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, Five and Six.
Thursday 14 May
On my last day of talks in Finland, much of my time was focused once again on the subject of teacher training…
I’d already discovered that teacher education in Finland is run by universities and – unlike in the UK where ITT provision has, by and large, moved away from higher education institutions towards school-based programmes such as Schools Direct – in Finland there are currently no plans to divorce teacher training from universities.
The primary function of teacher training in Finland is to equip new teachers with the skills they need to act independently as professionals. The objective of teacher education is to provide trainees with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to guide the learning of different students and the capabilities they’ll need to develop their field of teaching, taking into account developments in the world of work.
All teacher education provision in Finland involves pedagogical studies and guided teaching practice. Guided teaching practice involves teaching lessons, running tutorials, and performing the tasks that commonly arise in the everyday life of schools and colleges.
The aim is for trainee teachers to become, by the time they qualify, independent, responsible teachers; the aim is also for trainees to learn the art of self-development, to become increasingly proficient in their own subject, and to learn how to develop in co-operation with other members of the profession.
Teacher training in Finland is constantly evolving. At the moment, the focus, or so it seems to me, is on developing the content of teacher education to make sure it includes more coverage of the teaching and guidance that’s given to students who require a greater level of support, as well as developing learning environments through the utilisation of ICT. Teacher education is also focusing more and more on issues related to teaching in a multicultural society (presumably to reflect increasing levels of immigration) and working collaboratively with other schools, students’ families and workplaces.
In Finland, teachers have many professional freedoms and are afforded opportunities to have an impact on how they work as well as on the development of their professional community. For example, teachers have the power to decide which teaching methods and learning materials to use. As I have already explained, the Finnish system is predicated on having trust in teachers and having trust in the effectiveness of teacher education.
Although – as I’ve already said – CPD is, in some cases, limited, there is a commitment to providing in-service education opportunities for every teacher who wants it. In schools, there is an expectation that teachers will engage in in-service training for a minimum of three working days (outside of school days) per academic year. In colleges, opportunities – it seems to me – are more limited and funding of CPD is proving an issue.
At the end of the week I was afforded an hour of free time before heading to the airport and choose to do some sightseeing. I pounded the streets of Helsinki in search of souvenirs for my children. I walked the length of Esplanade Park down to the square where there was an outdoor market in full swing. I bought three reindeer (stuffed toys, not live ones) and some local chocolates to add to the jewellery I’d already purchased from the college shop (which had been made by students from sustainable materials). I walked up the hill to Uspensky Orthodox Cathedral (enjoying an impressive view of the city skyline) and then back through Senate Square to Helsinki Cathedral. I ambled back through the city centre to my hotel to collect my suitcase, before heading to the bus station and from there north to the airport.
As I sat on the bus, I began to scribble some initial conclusions from my visit. I had learnt a lot and had pages and pages of notes to try decipher and pull into something publishable (hence the gruelling 7-part travelogue on my blog). But, even without consulting these notes, I think I knew I had an answer to my opening question: what is the secret of Finland’s educational success?
Returning to the first part of this travelogue for a moment, I began by expressing some reservations about us looking to Finland (or indeed any country) for answers. I said the answers we found were largely dependent on the questions we asked.
Michael Gove, as Education Secretary, had asked questions about systems and structures and took from Finland the need to create free schools and the need to change school league tables, curricular and qualifications. I, on the other hand, had asked questions about teacher training and CPD and took from Finland the need to ensure teacher training was tougher and of a higher quality, and the need to raise the status of the teaching profession.
But what does the Finnish example really tell us?
In the first part of this diary, I shared some of Tim Oates’ findings as set out in the paper he wrote for Cambridge Assessment in April 2015.
In short, Oates argues that the secret of Finland’s success lies not in the system as it looks today (or indeed in the year 2000 when Finland topped the PISA charts) but in the wholesale system reforms that took place in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. He says the reason that Finland performed well in 2000 was because the whole of society got behind a move to fully comprehensive education.
