Comment Blog 4 October, 2023

Bolder moves for education: Lessons from Finland

Rachael Powell
Research Assistant

The Prime Minister has signalled a major push in the realm of education policy, with ambitions to get and retain more further education teachers, have students studying more subjects at A-level, and make all pupils study English and maths to the age of 18. But improvements could also take inspiration from education systems in other countries. Even after the reforms initiated in the early 2000s and deepened under Michael Gove, our education system mirrors our wider model of government and public services with a strong tendency to centralisation. With crumbling schools and a dwindling supply of teachers, perhaps we can learn from Finland’s bright example of education reform.

Finland’s education system is now thought of as one of the best in the world, but it has not always been this way. The system was radically decentralised in the 1990s, giving municipalities and schools autonomy over and accountability for education and its outcomes. Now, Finland’s education ranks second highest in the world.

Some of Finland’s success stems from the relative ease of education within a smaller and more homogeneous population, which creates an easier environment for education with fewer complexities (such as differences in first languages). But this is not the full story. Prior to the 1990s, before Finland’s radical education reform, Finnish education outcomes were hovering around the OECD average, and the system was on near economic collapse. In Norway, a comparable country, education policies that are more akin to those in the USA — and, like the USA, its PISA scores, a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, have stalled at the middle of the pack for almost a decade.

What is perhaps remarkable is that Finland spends less than England on education. In 2020, Finland spent US$ 9,973 per full time equivalent upper secondary education student, compared to England’s $14,609 — a $4,635 difference per student. Finland’s reforms shrank the relative size of its education bill: in 1990, Finland spent 12.08 per cent of GDP on education, and in 2020 it was down to 10.23 per cent.

So what changes did Finland actually make? Before the reform, Finland’s education system was centralised : the national government set a detailed, inflexible national curriculum, and school inspections were carried out by a national body. Since then, Finland has undergone a radical decentralisation process, which moved responsibilities to municipalities that include shaping the curriculum and assessing schools.

Finland’s education system day-to-day is very different to ours. For starters, the hours in primary school is one of the lowest in the OECD — children begin school at the age of seven, and are typically in school from 9am to 2pm. There are no standardised national tests for primary school children: the first standardised test is for 17-19 year olds for university applications. Homework is rarely set. In this context, the evidence shows that Finnish students perform extraordinarily well and with low stress — Finland’s students score higher than OECD average in reading, maths, and science, and only seven per cent of students feel anxious about mathematics, compared to 53 per cent of French students.

The success of the decentralisation of Finland’s education system is arguably down to the decision to devolve both responsibilities and accountability to a more local level. Firstly, the devolved responsibilities have enabled a diverse array of curricula throughout Finland to develop, as the curriculum is localised and created through collaboration between teachers, municipalities, stakeholders, and families. The national government create the ‘National Core Curricula’, which is a set of broad objectives and values, including life-long learning and wellbeing of learners. National government do not set a traditional syllabus, and the guidance given for the concepts for each subject are only suggestions and are not obligatory. This core foundation enables municipalities and students to shape their local curriculum according to the local area’s needs, including content relevant to the local area and the pupils’ needs. Giving local actors autonomy to shape the curriculum facilitates innovation, inspiration, and a sense of ownership. The local curriculum is seen as a “process” rather than a product that adapts and changes over time.

Municipalities are also responsible for allocating resources and funds depending on different schools’ needs, so long as the minimum requirements of funding set by the national government are met. They also organise support given to students with special needs, who often attend mainstream school rather than specialised schools.

Secondly, the accountability of schools and education outcomes is devolved to local actors. Schools are assessed by municipalities — national school inspections are not carried out, nor are schools put on national league tables. National evaluations of education are focused on the education system rather than individual schools. Notwithstanding some recent moves to centralise the assessment of the quality of teachers to ensure teachers are at a high standard universally, accountability is held at a local level.

Students are assessed by their teachers and do not undergo a national standardised test until the age of 17 at the youngest. Unlike England, where children begin to take nationalised standard tests from the age of six, children in Finland are arguably able to see their learning as a process, are encouraged to self-assess, and avoid feelings of competition with other students. This is intended to boost students’ confidence in their abilities, which is linked to higher performance.

Localised accountability comes hand-in-hand with high trust of teachers and schools. In Finland, teachers are highly respected, are educated to a master’s degree even for primary schools, and are entrusted with shaping curriculum and assessing pupils.

The depth of autonomy given to teachers through their freedom to assess and teach children as they see fit enables them to modify their teaching and curriculum to cater for their students, without the constant need to formally assess students, nor be constantly assessed themselves. This creates space for teachers to be inspired to teach and guide their students to a high standard. Teachers are able to teach students for the purposes of education, not to prepare them for the next nationally-required test.

There are still bold moves to make in education policy — not least those inspired by the decentralisation and autonomy created by reforms to Finland’s system.