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 already done so (and have several hours to spare!), I’d recommend you read Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.
Last time, I explored the systems of quality assurance in place in Finnish schools and colleges.
I noted (with a degree of delight) that there was no inspectorate in Finland and that, instead, there was a culture of trust and autonomy. Individual schools and colleges were responsible for their own quality assurance processes and could do this when and how they wanted. Although the government ranked colleges according to a set of efficiency indicators, it did not inspect, judge or report on the quality of teaching and leadership in schools, nor did it concern itself with behaviour or outcomes.
Before I move on, I think it’s worth examining some of the history behind this ‘hands off’ approach…
The evolution towards today’s system of quality improvement (as opposed to quality assurance) started back in the early 1990s when education administration was de-centralised. Until the early 1990s, quality assurance was based on norms and inspections as it is in the UK.
Today, the quality assurance of vocational education is done on the basis of common European Commission guidelines using tools such as EFQM; it is performed with the purpose of increasing comparability and transparency.
The legislation obliges individual providers to evaluate their performance and its effectiveness, participate in external evaluations as well as publicise their results. Individual education providers decide on the methods they use as well as the frequency of their quality assurance activities.
External evaluations – which are organised by an independent body under the control of the Ministry of Education – are used to provide evidence for development.
One of the quality measures against which vocational colleges are ranked is the qualification requirements of teaching staff. Far from moving to a system of unqualified teachers as we seem to be doing in the UK, Finland values highly qualified staff and incentivises schools and colleges to ensure their teachers are highly qualified and well trained. In my view, it is this ‘front end’ intervention – ensuring that the right people are in the classroom – that negates the need for ‘back end’ interventions such as regular inspections and nullifies a lot of performance management activity.
Wednesday 13 May
On my third day I was given a tour of some of my host college’s vocational learning by T, an experienced programme manager. T’s team taught, amongst other things, Business Administration, Book-Keeping, and Health and Social Care.
We visited a Business Administration class in one of the old buildings across the street where students were creating certificates, and then a Book-Keeping class on the same corridor where students were being assessed on their use of accounting software.
In both classrooms I was struck by the relaxed nature of learning: students wore baseball caps and sat in pairs around computers. In each class the teacher seemed to be acting as facilitator, moving around the room to work with small groups. It was clear that independent learning was commonplace and that it was something students had become accustomed to at an early age. It was also clear that there are few class rules. The main barrier to learning, I was told later, was not behaviour in class but getting younger students out of bed and into college. Once there, they generally worked well and respected their teachers and each other.
Teenagers will be teenagers the world over, it seems: getting out of bed is a challenge no matter the culture and language.
I saw in those classrooms – and many more besides during the course of my visit – the tangible effects of a nationwide passion for learning and love of education. Although some aspects were a disappointment (such as the outdated IT equipment, the limited use of IT, and the nascent application of online learning, not to mention the general standard of accommodation in some buildings), there was undeniably a learning culture.
As I’ve already said, education is free for all in Finland and students are entitled to a free breakfast and a free lunch every day. Learning materials – with the exception of textbooks – are also free. The state looks after its citizens, and the government and society clearly value education. Everyone is entitled to study any course free of charge at any age – one education leader I spoke to had taken four degrees. Even adult ‘hobby’ courses (those without qualifications which are undertaken to help develop a new skill or simply to pass the time – what we might call ‘learning for leisure’ in the UK) are available at a nominal charge of about E30 a semester. There are no entrance exams, either, except for courses in English language where students’ English skills are tested to make sure they can access the curriculum. So students of all abilities are entitled to study at all ages – and they do!
Of course, the Finnish way isn’t perfect. I was told, anecdotally, that although 70% of Finns loved learning, the other 30% did not hold education in such high regard because it was free and anything free cannot be of value. (You just can’t win!)
