The Finnish Model for great schools

July 11, 2014

Pasi Sahlberg is an educator and past policy advisor in Finland, author of books on education and currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. He spoke to a meeting of teachers and union activists in Melbourne on June 19.

He agreed with what Australian teachers have argued for years: that great schools are well funded on a needs basis, are not publicly ranked for performance, have small classes, have teachers that are highly regarded and trusted and value all subject areas equally.

Australian educators look to the Finnish model because its school system is regarded as one of the most successful in the world. Canada and Estonia also have very successful school systems similar to the Finns.

Finnish students’ achievements are among the highest on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

PISA is a worldwide study of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading.

According to the data from the PISA studies, Australia has one of the most segregated and inequitable school systems in the world. Despite this, our student results are better than those in the USA or the UK.

There is no segregation in Finland because private schools were abolished in 1970.

If we are serious about quality education, Sahlberg said, we need to address this issue of equity. This means funding schools on their actual needs — not as we currently do, on an abstract formula.

The formula used in Victoria, for example, gives most government schools less staffing money than it requires to pay all its staff, because it is calculated on an average wage rate, not an actual wage rate.

Finnish school class sizes are small so that teachers can give children individual attention. The Finnish thinking is “great schools for every child”. Canada and Estonia promote the same idea.

Finland has universal childcare until the age of seven and special education is available from early on. Parental leave for either a woman or a man for the first year is available and this can be extended up to three years. The parents receive the same amount of money as they would have to pay if they sent their child to a day care centre. After that, preschools are available and about 80% of children attend these.

The thinking about curriculum is also very different to the thinking in Australia. Instead of asking is the child ready for school, the Finns ask, is the school ready for the child. All subjects are valued equally as compared to the emphasis, endless debates about and resources that are prioritised to maths and English in Australia.

There is no discussion about parent choice being an important factor or driving funding models. If choice exists at all, it is between a great local school and another great local school, Sahlberg quipped. Competition between schools is regarded as nonsense. Schools are not publicly ranked and there are no standarised tests, such as our NAPLAN tests.

Asked about the issue of variation of results between and within schools, Sahlberg said if there was no variation then you’d have to be in North Korea.

Finnish teachers are highly respected and trusted as professionals. They must have a master’s degree, but attitudes towards education and teaching are also considered when teacher graduates are selected. Only the required number of graduates is accepted into the profession so that everyone knows they will have a job at the end of their studies.

There is no discussion about “failing teachers” and teachers are seen as partners with the government in solving education problems, rather than as the enemy.

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