(As a part of the series of "Education around the globe", we take a close look at the education system of Finland.)

Finland's education system is considered the most balanced and successful in the world. It consistently ranks in the Top 10 of the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test in dozens of countries, in the main categories of maths, reading , science and collaborative problem solving abilities. It is also one of the most cost-effective systems in the world . Around 5% of Finland’s gross domestic product (GDP) is spent on education, which is lower than in Norway, Sweden, South Korea, Brazil, and Colombia. The journey of this country's education system from being average to a star performer today is fascinating and a subject of many studies worldwide.

When Finland became independent in 1919, it was a poor, predominantly agricultural country. It was on the mend from First World War and primarily focused on collecting natural resources such as lumber to support their economy. Their education system was rudimentary and heavily influenced by the schooling structure of the Soviet Union. In the decade following the end of the Second World War, the Finnish parliament created three successive reform commissions, each of which aimed to create an education system that would provide equal educational opportunities for all Finns and take a more humanistic approach to learning. The main aspects of these reforms were : a holistic national curriculum, development of extremely well-trained and committed teachers and mandatory schooling till 16 years of age. This set Finland on a path to the evolution of a holistic and equitable approach to education which focused on the whole child instead of only academic achievement.

Structure

The education system is comprised of :

  • One-year "pre-school" (or kindergarten for six-year-olds)
  • Nine-year compulsory basic comprehensive school (starting at age seven and ending at the age of sixteen)
  • Post-compulsory secondary general academic and vocational education; higher education (University and University of applied sciences)

After their nine-year basic education in a comprehensive school, students at the age of 16 may choose to continue their secondary education in either an academic track (lukio) or a vocational track (ammattikoulu), both of which usually take three years and give a qualification to continue to tertiary education. Tertiary education is divided into university and polytechnic (ammattikorkeakoulu, also known as "university of applied sciences") systems.

There are no school inspectors or standardized testing; only matriculation examination (A-levels) in high-school. According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students' own reflection and self-assessment. Consequently, ongoing feedback from the teacher is very important. Teachers give students formative and summative reports both through verbal and narrative feedback. Inquiry is a major focus of learning in Finland, and assessment is used to cultivate students' active learning skills by asking open-ended questions and helping students address them.

Education Administration

Education in Finland is decentralized and is managed by a three-tier administrative structure at the national, regional and municipal level. This mechanism is responsible for sound policy formulation and implementation.At the national level, parliament is responsible for the legislation and setting general principles of education policy. The Ministry of Education and Culture and the Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) are responsible for preparing education policy, for setting the general goals and steering the implementation.At regional level, there are 15 Centres for Economic Development Transport and the Environment and six regional State Administrative Agencies. The centres and agencies are largely responsible for education in their areas.

Curriculum and Pedagogy

A flexible and balanced curriculum, student self-directed learning , lack of standardized testing, teacher autonomy and broad-based competencies or learning focused pedagogy set Finland apart from conventional education systems. Apart from the curricula, essential life skills such as collaboration , critical thinking and entrepreneurship are taught at schools. It is thought to be the most balanced curriculum with even non-academic areas such as arts, music, physical education, home economics  given enough weight.

Teacher Quality and Continuing Education

All teachers in primary and secondary schools must have Master's degrees. Teaching targets are set by the national curriculum, but within this broad framework, teaching is highly independent. The curriculum allows them to have freedom to implement it in the best possible way to meet the needs of their local community, school and learners. Teacher education in Finland has at least four distinguishing qualities :

• Research based. Teacher candidates are required to write a research-based dissertation as the final requirement for the master's degree. Upper grade teachers typically pick a topic in their subject area; primary grade teachers typically study some aspect of pedagogy.

• Strong focus on developing pedagogical content knowledge. Teacher education in Finland is a shared responsibility between the teacher education faculty and the academic subject faculty, and there is substantial attention to subject-specific pedagogy for prospective teachers.

• Good training for all Finnish teachers in diagnosing students with learning difficulties and in adapting their instruction to the varying learning needs and styles of their students.

• A very strong clinical component : Teachers’ preparation includes both extensive course work on how to teach – with a strong emphasis on using research based on state-of-the-art practice – and at least a full year of clinical experience in a school associated with the university. These model schools are intended to develop and model innovative practices, as well as to foster research on learning and teaching.

Equity with Quality

Education sector development is based on equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early interventions for prevention, and building gradual trust among education practitioners, especially teachers. So, while Finnish schools rank high in academic achievement , there are few aspects which showcase how equitable the system is :

  • No other country had so little variation in outcomes between schools.
  • There is a relatively narrow gap in attainment within schools between the highest and lowest-achieving students.
  • Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socioeconomic status.

ICT

Finland stood out as the top country for information and communications technology (ICT), according to February's European Commission Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). In education sector, technology is used as one of the several learning elements at each educational stage, starting from early education. The use of technology equipment is pursued step-by-step, as long as its use is learning-enhancing, pedagogically useful and justified. Technology plays an increasingly significant role in everyday school routines, allowing pupils to be more easily involved in the development and selection of their own learning environments. Teachers are trained regularly to be up-to-date with the new technological innovations and systems.

Finland's Edtech ecosystem is high developed due to government's digitization initiatives, willingness of schools to embrace technology and availability of highly skilled teachers and technologists. It is the home to Europe’s largest edtech accelerator (xEdu) and has more than 200 edtech-related companies.

Issues and concerns

The achievement gap of Finland is widening  due to an increasing number of immigrant students in Finnish schools. None of them speak Finnish when they arrive, and learning the Finnish language requires more effort than many other languages.

The 2016 reforms to introduce phenomenon based learning has met with mixed reactions. It is seen as a way to transform education to meet perceived new economic demands rather than continue focus on learning. Another major reason for concern is that any drop in the PISA rankings will increase the expectations on schools students and create a panic among education administration to rush in unnecessary reforms.

Conclusion

A key insight we can take back is that the presence of committed and well-trained teachers has been the biggest factor in the success of the Finnish system. This bundled with other measures such as three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, parental subsidy for each child till 16 years of age, free and nutritious food in school premises and free student health care has created an effective system. Other countries can learn from this unconventional model , but its important to note that it took more than twenty years of close monitoring and multiple reforms before they reached a state of offering flexible curriculum and teacher autonomy. Having a holistic perspective of Finland's education journey will assist in adapting its best practices more effectively.

As Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish education expert quoted:  "You can have excellence and equity in schools simultaneously if education policies focus more on the whole child instead of academic performance, professional development instead of test-based accountability, and empowerment instead of stringent oversight. "