Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Richard Knights The Finnish Education System

1) Transition the Holistic Approach

In Finland one of their maxims is – early intervention, this applies both to special education and to transition between different schools. Some transition takes place at 7 years of age but in many cases at 13. They feel that it is important to lay the foundations for a child’s education; there is support from counsellors, nurses, psychologists, teachers and other children. It’s a holistic approach, educate the whole child, and pay attention to their social development, the rest will follow. In England it used to be called ‘child-centred education’.

Survey after survey has shown the damage that the testing culture has on children’s well being. The most recent one found that a high proportion of children pressured to succeed felt that their parents were more interested in test results than their health and welfare. It would be interesting to invite Finnish teachers over in May when our schools become converted into exam factories and children are labelled as ‘a Level 4’ or ‘a potential Grade C’. In that fateful transition from Year 6 to Year 7 we lose a high proportion of children to SATs fatigue. The Primary Review team commented that children identified school not as a place for learning but as somewhere where they were tested.

2) The Binding Curriculum

Just to reassure traditionalists there is a core curriculum in Finland, but there is also a high level of autonomy for schools and teachers. You don’t see shelves straining with huge tomes from the government education department, when you open a cupboard your life is not endangered by an avalanche of QCA ring binders descending on you. One thing we noticed was the lack of paper in the Finnish school’s offices and whereas our headteachers working lives are consumed by that endless paper trail their Finnish equivalents are working with children and teachers. There didn’t seem to be a Gaderene rush to retire early.

3) Keep it small

The Finnish schools are based in the local community and 600 seemed to be the average size for secondary schools. The old smoky Fordist factories may have closed but in education we seem intent on retaining that old model. We shovel eleven year olds into large impersonal, unwelcoming, inhospitable senior schools and then wonder why they fail to thrive. In Year 7 just to make them welcome most schools test them because they know that SATs results are completely unreliable.

4) ‘No school is an island’

In Oulu we did find some evidence of a hierarchy of schools, those that were better thought of or were more academically orientated. It would have been interesting to visit one of the Upper Secondary Vocational Schools to make a comparison. What do they do if a school is having problems? Who intervenes? Is it the local authority? However, what does stand out is the absence of ‘name and shame’, the public execution by the media of ‘failing schools’.

‘No man is an island’, one headteacher quoted John Donne to us and in Finland no school is an island, they work together with each other and cooperate. Contrast that with England where schools exist in isolation, the market has created rivalry and the winners and losers mentality.

5) What it isn’t

What is the secret of Finland’s success? It isn’t lashing money around, they spend less on pupils than the OECD average, teacher’s pay is lower than the average and children are taught for less hours than in other countries. There’s a list of other things they don’t do – testing, league tables, inspections, prescriptive curriculum, streaming and lastly they are very few private schools leaching off the state system and claiming tax refunds as ‘charities’.

6) It’s the teachers, stupid!

An American survey attempted to find different factors that could explain why children achieved academically, they identified socio-economic background, race, gender, parental support, the state of the school building, ICT provision but by far and away the most significant factor that could overcome all of the above was the quality of the classroom teacher.

In Finland teaching is a high status job, a valued profession. In England we’ve suffered years of attacks by the media on teachers. This always culminates in the summer when the GCSE results are announced; better figures – the tests are too easy; worse figures – it’s all the fault of the teachers. A survey asked parents to judge different jobs, the most respected were doctors followed by teachers; the least respected were estate agents, politicians and at the bottom, yes… journalists.

In communities neighbourliness is the most important factor in social cohesion, it’s that ‘social glue’ that is so hard to measure or quantify. In Finnish schools there seems to be an invisible dark matter, you can’t see it, touch it or weigh it. It’s always there in the background and without it their system would collapse. One headteacher summed it up, ‘we’ve recruited the best people to be teachers, we train them well so we trust them’.

7) ‘Less is more’

Maybe the Finnish success comes back to something that Jani told us on the very first morning – ‘less is more’. The Finns aren’t burdened by hundreds of ‘initiatives’; they just get on with the job of teaching children.

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