Friday, October 31, 2008

Richard Knights Thursday October 30

One of the key management skills is the art of 'distributed leadership', however despite conducting strict Performance Management Interviews, setting personal targets and identifying staff who could 'Lead From the Middle', on this trip I've been on my own, the onerous job of distributing pens and badges has fallen entirely onto my shoulders. It's tough at the top, no wonder so many heads retire early.

In the morning we drive out to Kempele Ylikylä School, Grade 1 - 6 for 7 to 12 year olds. It was one of Finland's largest schools with over 900 students but with the opening of a new school is back down to 600. It's a very popular school and a teaching post will attract up to 200 applicants. There are nearly 5,000 unemployed teachers in Finland and to find a job you may need to go out into the countryside or to Helsinki.

The school is set in a fairly affluent area of Oulu. The head has been there for 15 years, he's a fairly laid back kind of guy, dressed in open shirt and jeans. He spends most of his time with the special education needs children and mentoring teachers not monitoring, observing and conducting Performance Management interviews. He doesn't seem under pressure over test results and inspections, there aren't teams of School Improvement Officers trawling through the classes to identify 'failing' teachers. He tells us that he tries to recruit teachers with different personalities and from various ages.

The Music and Design Technology rooms are state of the art. The children are polite and well-mannered and open the doors for us. In the purpose built canteen they have carrots and fruit on the menu, meatballs are served occasionally but never chips.

The teachers are proud of the PISA results which placed the Finnish education system as one of the world's top performers. In 2006 approximately 300,000 pupils were tested in 57 countries. The children were chosen at random and there was no chance to coach them or teach to test.

In 1994 Kempele was chosen as Finland's best school, we realise that we are visiting a sort of model institution, somewhere safe to take visitors. However, the Finnish children are still goofing around being children, they haven't been deposited on the planet by some alien form of intelligence like the Midwich Cuckoos. The staff haven't been recruited from the Stepford Wives or the nearest cyborg factory. There's none of that smug, patronising, patrician arrogance that you find in some English selective schools with their expensive uniforms and signs that almost scream 'Will the Unwashed Please Keep Out'. Some of our most successful selective schools fail to recruit any children from the immediate locality.

There was the call to bring back the grammar schools to give 'bright working-class children a chance'. However, research showed that the 140 remaining grammar schools only educated 2% of children with Free School Meals.

It's great to be in a school where what psychiatrists have identified as the 'Bar Chart Fetish' is entirely absent, the head isn't obsessing over test results scores, he seems more interested in the children's art. I really am beginning to get Excel withdrawal symptoms, don't these people ever use spreadsheets?

In England for the past twenty years education has been dominated by the 'standards' agenda, whatever the issue it's repeated like a broken record that grates on the ears, all you get is that word 'standards'. In 2006 Durham University published results which compared the performance of 10,000 Year 7 pupils in 1976 and 2003. The problems they were asked to solve included comparing volumes of liquid in different size beakers and displacement of blocks in water. In 1976 33.4% of boys and 23.9% of girls showed a high performance in these tests compared with just 5.7% of boys and 4.7% of girls almost thirty years later. The researchers blamed the numeracy and literacy strategies for taking up valuable time and leaving fewer opportunities for practical learning through play. Back to basics indeed.

In Finland the emphasis is on educating the whole child, it's an entirely holistic approach. Where has twenty years of 'standards' got us?

A middle ranking in the PISA tests.

In 2007 Unicef published a report on child welfare in the 21 most industrialised countries, they used over 40 different indicators. The Netherlands came top followed by Sweden, Denmark and Finland. In 20th place was America and Britain came 21st.

Over one million young adults 15-25 years of age are not in education, employment or training (the so-called NEETS).

Our education system is one of the most divided when it comes to results based on social class-

  • 80% of white working class boys fail to achieve 5 GCSEs A-C including maths and English
  • In one of Bradford's poorest estates only 3% of children made it into higher education against a national rate of 40%
  • Last year 170,000 students got three A's at 'A' level, how many qualified for Free School Meals? One hundred and forty six. Nationally 14% of secondary children are eligible.

During our visit we've been loading Jani down with different pens and badges. Finally we bestow on him one of the highest accolades in the world of education - the Knowsley key ring. He looks suitably impressed.

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!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Richard Knights Tuesday October 28

I'll have to be brutally honest and confess that before this trip my knowledge of all things Finnish was fairly limited - the Moomins, Sammy Hyypia, those Olympic long distance runners and that weird looking Gothic rock band that won the Eurovision Song Contest - yet another occasion where Britain got 'nul points', or was it Norway again?

Thirty years ago Finnish people had a really bad diet and didn't take much exercise. Strange as it may seem rather than encourage people to drive everywhere by car and consume vast quantities of junk food they did the opposite. The only downside is that everywhere you go you risk getting mown down by cyclists. However, compared to being hit by a Hummer the survival rate is high.

We drive out to Oulu University and Jani takes us to a school based in the university grounds. Teachers are trained in this school and this is common practise in other Finnish universities.

The primary school is grade zero (5-6 years old) and grade one (6-7 year olds). By law class sizes are limited to 13 children. Children can choose from a range of different activities, but teachers might direct children towards certain work, but they're allowed to roam free and develop their curiosity.

