Understanding the Finnish Schooling Model
Anna Renfors and Juha Suoranta
In our presentation we first describe the main features of the Finnish schooling system and its success. Secondly we argue that the Finnish comprehensive school was part of the larger political development of the Finnish welfare system. This development was based on the legislation that gave ordinary people more freedom and improved their livelihood. We further argue that the Finnish schooling system, as any other educational model, is the product of particular historical, social and political conditions. We are critical towards all attempts to explain and understand schooling without proper reflection on the totality of its social and political context.
Finland is a sovereign republic in the north part of Europe. As stated in the Constitution of Finland “the powers of the State in Finland are vested in the people, who are represented by the Parliament.” It has an ethnically homogenous population of 5.4 million, most of them (73 percent in 2015) belonging to the Lutheran church, the national church of Finland. Finland also has a conspicuously small minority population, only four percent of the population. Estonians and Russians being the two largest minority groups. Finland is part of the European Union and one of the five Nordic countries with Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. It has 830-mile eastern land border with Russian Federation. It has three official languages: Finnish and Swedish, and Sami in the northernmost parts of Finland. Internationally Finland is known as a high-tech country and for its advanced educational, health and social legislation, which guarantee Finnish citizens universal public services.
In the past ten years Finland has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of teachers, researchers, educational policy-makers and administrators from all over the world. Finland owes the fame mostly due to the success in (controversial) PISA-study[i]. The interest towards Finland’s schooling system broke out after Finland’s students topped in international educational achievement test during the first decade of the 2000s. International press got interested and covered the case. Eventually filmmaker Michael Moore paid a visit to the country with his crew and reported the Finnish school miracle as part of his Where to Invade Next (2015). In one scene he asks a Finnish math teacher what is his goal in math teaching, and is bowled over of the answer: “To make my students happy.”
Finnish Schooling Model
PISA assessments have demonstrated that the Finnish schooling model produces good, top or near the top test scores in all measured subjects: literacy, science and mathematics. One crucial difference between the participating countries was student performance variation between schools. In Finland the variation was significantly lower than in other countries (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 63). In other words Finnish schools in every part of the country perform equally well.
Combining the PISA results with an income inequality, as the following Figure 1 indicates (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009, p. 106), there is also a positive correlation between equal society and good learning outcomes.
Figure 1: Educational scores are higher in more equal rich countries
Finnish schooling model differs significantly from so-called global educational reform movement. In the global educational reform movement the emphasis is on competition between schools as in any other markets, standardized learning, basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability and school choice. In the Finnish model of schooling the focus is instead on manifold collaboration and networking, personalized learning, overall growth of the human being, trust-based responsibility and equity of outcomes. (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 149.) In the following we bring up key characteristics of the current Finnish school system.
Local Schools Nurture Overall Growth
Finnish education system consists of a one-year pre-primary education, 9-year comprehensive school, post-compulsory general and vocational education. Class teachers teach pupils in the junior classes 1–6 (ages 7–13) whilst specialized subject teachers lead classes 7–9 (ages 13–16). Education is free to everyone from the pre-primary to higher education, and is based on meritocracy (including university entrance exam).
In Finland near-school principle is followed. Schools do not select students and they mainly enroll in their own neighborhood school. There are neither exclusive girls’ or boys’ schools nor a significant private school system in Finland (less than two per cent of children go to private schools). Schools do not compete for students but collaborate with each other in order to create a culture of cooperation. Individual school is part of a larger municipal public health and social services. In taking care of the overall growth of a human being all students receive a free school lunch daily as well as free health care, transportation, learning materials and counseling (Sahlberg, 2009, p. 24). The overall growth is reflected also in school subjects such as home economics, arts and handicraft. Ideally teachers develop not only head but also heart and hand. The Finnish education system belongs to the cornerstones of the Nordic welfare model which provides, e.g., free health care and maternity clinics, paid maternity leave (4 months) and parental leave (6 months), unemployment benefits, pensions and long vacations.
Public Funding Means Collective Responsibility
The Finnish schooling system is financed almost exclusively from public sources, namely, by collecting a progressive tax. Based on political decisions of the Parliament and city councils the tax funds are then distributed to the school districts. The funds are allocated according to schools’ real needs and not by their achievements largely in a Marxian accord: “From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs.” In this same spirit public funding and distribution of tax money guarantees that every child can have an equal chance to attend school and learn.
Finland has succeeded in giving a high-quality education for everyone with reasonable costs. In 2011 total public expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP=the total value of output in an economic territory) was in Finland 6.5 per cent (OECD, 2014, p. 222; Sahlberg, 2015, p. 81) and in Mexico 6.2 per cent. This is close to the OECD average of 6.1 per cent and less than in United States (6.9 per cent) or Canada (6.8 per cent). Studies have shown that there does not seem to be positive correlation between educational spending per student and measured outcomes in education. Thus the efficient use of resources is more important than the level of expenditure.