Later on Wednesday, I spent time talking to colleagues in Helsinki’s teacher training and innovations unit. I met L – the unit’s leader – and we talked about teacher training, CPD, and online learning. We had very similar ideas and values and it was heartening to see that pedagogy knew no borders and had a shared language.
I learnt that primary and upper-secondary teachers must train for between four and five years in university-based provision with work placements, the entry requirement for which is tough with only about 10% of applicants getting onto training programmes.
I also learnt that all teachers must be qualified and that if they enter the profession without a teaching qualification they must either become qualified within three years or leave the profession. There are no plans to relax these rules, unlike in the UK where teachers in academies and free schools no longer need to be qualified.
In vocational education, I learnt, teachers must have a degree and at least three years’ work experience in their chosen field (e.g. if they are going to teach on a construction course, they must have worked for three years or more in the construction industry). They must also have experience of working in a school or college as an unqualified teacher or guest lecturer. After this, they must study pedagogy (with a teaching placement) for one year in a university of applied science before becoming fully qualified to teach.
In total, there are 5 VET training centres in universities of applied science that train all of Finland’s vocational teachers. The pedagogical training they offer includes modules on the history of pedagogy, new teaching methods, how to motivate students, behaviour management, teaching students with special educational needs, subject-specific technical skills, and – latterly – online teaching methods. There are separate courses for those teachers who are training to work with students with SEND. Increasingly, teacher training is becoming evidence-based. Student teachers are being trained to offer active learning in which students apply practical skills rather than sit through lectures.
The content of teacher training courses has changed in recent years to take account of new teaching methods, particularly digital learning and new ways of motivating disaffected students. The content of teacher training has also changed to take account of the new vocational curriculum which has become more competency-based and so requires a more authentic assessment of skills.
I was told that teacher training is demanding and time-consuming and that not all trainees last the course or, if they do, pass it. Anecdotally, I was told that in 2010, of those who were accepted, around 85% of trainees passed the course. If someone doesn’t pass in the first year, however, they can extend their training by up to a year.
I was fascinated to learn that not all the trainees involved in teacher education programmes aspired to be teachers. In fact, a lot of people in industry study pedagogy with no intention of becoming a school or college lecturer. Instead, they do so in order to acquire the skills that will help them in their jobs, perhaps training colleagues or inducting new staff. Anecdotally, I was told that around 40% of trainee teachers are not in fact aspiring teachers.
In order to emulate the move towards online learning in schools and colleges – and therefore model the pedagogy it expects of its trainees – the mode of delivery on teacher training courses is becoming digital. In fact, some vocational teaching courses now only run two days of university-based training with the remaining teaching being carried out online through distance learning modules.
Rather than setting an arbitrary target for online learning (say, that 10% of all a college’s curriculum must be online), individual providers are free to decide on the most appropriate model to adopt. For example, many colleges are planning to run distance learning for core subjects such as maths and science, but blended learning approaches for vocational elements, as well as different approaches for young and adult learning.
Although I like the trusting and autonomous approach of the Finnish government and individual institutions, I wondered whether or not performance management was robust enough and whether college leaders really knew how well all their teachers were performing and, as a result, were able to take appropriate action whenever someone’s performance fell below expected standards.
I have already talked about the balanced scorecard that my host college had adopted – this gave a detailed picture of performance at subject level, the findings of which fed into departmental development plans. But this level of scrutiny didn’t extend to individual teachers. K said that performance management wasn’t very well developed or robust and that, in reality, a manager had little evidence on to base their appraisal decisions except gut instinct and hearsay in the canteen or staffroom. Of course, with high quality teacher training, the quality of teaching was already good but, without performance management systems, it was difficult for leaders to evidence a decline in performance.
I also wondered if leaders really knew which members of their teams needed additional support and whether or not they were helped to improve their performance. I didn’t take confidence from my discussions that they did. In fact, K lamented the fact that leaders weren’t really leaders of learning: rather than focusing on teaching and learning and improving pedagogy, they were managers of processes and budgets.
