Finnish Lessons

Monday March 5, 2012

Viewers of the ABC’s Lateline last week had a special treat – an evidence-based discussion of education policy. Finland’s director of education, Pasi Sahlberg, was interviewed on the success of his country in international student assessments. He said its success was due to a focus on equity in education:

….one of the keys of our good performance is that we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done…. equity is the one that is also bringing excellence – just like this, not only Finland, but also Canada and Korea, for example, are the same. So I think the systematic way of addressing those who are in special need and need more help is the key.

He contrasted the priority given to equity in Finland with other approaches which focus on parent choice as the way to improve overall student results. He said that education policy in Finland has always been to focus more on equity and equality in education rather than choice.

Trying to make sure that every single school is a good school in Finland, and all the schools have good teachers, so that this would minimise the need for parents to choose the school, and we are exactly in this situation today.

Sahlberg said that improving equity starts from equitable funding of schools. He said that Finland had been doing for 20 years what the Gonski report has just recommended for Australia.

Our schools are funded very close to what this report is recommending you to do. So we give schools a kind of a basic funding equally based on the number of students they have, and then we adjust the school budget based on the school’s need. For example, if there are more immigrant children or pupils coming from the single parent families, the schools normally receive more funding so that they can deal with these issues easily. So there are many similarities in what we are doing now to those recommendations in the Gonski Report.

Sahlberg also contrasted other aspects of Finland’s education policy with those given precedence in Australia and other countries. For example, Finland’s approach to school autonomy emphasises trusting teachers and providing scope to design their own curriculum and teaching to meet the needs of students rather than financial management.

I think the most important thing in this school autonomy in Finland is that all the schools are both responsible and also free to design their own curriculum as they wish, based on the quite loose national curriculum framework. So financing and managing the school is one thing, but I think the… using teachers’ knowledge and skills that we have in our system to design how they want teaching and learning to take place is the most important thing.

Sahlberg also criticised the publication of test data to hold schools and teachers accountable:

Anywhere where these types of things had put in place, teachers have started to focus more on teaching to the test, and curriculum has narrowed. If the test data is only collected through two or three subjects – like is often done measuring literacy and mathematics – this means that these subjects will become the most important things in a school. And the other thing is that these knowledge tests often measure only the things that can be measured and not, for example, problem solving or creativity to the extent that they should be, and this leads teachers and schools to focus on these things more than they could do otherwise.

He said that Finland has concentrated on building trust and responsibility rather than accountability to ensure a quality education for all. He pointed to co-operation and sharing as the important things in making sure that everybody will be able to improve and do things better.

He contrasted Finland’s approach with that of other countries such as the UK, the US and Australia which he said have been infected by the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM, based on ideas of competition, choice, accountability, and testing. He said that “….these GERM elements are actually opposite to what Finland has been doing”.

The GERM virus has badly infected education policy in Australia under the Howard and Rudd/Gillard Governments. They have put their faith in competition and choice in education against all evidence that it fails to improve student achievement. Rather, it has led to greater inequity and segregation in schooling. Sahlberg has provided a much needed antidote to this virus in his book on Finland’s education system called Finnish Lessons. Read it!

Trevor Cobbold

See more at Pasi Sahlberg’s website and blog.

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