Schools Share Common Values
Despite the large autonomy in the school level Finland still has a national core curriculum drawn up by the National Board of Education, a responsible agency for the development of Finnish education. The national core curriculum provides a set of common values and basic principles for schools and teachers. In addition to the national level curriculum there are municipality- and school-specific curricula. Nowadays in developing both national and local level curricula teachers are trusted and encouraged to be involved in the curriculum design processes. The principals are most commonly teachers themselves and they have a lot of decision-making power in their work. The same applies to classroom teachers who are highly independent in their daily work; curricula are meant to regulate but also support their work.
Teachers are Trusted
Teaching is a high-status profession and teaching belongs to the most popular professions among Finnish young people (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 13, 101). Therefore a large number of high school graduates apply to the university teacher education programs every year, and only 10–15 per cent are selected. All teachers in all grades have to hold a university level Master’s degree.
Teachers are respected and trusted in Finland. Parents are satisfied with the teachers and school conditions in general. “Finnish teachers apparently enjoy the trust of the general public and also of the political and even economic elite, which is not the case in many countries” (Simola, 2015, p. 211). Teachers’ somewhat traditional, authoritarian and collective culture along with their “political and pedagogical conservativeness” (Simola, 2005, p. 465) has guaranteed the continuum of ethical solid teaching in the turbulent times of neoliberalism.
The whole educational system is based on trust: there are neither school inspectors nor officially approved teaching materials in Finland. High-quality teachers do not need to be accountable or to report their work to anyone, and are permitted to teach autonomously in their classrooms with the materials and resources of their own choosing. As signs of trust in teachers’ professionalism schools in Finland have short school days, homework is minimal and private tuition does not virtually exist (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 87–88, 91).
Job satisfaction among Finnish teachers is also relatively high and teachers tend to stay in the same profession and working in the same schools (Simola, 2015, p. 98–99). The salary of a teacher is slightly higher than the average in Finland (median salary was 3400 dollars per month in 2015). Other appealing factors of the teaching profession are relatively short workdays, paid holidays (14 weeks a year) and professional independency.
Everyone is Special
One of the basic aims of Finnish school reform was that “all students can achieve common educational goals if learning is organized according to each student’s characteristics and needs” (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 83). As a consequence disabled students are included in general classrooms and special education is an essential part of the compulsory education. In Finnish special education prevention is a common strategy. Special education needs are identified as early as possible and anyone can have special education when needed. For example in 2012 almost one-third of all Finnish comprehensive school pupils were in part- or full-time special education, mainly because of learning difficulties in reading, writing, mathematics or foreign languages (p. 65–66.) It is believed that primary reason for educational inequality “is the placing of students in different learning environments which shapes the development of their abilities. The common use of special education in Finnish schools, for example, does not add to inequity but reduces it.” (Antikainen & Pitkänen, 2014, p. 16.) One particular result of special education worth mentioning is the low amount of grade repetition and dropping out is almost a non-existing phenomenon.
Testing is Minimal
Another key feature of the Finnish school is the lack of standardized testing (Sahlberg, 2015, p. 14). The only national test is matriculation examination for those who continue from the comprehensive to the upper secondary school (60 percent of the cohort). Otherwise assessment is an integral part of individual teachers’ work and professional craftsmanship. In the Finnish model of schooling pupils are assessed and evaluated in terms of their own abilities and achievements, and not in relations to their peers. Assessment is seen as part of the learning process and in grades 1–6 it is mostly verbal. Pupils’ self-assessment is also emphasized in all grades.
Without constant test prep and competition teachers can concentrate on teaching and education. In the absence of national testing mania schools and teachers are not forced to compete with each other but are allowed (and nowadays even obliged) to work together. “Standardized testing that compares individuals to statistical averages, competition that leaves weaker students behind, and merit-based pay for teachers all jeopardize schools’ efforts to enhance equity. None of these factors currently exists in the Finnish education system.” (p. 66.)
Understanding the Finnish Schooling Model
The Finnish schooling system as it is today was not born in a fortnight. It has taken one and half centuries. What, then, were the early ideas that gave birth to such socially progressive institution as free comprehensive school for all? How to explain and understand this social innovation?
First, nationalism was brought to Finland by political thinkers and reformers who maintained following the Hegelian state ideology that people are subjects to the strong state by serving the state for the best of their abilities. These early reformers emphasized that education should be among the first priorities in the nation building and declared that education (in the meaning of Bildung) is the only security a small nation has. (See Antikainen & Pitkänen, 2014, p. 3–4.)