Having spent a week in Finland talking to a great many teachers and education leaders in schools, colleges and universities, I’m more informed than I was before but – if I’m honest – probably no more enlightened. In other words, I know more about the Finnish education system and indeed its culture, but have very few answers about how we in England can emulate it.
Actually, that’s not quite right. I do have some ideas about how we can emulate the Finnish way but I don’t think there are any quick fixes or easy wins.
Rather, I think we need to change our national culture – and that, of course, is no mean feat and is certainly not in the gift of mere education leaders like you and me. But it is not impossible and here are some steps I think we could take in order to make some progress in the right direction…
We could raise the status of the teaching profession so that it attracted the very best candidates. We could make sure teaching was regarded as highly as law or medicine. Then we could improve the quality of teacher education so that the best candidates got the best, most gruelling training. This training would be lengthy and tough, it would weed out those who are not suitable and strengthen and empower those who are. Once selected and trained, we could improve continuous professional development to make sure teachers remained well-informed.
And when we had great teachers operating at all levels of the system, we could empower them, we could place more trust in their professional judgment and skill. We could foster greater levels of autonomy, we could encourage risk-taking and experimentation. We could develop supportive systems of quality improvement rather than high-stakes systems of quality assurance and inspection. I’m not advocating a free-for-all, hands-off approach; rather a process of peer review and evaluation leading to developmental feedback and support. Autonomy shouldn’t mean an utter lack of oversight, a vacuum in which poor-performing teachers can harm the life chances of students. It should mean giving people the freedom and independence to act as professionals, making professional judgments. It means freedom and responsibility within a framework, as I argued in this article.
Once we were confident that our profession was highly-skilled and focused on improving not inspecting itself, we could set about changing the nation’s view of education – again, no mean feat, I know.
To do this, we could foster a love of learning, not just through compulsory schooling but throughout our lives. We could create an environment in which people of all ages and backgrounds could and would access education either to learn new skills or to retrain for different forms of employment.
We could eradicate the belief that academic education was somehow superior to vocational and on-the-job learning. We could create a level playing field for students of all abilities and ambitions. We could ensure that, whatever route a student took, he or she did not place roadblocks in the way of other routes. We could ensure there was free movement between different levels and types of education.
And we could involve education professionals – experts in their fields – in top-level decision-making and policy-creation. We could break from the election-cycle whereby each new parliament brought with it ideologically-driven reform and a political desire to ‘stamp a mark’ (just as I argued in this article back in 2011). We could move away from a position where curriculum and qualifications, not to mention pedagogy and practice, could be transformed on the whim of a politician. Politicians have their part to play, of course; but in our brave new world they would focus on broad policy and budgeting and allow professionals to decide the details.
So, in short, I’d argue that the Finnish example teaches us that students do best when:
- Education is free for all
- There is unrestricted movement between all levels and types of qualifications
- There is no stigma attached to any educational route, vocational and academic qualifications enjoy a parity of esteem
- There is a pervading culture of learning, society at large respects education and educators
- All students are entitled to free meals
- There is a system of trust, self-assessment and benchmarking (i.e. peer review) not one of inspection and judging
- Education experts are involved at the top level of decision-making and policy-creation, the profession has a strong voice and influence over politicians
Some of these features are not achievable given our current economic climate and may never be achievable – for example, judging by the recent election result, I’m not confident the electorate would vote for a party whose manifesto included a pledge to give free education for all, let alone free meals for all students. Other features are perhaps not even desirable.
But I am sure there is something to be learnt about the importance of education and about the need for all of society to fall back in love with learning. And this needs to come from the top. The state, and then society, need to rediscover a genuine respect for education and educators. In short, Whitehall rhetoric has to change. We must move away from the current deficit model where politicians and their proxies talk of coasting or failing schools and promise to send in an army of storm-trooping headteachers and academy brokers whenever Ofsted judges a school to be less than good. We must, instead, talk about the value of education and about the great work that happens each and every day in schools and colleges up and down the country. Let’s celebrate not castigate; let’s promote not punish; and let’s improve not inspect.
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