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Scoring with an ‘F’

Consistently strong OECD and Pisa rankings have pushed Finland into the limelight. With the latest Pisa list expected next year, StarEducate speaks to experts to discover the ‘Finnish-factor’ behind the country’s education system.

NO one laughs at me if I get things wrong – my teachers are nice and kind,” 10-year-old Emilia quips when asked what she likes about school. Her simple reply is probably the best gauge of Finland’s success.

After all, education is as much about knowledge as it is about confidence, happiness and a thirst for learning.

Unlike in Asia, where bad grades have resulted in suicides, students taking their own life or suffering from depression because of education-related pressure is unthinkable for the Finns.


Virtual world: Viikki Teacher Training School students learning on their smartphones and tablets

“It would be very strange and shocking if that happened,” Finland’s ambassador to Malaysia Matti Pullinen feels.

Smiling, he names Nokia and education as innovations the Finns are most proud of.

“If you are clever, you can be anything you want because education is free.

“There’s no need for private tuition or private schools.”

Masterpieces... Students artwork on display.
Masterpieces: Students’ artwork on display.

Last month, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) global school rankings placed Finland in its top 10 list. The global ranking was based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss).

Pisa is administered by the OECD every three years comparing 15-year-olds internationally in reading, mathematics and science, in both OECD and non-OECD countries. Finland has consistently ranked highly in all three areas since 2000 but experienced a slight dip in 2009 and 2012. The next Pisa rankings will be out next year.

Following through on “big ideas” regardless of whether there’s a change in Government, is a crucial trait of Finland’s success, University of Helsinki teacher education head Prof Jari Lavonen points out.

In Finland, politicians come and go, but equity and decentralisation are constants. No one pays for education. Special needs’ students learn in regular classrooms. Low achievers improve by having peers to look up to while the high achievers learn about collaboration and support.

He says national exams and Government inspectors spying on schools are nonexistent. Teacher training is crucial, he emphasises.

Yearly, some 3,000 hopefuls apply to be teachers but only 100 are selected for the education programme, he says, adding that there are about 20,000 teachers in the country.

Although Finland spends more on education than on national defence, the amount is still lower than other high-performing countries, he says.

“It’s not about how much we spend. We use money in a clever way to facilitate learning of 21st century competencies. We don’t waste it on tests and administration.”

Kaisa House... The Helsinki Universitys main library celebrates its 375 anniversary this year.
Kaisa House: The Helsinki University’s main library celebrates its 375th anniversary this year.

Even kindergarten teachers must have an education degree and those teaching primary onwards, a masters. Involving teachers in education development has resulted in the system’s continued growth, says Vikki Teacher Training School vice-principal Marja Martikainen.

On average, however, Finnish teachers are only paid about 3,200 euros (RM12,700) per month – less than their counterparts in Europe.

Her foreign friends used to ask why Tea Vuorinen, 28, wanted to be a teacher because for them, it is the last option.

In Finland it’s as difficult to study as medicine, but in most countries, teaching is a job you pick up if you can’t be anything else, she says.

She picked teaching because it is meaningful work that reflects her values. She clocks in a maximum of 30 hours weekly, handling between 18 and 30 students.

The most satisfying feeling is when as a class, everyone grows together. She says parents can sometimes be more difficult than the students, so the lines of communication must be open.

“My goal is to give them the tools for life-long learning, so that they will grow up knowing how to get all the information they will need for the future.”

Getting students to evaluate themselves is crucial, she feels.

“For example, the younger ones use smiley or frowny faces to indicate how they feel about their abilities.

“They must find their confidence and feel good about themselves.”

Finnish National Board of Education counsellor Petra Packalen credits the joy of learning
for propelling the country up global school rankings.

Determined to produce good citizens who understand the value of education, the Finns continuously find ways to improve the education system not because of any ranking, but for the country’s future, she says.

How students fare in Finland matters more than global rankings.

“Quality, equity and efficiency are why we were highly-ranked in Pisa but looking forward, we are more interested in whether we are moving in the right direction .”

Realising that youngsters are not as motivated to learn, education stakeholders – which in Finland, is almost everybody, are analysing whether there is something wrong in the school culture or the pedagogy.

Admitting that the country’s Pisa performance has declined slightly, she feels that Finland is still “clearly above average”.

She, however, dismisses the suggestion that the upcoming national curriculum was developed as a knee-jerk reaction to the drop.

“Self-accountability is most important. We must improve for ourselves first and foremost,” she says, adding that almost all Finnish students have tertiary education.

The Government sets out the overall aim of the education system but the country’s 300 over municipalities have a lot of discretion of how much they want to delegate to the schools in their areas.

Decentralisation means that matters such as budget allocation, hiring and evaluating teachers and working hours, are determined at school level.

The municipalities don’t have to report to the Government but that doesn’t mean that they are left to “go wild”.

“We just have a different monitoring system where national evaluation is by random sampling,” Packalen says.

Less than 10% don’t continue studying after secondary school but the system has not given up on them.

“Learning difficulties, joining the family business and alcohol or drug abuse could be why they don’t want to study so we’re reaching out to them,” she says.

Prof Lavonen believes that self-assessment by the students themselves, classroom assessment by the teachers and the curriculum are more important than textbooks and national evaluation exams.

“The national evaluation office which was set up recently does a random sampling of 3,000 students to monitor the performance level of Finnish schools.

“This is to see if there’s a variation between schools so that we can narrow the gap.

“Assessment is to make improvements, not punish. A serious issue that needs to be addressed now is how to motivate our students.”

In March, news that Finland was scrapping subjects as the country reforms its education system hit the headlines world-wide.

The Ministry of Education and Culture has since denied that subject teaching was being abolished under the core curriculum for basic education which will be introduced in August 2016.

The ministry’s permanent secretary Anita Lehikoinen says education is prized because it leads to social mobility.

Finland, she says, is among the best in OECD countries and it’s the result of the entire education system from pre-school to university.

At least 90% of graduates find jobs and mothers can work because their kids get free warm meals in school, she says, stressing that the new curriculum’s Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) component is important.

“We are fine-tuning the existing system. A review is done every decade to ensure that Finnish education remains effective and relevant in light of new developments. There’s no major revamp.”

Weighing in on the incoming curriculum, Packalen says it will allow teachers to detect learning problems early.

ECEC will emphasise on play learning, she says, explaining that potential problem areas can be addressed by building on social, emotional and physical skills from a young age.

Tags: education
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