Finland Model of Education: Secrets of a Better Teaching System / Dora Leonor Mesa

It’s the country that tops all the international ratings; where teachers have greater decision making powers within schools and more social prestige. In Finland teaching is one of the most popular professions and being a teacher is as respected as being a doctor or lawyer. Perhaps this is one of the factors which explains why the Nordic country has an academic system par excellence, which is reflected in the international measures of maths, language and science where Finland, if not the top, holds some of the highest rankings.

The Finnish specialist Jouni Välijärvi, doctor of philosophy and researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, who arrived in Argentina to take part in an international seminar organized by the Ministry of Education and UNESCO, spoke to LA NACION and pointed out that there are two main characteristics of the education system in Finland: the integration and equality of the system and teacher training. He recounted that, after the Second World War, Finland invested heavily in the building of a dense network of schools all over the country, which allowed all children to go to school. Now there are 4,000 primary schools with 580,000 registered students.

Free and Compulsory

Compulsory education in the Scandinavian country spans nine years (six of primary and three of secondary) and is completely free. Fewer than 5% of students attend private schools. There aren’t even any private universities: they are all state owned. Finland allocates around 6% of gross domestic product (GDP) to education, a target that Argentina was forecast to reach in 2010 — currently it invests little more than 4% — according to the finance bill passed last year.

In the assessment carried out by PISA in 2003, organized by the OECD, for students aged 15, Finland came first in reading and science, outperforming Korea, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and second place in maths after Hong Kong. Argentina did not appear in this accounting, which placed Latin American countries — Brazil, Mexico — amongst the lowest. “All students get the same programme. In the results of the 2003 PISA tests, the lowest performing Finnish students are still at a high level when compared to other countries, and we give them a lot of support.”

“Another important difference between Finland and other countries is that in Finland all teachers have a university education,” stated the specialist.  Välijärvi described the rigorous selection process which takes place in teacher training and revealed that in his university only 20% of applicants make it into the teaching degree programme.

Power to the Councils: Decentralized Education

The influence of teachers grew stronger in the 1990s, when Finland decentralized education and gave more power to local authorities, which benefited teachers through more powers for teachers. Now educators can choose their textbooks, the school’s curriculum, set disciplinary guidelines and those of assessment and cooperation between schools and parents. At the same time, the role of principals is more limited than in other countries.

One of the most serious problems in the Argentine system is the high fragmentation and the marked differences in resources and the quality of teachers in different provinces. In Finland, the government has a crucial role, to avoid the emergence of inequalities due to the economic conditions in different regions of the country.

One must motivate

One of the issues being discussed in Argentina at the moment is the compulsory nature of secondary education, something which was also debated in Finland. “I’m not really inclined towards making it compulsory,” says Välijärvi, “it’s something that we’ve debated, because 10-15% of students don’t finish secondary school, which constitutes a real social problem, since these children will have trouble finding a permanent job.” Convinced that motivation is far more important for a student than whether or not it’s compulsory, the Finnish researcher upheld that “the purpose of education isn’t that someone gets a diploma, but that they are prepared for lifelong learning.”

One of the complaints of Argentinian teachers is that there is a need to put the teaching profession into its proper place in the social hierarchy and expect decent salaries. Does a Finnish teacher earn much, asked LA NACION: “The pay isn’t anything special when compared to other countries. In Switzerland it’s nearly double.”

The pay in itself can’t explain the popularity of teaching in Finland and it’s hard to find a single reason. Although the salaries aren’t particularly high, being a teacher is good for society. Many teachers work in publishing houses or other professions. “The teaching profession,” he said, “is one of those most considered by young people who are about to finish middle school.” One idea that has had currency for quite some time in the crisis in Argentina, is that education is a tool for upward social mobility. In the European country it is still considered a very important factor in social mobility. “Parents are the ones who most believe in education from this perspective,” he said.

Faced with the need to increase the number of hours of classes and increase the number of double shift schools — one possibility that emerged in the Argentine educational debate —  Välijärvi said his country had had fewer school hours than others. While in Korea (one of the best performing countries education) classes are offered for 50 hours per week, In Finland the total is 31. “The number of hours does not explain the results. More important is to ask how effectively time is used to learn and to teach, and I think the Finnish schools, from that point of view, are very effective.” From Laura Casanovas writing for THE NATION.

Brief data on education in Finland, year 2006

* 95% of the educational system is state schools. There are 4,000 primary schools and 580,000 students.

* Education is free and compulsory up to 16 years of age.

* Finland ranks first in language and science assessments of the OECD, and the second in mathematics.

* The teaching career is very demanding and only 20% of applicants are admitted.

* All teachers go through college. 80% are women.

* From the 1990s schools are municipal, with a strong financial support from the central government.

* There is an evaluation board for schools, which measures the quality of teaching.

* The Finnish government allocates 14% of its budget to education.

December 1 2011

Taken from Tuesday, 15th August, 2006)