Second, the historical influence of the Lutheran church cannot be forgotten either. “The Nordic countries have been relatively homogenous in terms of ethnicity and religion. For centuries, Lutheranism has held a hegemonic status in all the Nordic countries. Many historians have deemed that this to have contributed to the development of a certain kind of work ethic, valuing of literacy and development of equality.” (Antikainen, 2010a, p. 532.)
These historical connections along with ethnically homogenous and relatively small size population have in the first place formed a historically structured basis for such nationwide political changes as educational reforms in the late 20th century. In Finland, as in other western countries (see Greene, 1996, p. 297), national education system found its first rationale in nation building. Non-parliamentary civic movements such as worker’s movement, women movement, temperance movement and youth association movement were important in that project.
From the late 1950s it served the interest of economic growth and prosperity. Education was begun to understand not as expenditure but as an investment both in the state’s economic and educational policies and in business sector. The left-wing parties and trade unions bought the idea of a broad educational sector as a way to improve workers’ welfare and livelihood as well as their chances to climb up the social ladders.
The 1960s was marked by the start of a progressive era in Finland, as in other countries, including “the greatest education reform in the history of Finland: the comprehensive school” (Antikainen & Pitkänen, 2014, p. 5). Before the educational reform the Finnish school system operated on the principle of parallel schools and divided people into three unequal groups. The aim of the educational reform was to create a new, integrated comprehensive education system, which would harness every child from every cohort equally into the system. The realization of the school reform began in 1972 and was completed in the in 1977.
The reform had an effect also in the professionalization of teaching practice and academization of teacher education. Academic teacher training was codified in an Act in 1971 and the Faculties of Education were established in the universities across the country for the service of good quality teacher education. “In 1978, the degree of Master of Science or Master of Arts became the basic teaching degree for classroom teachers as well as subject teachers” (Antikainen & Pitkänen, 2014, p. 8.)
From the late 1950s to the early 1980s Finland was in definition a Nordic Social Democratic welfare state. It formed a social totality and opened a distinctive moral landscape of keeping everyone in the same boat with its professionally ambitious bureaucrats, socially progressive legislation and social practices that served both capital and labor.
Education is historically, socially and politically embedded in a given society. This is the reason why we are critical towards all attempts to explain and understand schooling without proper reflection on the totality of its social and political context. Although some commentators seem to believe that the model is to be applied elsewhere, there is no quick fix. When schools, and educational systems at large, are seen from the historical point of view, born out of the social and political conditions surrounding and preceding them, they cannot be treated as commodities that can easily be exported or imported. We must learn in dialogue with each other, but it is the cunning of historical reason that social and political transformations always precede educational transformations.
In reflecting any schooling and educational system or reform we need to bear in mind that it is always subordinate to the society’s political regime and atmosphere, and forms only a part of a society’s totality. As this totality changes, the educational system changes in the process. The birth of the comprehensive school was part of the larger political development of the Finnish welfare system including legislation that gave ordinary people more freedom and improved their livelihood. These improvements in people’s basic living standards established the firm foundation for pupils’ school attendance and their improved school achievements. In order to perform well in school and enjoy learning children need a socially just, safe, and democratic society.
[i] PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment) is a worldwide study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in member and nonmember nations. PISA produces information of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. The study was first performed in 2000 and since then it has repeated every three years. In recent years arguments have been raised for and against PISA (see, e.g., Pereyra, Kotthoff, & Cowen, 2011; Andrews et al., 2014; Sahlberg & Hardgreaves, 2015; Simola, 2015). What all the fuss around and about PISA clearly demonstrates is that the original assessment is used as part of the ideological discourse on education depending on the context. At the same time as the first PISA results were published in 2001 the comprehensive school was criticized by the representative organizations of the Finnish elite. Finland’s top results in PISA somewhat buffered the criticism and cries for neo-liberal policy changes (see Simola, 2015, p. 243). However, in this article we do not deal with PISA or the argumentation around it, although we acknowledge and resent some of the most perverted uses of PISA such as selling of “PISA-packets” to the schools to boost their “PISA-success.”
 PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment) is a worldwide study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in member and nonmember nations. PISA produces information of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. The study was first performed in 2000 and since then it has repeated every three years. In recent years arguments have been raised for and against PISA (see, e.g., Pereyra, Kotthoff, & Cowen, 2011; Andrews et al., 2014; Sahlberg & Hardgreaves, 2015; Simola, 2015). What all the fuss around and about PISA clearly demonstrates is that the original assessment is used as part of the ideological discourse on education depending on the context. At the same time as the first PISA results were published in 2001 the comprehensive school was criticized by the representative organizations of the Finnish elite. Finland’s top results in PISA somewhat buffered the criticism and cries for neo-liberal policy changes (see Simola, 2015, p. 243). However, in this article we do not deal with PISA or the argumentation around it, although we acknowledge and resent some of the most perverted uses of PISA such as selling of “PISA-packets” to the schools to boost their “PISA-success.”