Why the Finnish
system is the world's # 1
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November 23, 2006
LONDON - Two hours drive due north from here lies
the Artic Circle. But in this town of 120, 000 people one not only feels
the bitter cold but also the white heat of the technological revolution.
Here are the principal research and development offices of Nokia. There
are 800 other high tech companies, some overflowing their expertise into
neighboring Russia where they see the future "beckoning", in
the words of Pertti Huuskonen, the boss of Technopolis, which is just
building a big facility close to St Petersburg airport. There are probably
more PhDs per square metre in this compact old paper-milling town than
anywhere else on earth.
This astonishing intellectual creation can be laid at the feet of the
Finnish educational system, considered by all who survey it, including
the OECD, as possessing the best school system in the world. Finland is
also reckoned to be in the top three of the world's most competitive countries.
Why? The Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen reduces the explanation to one
pithy observation. "The teachers are respected; high talent is attracted
into teaching; it is considered to be one of the most important professions",
he told me.
But how did Finland get to such a happy state of being? Tapani Ruokanen,
editor of Finland's leading news weekly, Suomen Kuvalehti, argues that
it goes back to eighteenth century when the Lutheran bishops wouldn't
allow anyone to marry unless they could read the Bible. Then in the nineteenth
century there were a series a strong revivalists movements, which led
to the creation of a flurry of newspapers and magazines.
The big departure that everyone refers back to was the decision by a Social
Democratic government in the 1970s to turn what was then an elitist system
into a comprehensive one. Before then the working class could only progress
into the upper schools if they won a scholarship that covered their fees.
But for the last thirty-five years the schools have been open to all,
free and unstreamed.
Marie-Laure Foulon, the Stockholm correspondent of
Le Figaro who has just published a book, "Le Rebond du Modèle
Scandinavia" (The Rebound of the Scandinavian Model), argues that
the critical ingredient in the 1970's reform was "to decide it was
better to push up the bottom level to the middle than to push the middle
to the top."
She says that Finland's success shows that a system
based on equal opportunity is superior to one like the French, "with
excellence at the top and mediocrity at the bottom." She adds, "the
top will go to the top anyway." She tells of interviewing the head
of the Finnish stock exchange who told her that although at the time when
he was at school he felt he was not being stretched, he realizes because
of the comprehensive system he now knows his peers better and that has
enabled him to be a more effective businessman. "It appears",
she concludes, " that equality in education creates productivity,
even if it doesn't always create excellence."
Day to day, the Finnish government keeps the pressure
on, indeed to such a degree that the pupils complain of a lack of fun
at school, a problem that the minister of education, Antti Kalliomäki,
tells me is being worked on with new proposals to extend the short school
day that often ends at 2pm for another couple of hours where pupils can
play sport and do their hobbies before they return home. Nevertheless,
compared with say French or British children, the children should feel
themselves lucky - there are no nation-wide exams or big final tests.
It is a system of continuous assessment by a mixture of monthly tests
and teacher evaluations.
Much of success of the educational system lies in a detailed application
to the problems that can arise in all educational systems- from making
sure that all children get fed by providing free meals at school to subsidised
travel. Likewise no student, however badly behaved, need fear expulsion.
The school is simply responsible for getting on top of whatever behaviour
Only 15% of those who apply to be teachers are accepted,
even though pay levels are about average for Europe. No teacher can teach
at any level without a master's degree. Once in a job teachers are encouraged
to keep abreast of the academic literature so that educational decisions
are based on rational argument, not just everyday intuition. Moreover,
they are constantly being sent on courses during their long holidays to
upgrade their knowledge and skills.
In short, the Finns work at it and, unencumbered by a class-stratified
educational system, they have shown that equality is a plus, not a hindrance
to fast progress.
Copyright © 2006 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
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