which are common to all types of qualification). Assessments are made against detailed criteria under each of these four learning outcomes based on a three-point scale: satisfactory (3), good (2) and excellent (1). Assessments are practical and there are no final exams on most courses. Often, assessments can take multiple forms such as video, demonstration, a written report, or a piece of artwork/construction.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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