Every now and then the education system of Finland hits the headlines, and we are drawn to making comparisons between what and how children there are learning and what happens in England. It is fair to say that reports of education in Finland are invariably glowing. Sometimes revered as the best education system in the world, the impression many have is that it has struck an effective balance between knowledge and understanding, wellbeing and lifelong learning – not an easy achievement by any stretch.
The Finnish system is characterized by autonomy for its teachers as well as a strong focus on creating an egalitarian school experience. There is no standardized testing system and there is a strong emphasis on cooperation over competition.
Professor Chris Sinha, Honorary Professor at the University of East Anglia, School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication, sees the Finnish system as standing in stark contrast to what is currently happening in education in England. He said, “The system of education we have in England, but also in the other countries of the UK, is currently very traditional. It is based on the idea that education is the simple transmission of facts. Finland, however, sees education as a developmental process. This still involves the acquisition of knowledge, but students are engaged in constructing that knowledge rather than simply reproducing that knowledge.
“The English system is based on the idea that we sift out individuals at each stage depending on what knowledge they can recall in exams. We know this reinforces existing advantages and disadvantages. The Finnish system is egalitarian, and it is designed to minimize inequalities. It is designed to level up; to compensate for inequalities rather than reinforcing inequalities.”
Jennifer Booz, Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Grantee, 2022, Jyväskylä, and a middle school science teacher in the United States, has also seen a strong commitment to social equity in Finnish education. She explains, “Finland puts a great emphasis on equality. I have had many education professionals say to me, "There are no dead-ends in Finnish education. Anyone can attend any Finnish school, free of charge, no matter your status. Schools are also, mostly, funded equally. There is no such thing as a poor school or a wealthy school.”
While every student in Finland gets a free school lunch, in England, the funding for free lunches remains inadequate. And yet, it is measures like this that can lead to greater wellbeing among students. As Booz explained, “This is something that struck me right from my first school visit. Finnish schools (and Finland in general) put an enormous focus on wellbeing. It is something that comes up in most of my conversations with teachers. For pupils, Finnish schools and school days are designed to promote wellbeing. They have long breaks where students can relax, they have mandatory breaks after every 45 minutes of lessons, and at least one break must be outdoors every day. Schools have common areas where students can sit and relax or chat to friends. School lunches are homemade and hot every day (and free for all).”
The role of the teacher differs between Finland and England, too. Sinha explained, “In Finland, every teacher is required to know about developmental psychology. This is not about the transmission of a curriculum with insufficient emphasis on the process of learning. Process is key in Finland. Teachers and students work collaboratively to firm up understanding of the work. They have a more interdisciplinary approach. In England, we cut the curriculum up into separate chunks.”
Part of this emphasis on the process of learning in Finland is possible because of the autonomy that is granted to teachers. Sinha continued, “We need to get to a place where we have more confidence in our teachers. They make the difference in the end. It is so frustrating for teachers to have their hands tied. The notion of accountability in England is distorted. It is not based on trust. It is a system of distrust. The result of the Finnish system is confident school leavers who know what it means to take control of their learning, whereas students in HE in England may have little idea about autonomous learning so at least a year is spent dealing with the consequences of that. The English system is political through and through. Education has been weaponised.”
Booz, too, has seen teacher autonomy as being a key feature of the Finnish system of education. She told me, “Finnish teachers are afforded a great deal of autonomy in their teaching. Despite having a national curriculum, teachers, schools, and individual municipalities can implement as they see fit. There is very little oversight from the administration. Teachers in Finland are highly respected professionals who are trusted by staff and the community. There is no formal evaluation system for teachers nor are there check-ups to see if teachers are doing their job. Additionally, aside from the final matriculation exams, students are not tested on a national level.”
The more we learn about the Finnish system of education, the starker the contrast seems to be. While it would never be appropriate to attempt to overlay another country’s approach onto England, there are most certainly aspects we can learn from the successes that other countries have in tackling the big education issues such as teacher autonomy, wellbeing, and equality.
Yet is it likely that we will go through that process of improvement inspired by Finland? Not without something major like a Royal Commission on education, Sinha suspects. But at this stage, simply talking to employers and professionals, not to mention the students themselves, about the current state of play is most surely a wise step forward.
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About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.