Thursday, October 30, 2008

Richard Knights Wednesday October 29

I bought this small bottle of tar from the museum, the label informs me that, 'In Finland the practice has been to treat all outdoor equipment with tar; sleighs, boats, carts and tools. In earlier times people even used tar as a medicine for coughs and other complaints.' I'm not quite sure whether to drink it or use it as embrocation.

In the morning we go to the Oulu City Department of Education special education department. A feature of the Finnish system has been the attention on raising achievement amongst the lowest ability groups. In Oulu 4.8% of pupils are identified as special education needs, 1.6% are integrated into mainstream and 3.2% are in special schools. It's hard to tell if this is the equivalent to our statemented children.

In Oulu there are 52 special needs teachers and 100 learning assistants working on integration. There are start up classes in pre-primary, 13 smaller classes to prepare for integration and four units that cater for a range of different disabilities. There is also a state special school for severe learning and physical disabilities.

The emphasis is on early recognition and support. In Oulu they spend 13.1 million Euros on special education, the key words are networking, being proactive, inclusion, and cooperation with other authorities. There are also having the same debate about the balance between special schools and integration.

We walk through town dodging all the cyclists and go to a Youth House that has pioneered the 'Together Project' aimed at 12 to 14 year olds. It ran over three years and worked with 4 schools, they involved all the students in camping trips and outdoor activities like ice fishing, bob sledging and climbing. They also developed social skills by sitting around the camp fires at night. They tried to get teenagers to view the teacher as a person they could confide in. Children at risk of drug or alcohol abuse were given counselling. Over 9,000 pupils, parents, teachers and youth workers were involved in the project.

In the 2006 OECD survey Finland had the fourth lowest numbers of young people aged 15-19 not in education - 8.2% and the second lowest rate of youth unemployment - 1.7%.

Our last stop is the Rajakylä Comprehensive which is based on housing estate on the outskirts of Oulu. The Rector Riku Korkeamäki explains that the success of the Finnish education system is based on high quality teacher training and excellent teaching materials.

In 1970 Finland ended the parallel school system where the ten year olds either continued in the Folk Schools or went on to the academic secondary schools. Legislation in the 1980s and 1990s gave schools more autonomy over the curriculum. Riku describes his school's curriculum as a binder where they can take pages out or insert others.

What did Riku feel was the secret of Finland's education miracle? Yes, it was the 't' word again, trust teachers, as he reminded us, Finland doesn't have a school inspection service, 'my school is the best in Oulu, but then so are all the other schools in Oulu, we are all the best.'

The school has a team of psychologists, nurses and doctors to support the pupils and teachers. The emphasis is on the personal development of the child. Classes are mixed ability, streaming was ended over twenty years ago.

Riku is immensely proud of Finland's 'world class education system'. We explain the English testing system, with teachers' pay increasingly based on test results. I'm beginning to feel like one of those strange relatives that turns up at Christmas who everyone tries to humour. 'We select the very best students to be teachers, we trust them, they are excellent young people, a joy to work with.'

In the 2006 OECD survey the UK had the third highest variation in test scores, the impact of social origins on individual scores was greater than in all but four countries. Educational inequality is also closely related with measures of societal cohesion, such as trust in people, civic cooperation and (inversely) crime.

It's true that Finland is a rich, small, homogeneous country, you can't directly equate it with England. But on the other hand it is about the choices you make as a society. From the 1970s onwards Finland abolished streaming, testing and selection, they built state of the art small comprehensives that all children from the locality attend, schools and teachers were given autonomy over the curriculum, they didn't introduce a punitive inspection service to 'name and shame' 'failing' schools. Then there's that 't' word again - trust teachers.

In England we've had years of TINA - There is no alternative. No alternative to testing, league tables, selection, Ofsted, a prescriptive curriculum. Finland is living proof that there is an alternative.

In fact I think I've discovered the solution, what we should do is invite all the Ofsted inspectors and government education ministers over to Finland, dose them up with tar and send them out into the Gulf of Bothnia in one of those leaky wooden sailing ships and conveniently forget to seal the timbers with tar. Only joking... honestly!

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