However, the Finnish way is to trust teachers. When a teacher doesn’t perform, rather than assuming they are unwilling or unable to work effectively, the Finnish mindset – it seems to me – is to assume that something else must have changed (e.g. tightening expectations or a lack of leadership support) and, as such, the onus is on the leaders not the teachers to do all they all can to help teachers carry out their roles more effectively.
And although there didn’t seem to be a developed, robust system of managing performance (underperformance might be identified through “something you hear over coffee” I was told), there was a strong sense of collective responsibility. Every member of a teaching team took ownership of the subject-level scorecard and so did not need an individual one. each teacher took seriously their role in helping the team to achieve its targets.
This led me onto my next question which was about the amount and quality of CPD. I had read (or perhaps had assumed) that, as well as high quality initial teacher training, CPD was taken seriously in Finland and that teachers were regularly engaged in training. I was again left a little disappointed at the level of commitment to CPD I found. CPD certainly took place and was a combination of mandatory training and voluntary support. There was also a combination of whole-college and local-level training. Some teachers, it is true, also engaged with formal education and attended university a day a week to study towards free professional qualifications. But I did not get the sense that CPD was structured or that all teachers engaged in ongoing training. Where CPD was strong, it was focused on developing teachers’ IT skills.
I should point out that the teacher training team I met were very enthusiastic, not to say knowledgeable, but they seemed to focus much of their time on training other people, teachers from local primary schools or industry for example, rather than training their own staff.
I was told that CPD was limited because time and funding were issues. Teachers were contracted only according to their teaching contact hours so it was difficult for leaders to compel teachers to engage in activities outside of their core teaching time and they relied on goodwill and enthusiasm instead. I was told that many teachers – particularly those who’d been teaching a long time – simply weren’t interested in learning new competencies and skills. I was also told that, in order to draw down funding for CPD from the National Board of Education, teachers had to be engaged in at least five full days of training and this level of commitment often put teachers off.
There was a strong feeling amongst the team that the future of CPD was to be found in developing systems of peer learning such as peer observations and review, co-construction, and lesson study.
After lunch, I was invited to speak to the teacher training team in Espoo. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself shepherded into a room in the middle of which was a long banqueting table laid with a selection of cakes and champagne flutes overflowing with fizz. I was beginning to think I had uncovered another secret to Finland’s success – that they treated their staff to fine wine and calorific cakes every lunchtime – when I was informed that one of the team had just qualified as a teacher and so we were celebrating her success with a toast.
I spoke to the team about how we evaluate the quality of teaching in my college and about how we support teachers through coaching and training. I talked about how we’d improved the quality and frequency of CPD. I also spoke about the development of online learning in my college, both in terms of developing staff’s IT skills and developing flipped and blended learning curricula.
I was then asked lots of questions by my interested audience and afforded the opportunity to ask them questions about their roles. I learnt that two of the team had worked for the Board of Education and were still heavily involved in projects run by the Board. This led me to ask how much involvement education experts had in policy-creation and decision-making. The answer was: a lot more than in the UK. Education experts sit on the Board of Education along with politicians and generally have a lot of influence. Although politicians set the direction of travel and agree the overarching budgets, it is left to those who know best to agree the detail of the curriculum and to quality assure.
I was told that Finnish teachers have a lot more professional freedom and far greater influence over decision-making at national and local level than do teachers in the UK. They decide on the teaching methods and materials they use, as well as how to assess students. Most teachers also participate in joint decision-making, drawing up local curricula.
I was also told that Finnish teachers can influence the development of education at the national level. Teachers are generally represented in the expert groups preparing education reform and new initiatives. The teachers’ trade union, which represents 95% of Finnish teachers, is also one of the most important stakeholders who contribute to the development of education and training.
We ended our meeting with promises to stay in touch and draft plans to work together on several projects. I joined in with the toast then headed back to Helsinki to reflect on another busy day.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley
Read more education articles
Browse my books on Amazon