Lessons from Finland – Part Three

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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.

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If you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend you read Parts One and Two.

Monday 10 May (cont’d)

At about the same time as I got to grips with the qualifications on offer in Finland, I discovered they were changing. The National Board of Education had decreed that Finnish vocational qualifications would fall in line with the European Commission’s model (ECVET) which meant full-time qualifications would carry 180 credits rather than 120 and students would follow ‘pathways’ which would offer more personalisation and allow for the greater integration of ‘core’ subjects in vocational teaching.

Consultations on this new set of qualifications began in the autumn of 2013 and work on designing the qualifications began in the spring of 2014. First teaching will be in September 2015. However, I sensed from various colleagues that these reforms were being done to them rather than with them or by them, and many euphemistically described the short lead-in time as ‘challenging’.

Under the new qualifications framework, greater personalisation will be achieved by taking into account each student’s prior learning and qualifications. From September 2015, all qualifications will include credits for the vocational elements of the course, as well as credits for core subjects such as mother tongue, maths, foreign languages (English), PE, and entrepreneurial skills. There will also be credits for free choice modules.

Vocational qualifications will continue to fall into the following ‘training sectors’: culture; natural sciences; tourism, catering, domestic services; social services, health and sports; technology, communications and transport; and social sciences, business, and administration.

The detailed curriculum that underpins these new qualifications will be designed by individual schools and colleges, with the involvement of people from working life and representatives from the Finnish National Board of Education. The National Board will continue to determine the learning outcomes for each course.

In terms of assessment, the new qualifications will continue to make use of the same assessment criteria as the old ones, namely: satisfactory (3), good (2) and excellent (1).

Assessments will also continue to be made against students’ ability to master:

1. Work processes;

2. Work methods, equipment and materials;

3. Knowledge; and

4. Key competences (which are common to all qualifications).

But, in the future, students will be assessed separately on their knowledge (as acquired from the curriculum), their skills (as developed through work experience), and their competences (as mastered through the personalisation programme and all elements of their pathway).

Alongside these changes to vocational qualifications, the Finnish National Board of Education is developing National Qualification Framework Levels. There are 8 levels including Level 2 which equates to basic education (that achieved at the end of 9 classes, aged 16), Level 4 which equates to those qualifications achieved at the end of upper-secondary school or vocational college (think A Levels and BTECs), Level 5 which equates to specialist vocational qualifications, Level 6 which equates to Bachelor’s level qualifications achieved at the end of university or university of applied sciences, Level 7 which equates to Master’s level degrees and Level 8 which represents post-graduate qualifications including doctorates.

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The other main changes to vocational qualifications from September 2015 are as follows:

– Courses will carry 180 credits (as opposed to the current 120) including 135 credits for professional learning, 35 credits for general learning, and 10 credits for optional learning. At the moment, each credit equates to 40 hours of study of which 28 hours must be taught. From September, there will be no time specification. Students can complete qualifications sooner if they meet the criteria.

– The purpose of the reforms is to shift the power from the teacher to the student, putting students in the driving seat, and as such each student will receive a personalised study plan. In effect, they will be able to design their own programme of study.

– Learning paths for all students will include an ‘activity’ learning path (e.g. being a member of the student council), a ‘capable professional’ learning path (e.g. participating in skills competitions), an ‘international’ learning path (e.g. taking part in an internship abroad), a ‘culture’ learning path (e.g. partaking in an arts competition), an ‘upper secondary school’ path (e.g. studying towards matriculation exams in four subjects – Swedish, maths, mother tongue, science – to help students prepare for university), a ‘sports’ learning path (e.g. taking part in an ice hockey competition), and an ‘entrepreneurship’ learning path (e.g. working on a new business programme, making and selling products).

– The pathways will also allow for the greater integration of ‘core’ subjects such as Finnish, English, Swedish, and maths in vocational lessons. In practice, a maths teacher will teach alongside a vocational teacher in the same classroom. The college leaders I spoke to were concerned about the financial implications of this ‘double-staffing’.

– Each course will have an element of work placement. On-the-job training must run for a minimum of 25 weeks but can run for as many as 40 weeks of a 3-year programme. The college I visited is also planning to introduce a week-long orientation week during which students will learn how to learn and develop transferable skills such as team work and time management.

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As I’ve already mentioned, the vocational route is becoming ever more prestigious in Finland with more students choosing this option over traditional upper-secondary school (55% according to one source I spoke to). I can only see this trend continuing when the new qualifications are introduced because – as part of the personalised pathways – students will be able to follow the upper-secondary route alongside their vocational course. Although it will mean students studying a four not three year programme, they will leave college at age 20 with a well-rounded set of qualifications that will open the doors to universities, as well as universities of applied science, and employment.

It is true that the older generation still regard the upper-secondary ‘white hat’ route as being favourable because it means you are eligible for university. However, young people do not share this view and instead see vocational education as being more modern and relevant to real life.

Indeed, one Finnish colleague told me that a majority of students now select a vocational route – she put the figure at about 55% – because students can learn applied skills as well as learning the theoretical, academic side. Vocational learning, she told me, puts subject content into context – it makes knowledge relevant to the workplace.

Alongside this increasing demand for and respect of vocational education – or perhaps one reason for it – is the fact that the quality of vocational teaching is improving. I was told that there used to be a difference in the quality of trainee teachers in academic versus vocational fields, but new VET teachers are now more eager than academic ones to use new teaching methods and so their lessons are regarded by young people as being more interesting and engaging, and more relevant to the real world. The quality of resources is better in vocational colleges than in upper-secondary schools, and their equipment is more modern.

Now that the government is encouraging more students to follow the vocational route, the numbers doing so will only increase. One reason for this shift in government thinking, it seems to me, is the country’s economic situation. Vocational education represents the quickest route into paid employment and the country needs to increase employment levels. Similarly, adult education is more highly regarded by the government in Finland than here in the UK because – I think – they recognise that at a time of economic hardship new competences and new jobs must be created. Older people need to re-train in order to become employed again and adult vocational education is the means of doing this. By contrast, the UK government, with its 24% cut to the adult skills budget (if it’s not an apprenticeship, it’s not protected), are in danger of widening the skills gap at a time when many adults need to retrain.

So far I’ve shared my learning about the Finnish education system, and about the Finnish curriculum and qualifications. In my next few dispatches from Finland I will discuss quality assurance and inspection, and teacher training and professional development…

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

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4 responses to “Lessons from Finland – Part Three

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

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

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

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

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