The Finnish Way of Public Education

These answers to questions about public education in Finland are from Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki, Finland, and adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki and at the University of Oulu. This article was originally published on Pasi Salhberg’s blog on 9 April 2012.

Q: What is the purpose of public education?

Public education guarantees every child good basic education and equal opportunities to further learning. Public education also equalizes the differences that income inequalities and other socioeconomic characteristics create to different learners. In brief, public education is basic human right and basic service to all children and their families. One of the key factors behind Finland’s good and equitable educational performance in international studies is the strong role of public education. Public schools have an important role in building democratic nation up here in the north.

Q: How does your country measure school success and hold schools accountable for educating students effectively?

Finland is not very inspired of measuring education but we take educational assessment very seriously. This is perhaps because our definition of school success is very different compared to how success is understood in the United States or in much of the world. Successful school in Finland is one that is able to help all children to learn and fulfill their aspirations, both academic and non-academic.

Many educators in Finland think that measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. That’s why assessment of and in Finnish schools is first and foremost a responsibility of teachers and principal in school. They are reporting to parents and authorities how successful their school is in achieving commonly set goals. By this definition, school success is a subjective thing that varies from one school to another.

We don’t use term ‘accountability’ when we talk about what schools are expected to do in Finland. Instead, we expect that teachers and principals are responsible collectively for making all children successful in school. There is a big difference between social responsibility for all children’s learning in school and holding each teacher accountable for their own pupils’ achievement through data from standardized tests.

External reviewers of Finnish education have repeatedly recognized this difference between Finnish schools and American schools, for example. Shared responsibility has created strong mutual trust within Finnish education system that is one frequently mentioned success factor of Finnish education. As a result, we don’t need external standardized tests, teacher evaluation or inspection to assure high quality.

Q: How do the schools in your country address the impact of poverty on education?

Finland is a Nordic welfare state where all families are guaranteed public health and other social services for free or subsidized by state. It is worth of note that in the 1970s poverty was still wide-spread in Finland. Therefore it was essential that childcare began already before birth. It still does because we realized how important alleviating poverty is for learning and good education. Mothers receive pre-natal support and infant care is available free of charge for all families. Every child goes through systematic health care and frequent development checks before school starts at age 7. Most of what needs to be done to address the impact of poverty is done before school starts.

Schools in Finland provide all pupils with healthy school lunch and afternoon snack, comprehensive health care, dental care and psychological help free of charge. All pupils also receive access to high-quality special education services in their own schools throughout basic education. Special education in Finland is based on early intervention and immediate individualized support that are provided by trained experts. About one-third of Finnish basic school students are in special education of some kind.

Child poverty rate in Finland is about 4%, and therefore there are very few children in Finnish schools who suffer from the impacts of poverty in school compared to many other countries, including the United States.

Q: How do we educate children to become citizens of a global community instead of merely competitors in a global economy?

School education should focus much more than it does today on social and moral development of children. Unfortunately the dominance of standardized testing and race-to-the-top mentality is doing just the opposite. Becoming a member of any community means that an individual needs to have adequate interpersonal skills, understanding of different cultures, and good understanding of moral responsibilities in life. It is character and mind that matter in competitive labor market today, not being among winners in knowledge tests.

In Finland we think that children need to have a safe and balanced learning environment that is equally guided by academic and non-academic curricula, team learning and individual work, and formal and informal learning.

We also believe that it is very important to learn about the world and its different languages and cultures from very early on. That’s why we give foreign language learning and international education high priorities. There is a Finnish saying: “Real winners don’t compete”. We believe that what children learn to do together today, they can do alone tomorrow.

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