A few weeks ago, we posted a story on schools that make a difference. GEMS third grade teacher, Stacey Sullivan, was a participant in this global learning exchange offered though CVEDC. Stacey’s interest and background in global education make her an ideal “thought partner” for her colleagues. As part of her graduate program, she traveled to Finland to explore commonalities and contrasts in education systems. She has given us permission to republish this series to highlight United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
With spotty WiFi and lack of sleep, I wrote a blog post that synthesized the Finnish educational system. However, when I arrived in Turku, which thankfully had much better network connections than the capital city, I was disheartened to discover my draft had “disappeared”. Discouraged and tired; so. very. tired. I decided to let it go until my return home. Now, after my first full night of sleep in a week I have attempted to recreate my original post.
The second day of our trip was spent getting a feel for the educational system in Finland and visiting one of Helsinki’s high schools. After a lovely breakfast spread and plenty of strong Finnish coffee, we spent the morning with Eeva Penttila, Senior Consultant, Honorary President of European School Heads’ Association. Eeva is also a former principal of a high school in Helsinki. In a comfortable conference room on the second floor of our Helsinki, Sokos Hotel, Eeva walked us through a PowerPoint presentation of the Finnish educational system.
Maternity and paternity leave in Finland almost covers the entire first year of a child’s life. In a country where about 60% of mothers work full time outside the home, the fee for childcare is based on the family’s income and is very reasonable. Kindergarten is available for all Finnish children beginning at the age of 8 months and is taught by teachers who have earned a bachelors degree with a concentration in early childhood education. Preschool follows kindergarten and is now obligatory for all 6-year-old children. Both kindergarten and preschool in Finland are primarily play based. Eeva spoke of an emphasis on promoting the joy of childhood during these early years. In fact, later in the week, we would learn that it is not expected that students entering first grade would be able to read and write. First grade, for students age 7, is the start of basic education, this is also sometimes referred to as comprehensive or compulsory education. Basic education is grades 1-9 and includes students ranging in age from 7-15 or 16.
Comprehensive education in Finland is completely free. This includes meals which are made on site and provided to every child in school. In fact, no food from home is allowed. These hot meals are required to provide 1/3 of a child’s nutritional requirements for the day and are a right guaranteed by law. These lunchtime meals are the second largest expense for schools after teacher salaries. Transportation to school is also free. Most students walk or bike to school. Yes, even from the tender age of 7. In Finnish culture, children are encouraged to become independent. It is common for students in third grade to begin going home at the end of a school day by themselves for a few hours until their parents get home from work. Those that live far, more than 2 miles from school, to safely walk are given a bus pass for public transportation, students with special needs are provided with a taxi at no cost to the family.
This basic education is followed by 3 years of upper secondary (academic high school) or vocational education (vocational high school). All students, having finished upper secondary can choose to continue their education at a university to earn a masters degree or a polytechnic school to earn a bachelors.
In Finland teaching is a well-respected profession. Eeva remarked that teachers in Finland are referred to as the “candles of the nation.” Teacher training is competitive and rigorous. Only 10% of applicants pass the university entrance test, of those, only 3% continue on after the entrance interview. Finnish teachers are considered professionals and are given complete independence to chose the instructional strategies they use in their classroom. It is expected that teachers communicate with parents about the methods they use at the beginning of each year. There are no school inspections by the Finnish government. The municipalities are responsible for overseeing the local schools. Municipalities form a school board for each school consisting of 5 parents who have a child enrolled and are voted in by other parents, 1 teacher representative, 1 other staff representative, 1 student representative over 13 years old, and the principal who serves as the secretary for the board. These municipalities put a high degree of trust in the principal and the teachers to deliver quality instruction that meets the core principles in the national curriculum. The national curriculum emphasizes the individuality of each student and shows regard for the cultural heritage of all members of society.
Finland is a bilingual country. All students receive primary instruction in either Finnish or Swedish and are required to have weekly lessons in the other. Beginning in third grade students are required to receive instruction in a third language which is typically English. Class sizes average around 20 in first and second grade and around 30 by 5th grade. The number of teachers in each class varies. Very little homework is given in Finland; family time is given priority. The national curriculum states that “The pupil has the right to have enough time for recreation.” It is a shared philosophy that school is responsible for student learning, not the parents. Finnish culture discourages the “tiger mother” system of “pushing” children in academics.
The role of assessment in Finland is not to rank students or to provide grades, instead, assessment supports and guides the learning process, helps students form a realistic self-image, and informs the student and their parents about progress in learning. In fact, students in basic education do not receive grades until 5th grade. Twice a year teachers meet face-to-face with parents to talk about student progress. All schools in Finland have an application called Wilma which allows parents and teachers to communicate daily if necessary. There is no national test at the basic level of education. In upper secondary, there is a national evaluation which samples some schools in some subject areas. Positive discrimination is exercised here, meaning underperforming schools receive more money.
Talk to anyone about the educational system here and pretty quickly you will see the emphasis placed on providing every child with what he or she needs in order to succeed. To this end, every school in Finland is required by law to have a Well Being Group made up of a psychologist, social worker, special teacher, and the student’s teacher. Approximately 24% of children require some sort of attention from this committee which can be tasked with helping children through everything from losing a pet to a suicide in the family. Learning is also supported every step of the way in Finland by providing students specialized help as soon as identified and for as long as needed.
Finland is a relatively small nation of approximately 5.6 million. They have a national focus on education guaranteed by their constitution which is founded on the principle of lifelong learning and a free education. Education is viewed as an important right and necessary foundation for a competitive nation which nurtures individual well-being. Eeva put it bluntly, Finland has made a conscientious decision to invest in the education of every citizen from birth rather than throw money at law enforcement later.