The Finnish Way: What Wales can learn from Finland

19 Jun

I was delighted I recently got the chance to attend the annual Kings College lecture, given this year by Pasi Sahlberg. It was recommended to me by a member of NUT Cymru’s Executive and I’m pleased to say it was inspirational.

Pasi has an almost rock star presence amongst education professionals, which was evident given he had packed out the Kings College auditorium. His self-effacing and somewhat comedic presentation of what are hugely important issues only serves to make you like him more and to appreciate just how simple education can be when done right.

1288520053328Pasi Sahlberg

The subject of the lecture, as is the subject of Sahlberg’s book, was ‘Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?

The first half of the lecture focused on the three key factors in supporting Finland’s success.

1. Finland has never aimed to be the best:

At the heart of the Finnish success story is their ability to look at their education system on its own merits without international comparisons. There is no clear focus on trying to top PISA tables but instead on cooperation and creativity within the Finnish system itself.

Over the years Pasi stated he had heard at least ten Education Minister’s across the world make the claim that they wished to see their nation’s education be amongst the world’s leaders by 2020. While our own Education Minister, Leighton Andrews AM, does not make quite the same bold statement he has set definitive national league table targets for schools in Wales when he said, “we should aim to be in the top 20 of school systems measured in the PISA scores in 2015.”

Now, ambition is to be commended, but what are the effects created by such targets? The argument put forward by Sahlberg is that setting the ‘let’s be the best in the world’ agenda leads to results driven by competition and so-called ‘exam rigour’ reforms. It is the global response to education reform that has led to excessive inspections and standardised testing that do not, in reality, improve performance.

standardised-test-3The problem with standardised tests

The Finnish approach was not to look at other nations and say let’s be better than them, but to look at the state of Finland’s schools and say let’s make them better. It was focused on making every school great for every pupil. The answers that are generated from that agenda are radically different. Finland embarked on an approach that was more inclusive, with collaboration at the heart of the process.  The most inspiring, and perhaps ironic, thing about Finland’s progress is that by ignoring the standardised approach of PISA driven education, they have risen to the very highest levels of the PISA rankings.

We in Wales have sadly embarked on the tried and standardised tested approach that has been rejected by Finland. The introduction of standardised tests for all children from year 2 – 9 is set to stifle creativity and create a target driven culture that narrows the curriculum and fails to support either those at the top or the bottom of the ability range. The introduction of school banding has completely undermined the collaboration agenda as schools become increasingly wary of supporting other institutions through the sharing of best practice or subject specialisms for fear that it will impact on their own performance indicators. Schools across Wales are, rather than working together, finding themselves placed in an annual competition driven by the pressures of banding.

2. There is trust for education in Finland.

In Finland the only institution ranked above education(89%) interms of public confidence and trust was the police force (90%). Opinion polls have consistently shown that despite successive governments on both sides of Offa’s Dyke undermining the professionalism of teachers at different stages, teachers are held in a high regard in the UK. From 2002 through to 2011 teachers have always been at the top of the professions most trusted by the public. However, the education system does not necessarily share that level of support. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that people are bombarded by negative news about the school system and qualifications that conflict with their own experiences of local schools and teachers.

In Finland that trust extends from within political structures.  There, they do not inspect schools constantly and would no doubt be astonished by the almost weekly Estyn reports containing and generating comments that berate the profession here in Wales.

3. Finland does well overall

On a range of policy issues Finland excels. Educational success is driven in conjunction with success across Ministerial portfolios, particularly in issues of equality. From economic competitiveness to the UN happiness index; from the corruption perception index to the income equality rate; from the political empowerment of women to child wellbeing,Finland consistently rates at the top end of international standings. It is hard to ignore the fact that education cannot thrive unless a nation’s inequality is tackled.

In Wales we continue to examine the state of education in cyclonic isolation-a system held accountable to the public without an examination of the wider factors affecting it. How can we truly expect to see education in Wales become a world leader when child poverty levels remain a national embarrassment?

There are four key elements that make up the global response to education reform that has been rejected by Finland:

  • Competition drives improvement – the move towards league tables, free schools etc.
  • Standardisation – Expecting all schools to have the same approach to delivering the same things. No room for creativity and innovation.
  • Test based accountability – Standardised tests holding individual teachers / schools accountable doesn’t improve standards.
  • Choice – Parental choice driven by the introduction of free schools.

Where these methods have been embraced, OECD evidence suggests they have been a failure.  In maths for example the USA, England, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the Netherlands, nations subscribed to the above elements, have all seen a decline in the national averages of 15-year-old students’ learning outcomes from when they were first measured to the most recent study in 2009.  It begs the question why would Wales, through policies such as the introduction of standardised testing for all year 2- 9 pupils and league table style school banding be able to buck this trend?

To put it in context, while children as young as six in Wales are now being sat down to complete formal, externally-imposed tests in an attempt to provide a narrow label of their attainment, Finnish pupils won’t even start school until they are seven. The Finnish system is underpinned by the view that learning through play is critical to the development of a child’s ability to progress. This is a notion that was introduced in Wales with the Foundation Phase but is quickly being marginalised by new initiatives that undermine its effect. Equally while Finland excels in encouraging a system of collaboration between teachers; testing and school banding in Wales is increasingly pitting schools against one another and hampering that ambition.

It would be unrealistic to simply take what Finland has achieved and think that it can be transferred en mass to the same positive impact here in Wales. We have a different sense of community and have developed different social structures from Finland. Indeed, the thrust of Salhberg’s message was wrapped in that very warning. Education ideas do not travel well and you can’t simply transfer them to a new setting and expect the same results.  Wales has a very different set of opportunities and challenges from Finland, and we need to acknowledge this. However, that doesn’t mean of course that we cannot take a lead from what they have done right and use their good practice as a source of inspiration. The principles are based on a solid foundation.

Investment in teachers is paramount to the quality of teaching you get. Respect for the profession will breed an increasingly-motivated workforce. Most important of all however, is the notion that transformation does not, nor should come about in a single political cycle. While politicians have only until the next election to produce results or face the electoral consequences; the reality for education is that it takes much longer for tangible benefits to be seen. Finland’s journey has been a 35/40 year one. Other nations are undergoing an equally long but equally prosperous education development. It’s time we accepted in Wales that if we wish to get the system that best supports students here we can’t cheat history and deliver it in a matter of months. Thinking we can will only lead to deeper problems.  Focusing all of our plans for the development of our national education system on meeting the requirements of a single international test is short-sighted, and potentially limiting in the long term. Fortune favours the brave, and courage in this instance is to have the conviction to accept that long-term planning and consensus will deliver the results we all wish to see.

The presentation given by Pasi Sahlbeg can be found here


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