Finland – the promised land?

My ITL colleague @HYWEL_ROBERTS posed a great question yesterday, ‘Why do Finnish pupils succeed with less homework?’

This came just 24 hours after I mentioned the Finnish system whilst appearing on @SkyNews with the lovely @KayBurley and the equally delightful Sandra Nardi


The reason for our appearance was to discuss the Save the Children report about the impact on UK children who are not being taught by qualified nursery staff, which is causing:

  • Over 130 000 children to be behind expected standards by reception age.
  • Only a 58% uptake of nursery places for under 3s.
  • Children who haven’t had nursery education with a qualified teacher in the year before starting school are still behind by age 15.
  • Children in deprived areas are least like likely to attend a nursery setting with a qualified teacher – yet also benefit the most from this provision.

In the discussion I cited Finland as an example of where nursery education is done differently to Britain, as – in my view – our problem is systemic and not simply solved by employing more qualified staff. As Sandra pointed out, considered in more depth in this great blog by @Sue_Cowley EYFS staff have a real issue in terms of not having a clear payscale, progression path – let alone recognition of their specialist talents. And here is where the issue is clearly one of system.

So, what is the difference?

I think, quite simply, they value education! Education is not seen as something additional, or invaluable resource to be toyed and tinkered with. Instead, in Finland:

  • Health, education and social professionals and establishments are on the same site.
  • Education staff are graduates – many at M.A level (education is seen as a worthy/ noble pursuit requiring the best minds.)
  • The system is designed to support the family (see above) not to keep them at arm’s length and bamboozle them with jargon.
  • The profession s well paid, respected and desirable as a career.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, the fundamental aspect is that there exists a culture of trust in the education system; from the local authorities, to the school and head and so to the teachers. This is shown in that there is no Ofsted equivalent in Finland and, whilst there are judgements and standards, these are not published in league tables.

Primarily the system is centred around a love of children, valuing the importance of education, family and health to deliver the best for them. This is also seen as a community responsibility; the school is a community and exists in one.

Is any of this reflective of the British model? I would suggest our system still reflects, in its essence, the ‘halcyon’ days of education being there to create the social stratus and ensuring that everyone knew their place. In our country we still hear phrases, ‘too clever for his/her own good’ and – as many would argue – the recent drive back towards grammar education shows this.

So, why not simply implement the Finnish system? The trouble is, we’ve tried that (Free Schools) but without the rigour or system behind it – we’ve also tried copying the success of Asia, Singapore Maths, without understanding their societal demands either!

Ironically, other countries are doing this, Canada is a prime example. The Vancouver HELP Programme is one such example, where the authorities have worked on building community responsibility for the children, seeing them as nurturative assets at the school’s locality level. In Alberta, there are community profiles of early childhood development, following the Finnish model of an inclusive system of all strands working with the child and family and it’s working!

Why don’t we do this? Honestly, I don’t know. As I teach my classes, you get out what you put in and therein lies the rub. I see that we are stymied by:

  • Political infighting and mudslinging/ blaming.
  • A need for parties to ‘prove’ their successes.
  • Addressing issues are seen as weakness/ an admittance of policy failures.
  • A slavish focus on 11/16 and 18 year olds, where exams are taken and standards are proven.
  • A governmental (and so societal) distrust of teachers, too often portrayed as left wing/ progressive/ the blob/ scared of change/ etc.
  • A need for quick fixes, not a long term vision.

All of this reminds me of the cartoons of my childhood, when the protagonist was tidying quickly and simply lifted the rug and swept under it, ignoring the mound that everyone else could see! To tackle the issue needs courage and a long term plan – results won’t be immediate, but will start impacting every child if done properly.

So what to do? The list is lengthy, but here’s a few inexhaustive starters

  • Admit there’s an issue, the first step in solving any problem.
  • Stop being magpies and taking the newest, brightest ideas from abroad without seeing how their embedded socially.
  • Take education away from the politicians and use experts to look at the system as a whole, delivering true cradle upwards education – the College of Teaching is a good start!
  • Stop talking teachers down.
  • Implement a 4Rs drive for staff – recruit, retain, retrain and re-engage – to tackle the mounting crisis in staffing.
  • Fund the system properly – after Brexit, apparently, we’re able to forge our own way in the world, but will our future generations have the skills and knowledge to do this?
  • Stop thinking there’s a silver bullet to solving all problems, e.g. grammar schools, it fools no-one and actually prevents real progress. Surely grammars would only be part of the whole anyway?

As I say this isn’t an exhaustive list, it could be doubled, trebled and more. But, the simple fact is, that if we do nothing, we will continue to look at countries such as Finland and Canada enviously and ask “How do they do it?” Yet, still we won’t bother to tackle it!

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