How Finland set up an exceptionally performing education system

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Finland has one of the widely acclaimed public educational systems in the world. The country, which was at the top in the 2006 PISA ranking, by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), still ranks among the top countries.

To study the system and replicate its success, India recently sent a team of officials led by the chairperson of the Central Board of Secondary Education.

With all the schools under the government, the Finnish school system is known for fewer school hours, less homework, a late start in formal education, no standardised tests, teacher autonomy and special care for students who lag behind the rest.

The country has teachers whose jobs are stable, and who are highly unionised. But compared to those in countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia or Peru, they perform exceptionally well.

So, how did the country achieve this?

The transformation

Finland created new law and a new national curriculum in the 1960s. Under this, it introduced a 9-year comprehensive school system, which included 6 years of basic education and 3 years of lower secondary education.

Before this, students had been sorted into academic grammar schools and work-oriented civic schools after their four years of primary education.

By late 1970s the country also radically reformed the teacher’s education system. Teachers were trained to take greater responsibilities, such as curriculum development and student assessment.

By this time, a masters degree was also made compulsory for anyone to take up teaching. Earlier, teachers had to get training only from teacher training institutes.

Those who were already in service were given extensive professional training to adapt to new changes.

“Only 10 years later, when the reform had already expanded throughout the country, did the country start experiencing a radical change in the perception and the prestige of the teacher career, and teachers started receiving increasingly more autonomy,” says a blog by Jaime Saavedra, Hanna Alasuutari, Marcela Gutierrez, Educational experts with the World Bank.

By mid-1980s, the country also decentralised public education, giving more freedom and responsibilities for municipalities in multiple areas, including education policy.

The teachers

Becoming a teacher is difficult here. Only about 10 per cent of those who apply to get into the elementary teacher education program, a five-year master’s degree program.

The teachers are trusted much. There are no classroom inspectors or supervisors. The school principals act as pedagogical leaders, to assist them.

Although the teachers must follow the national core curriculum, they can decide how to implement it.

Can it be replicated elsewhere?

Experts say that a highly autonomous education system like Finland’s is efficient and could lead to high levels of achievement only under certain conditions. These include meritocratic and demanding selection of teachers; making education highly attractive for the best talents, and coupling career advancement with performance, as opposed to the number of years on the job.

It will also take several years to establish such a system and culture, they say.

“True, teachers in Finland have substantial social prestige. But it took a decade for this to happen after the whole system to prepare teachers was revamped. True, the system is highly decentralized and teachers are trusted and not closely centrally monitored. But it took about twenty years of close monitoring before they started giving teachers freedom and autonomy,” says the authors.

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