Trainee teachers spend their first practise at this school, the second is thematic, not necessarily school based, whilst the final practise is back at the university school. Is this giving trainee teachers experience of the real world? They are trained by expert teachers and 90% of them will do supply teaching before they qualify.

In the afternoon we visit the Northern Ostrobothnia Museum. six thousand years ago the ice retreated forming the Baltic Sea, the first mammals to arrive were beavers followed by reindeer, bears and Ofsted inspectors (just checking you were still awake). Life in the Oulu region was tough, famine and plague regularly wiped out high percentages of the population.

From the thirteenth century to the eighteenth century Finland was ruled by Sweden and in the nineteenth century Russia. When Tsarist Russia was deemed to be a 'failing country' a separate Finnish national identity grew, stimulated by intellectuals like the composer Sibelius with his Finlandia Suite.

After the 1918 Civil War Finland became independent but in 1939 under the Stalin-Hitler pact was designated to return to Russian control. In the brutal Winter War the Finns fought off the invasion and maintained their independence.

The museum passes our rigorous inspection and comes out with a 'excellent with some outstanding features'. Did you know that a single reindeer can feed one person for 120 days? Not many people know that.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Richard Knights Monday October 27

Visiting Finland is going to be an interesting prospect, top of the international school testing league tables, no Ofsted, no school uniforms, learning by discovery, no streaming and saunas in every room.

We change planes in Helsinki and mercifully there aren't any delays. At Oulu our hosts are waiting for us with two little signs 'Knowsley TIPD' and we're whisked away in taxis to the Apollo Best Western, it's 1 a.m. local time (Finland is two hours ahead) but spirits are lifted when we discover... a sauna in every room.

Morning time and I'm looking out over grey skies. Oulu is the sixth largest city in Finland, population 130,000. The average temperature in July is 17 degrees centigrade and minus 9.6 in the winter. Today it's mild, only 5 degrees. Oulu was the tar capital of Finland, but like the rest of the country has moved on to high tech with an important Nokia factory in the city.

Breakfast TV and there's a 15 minute slot featuring a charming couple roaming around a pine forest examining the fungi wearing the kind of red duster hats that Michael Crawford modelled in 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em'. It certainly makes a change from GMTV and the sort of celebrity car crash interviews - Kerry Katona slurring her words on the sofa. Yeah, why bother to study when you can get your 10 minutes of fame.

Once again the taxi is bang on time and we are whisked away to Oulu University to meet their international organiser Jani Haapakoski. While we are waiting outside he tells us that saunas are a Finnish invention and are part of their heritage, the pioneers build the saunas first and then started on the log cabins, with an average of minus nine they wouldn't have got me out of the sauna.

Finland is famous for the Programme for International Assessment Tests (PISA), a sample of fifteen year olds were tested in reading, writing, science and maths in 2000, 2003 and 2006. At the last count 57 countries were involved in the programme. To add to the confusion there are also TIMMS and PIRLS which sometimes completely contradict PISA. Still that's testing for you and some American company is probably making a fortune out of it.

Finland is regularly ranked first or second and in 2006 was second in maths, first in science and second in reading. Just for the record America didn't get into the top twenty in anything, maybe they were just spending their money on the company that did all the testing.

Jani seems diffident almost embarrassed about the PISA results, it's no big deal really. I'm sure if this was America there would be giant flashing neon signs outside every school, 'Top of the World In Testing'.

Finland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, average income $36,000. it's also very homogeneous 95% Finnish and 5% Swedish - they have their own schools and political party the Swedish People's Party.

Jani puts on a PowerPoint to explain all the complexities behind Finland's incredible success story in education. The country has 20 universities and 23 polytechnics, they have record numbers in tertiary education partly because there are no tuition fees.

All trainee teachers stay in university for five years and are educated to Masters level. Teaching is a very popular profession, Oulu is the second most requested venue for training and had 3,000 applicants for their 20 course vacancies. In Finnish culture teaching is highly valued and well-respected.

Pre-school is for children up to the age of seven and the emphasis is on play and socialisation. Many of them transfer to the comprehensives unable to read or write, but incredible as it may seem there isn't any panic, no headlines in the press about 'only 40% of five year olds can write their name' and they don't test the poor dears to death. In fact a feature of the Finnish system is the total lack of formal testing, only when you get to 18 with the university matriculation test are there any national assessment exams.

Comprehensive schooling is from age 7 to 15 and then children move into either academic or vocational upper secondaries. Despite having open enrolment the vast majority of children attend their local comprehensive and there is very little difference between results in different schools.

As the meeting moves on we tell Jani about the national tests at 7,11 and 14 (OK after that American company lost most of the results they've abandoned the last one), league tables and the punitive inspection regime where schools can be publicly identified as 'failing'. Jani looks a bit confused this seems to be some kind of scary alien planet to him. In Finland they pretty much just trust the teachers to get on with it, 'we've selected the best people, they are well trained'... er this all seems a bit too easy. In fact Jani explains that part of the Finnish secret is 'less is more'.

The figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperationa and Development (OECD) seem to confirm the point - in primary schools Finland spends $5,557 per pupil, OECD average $6,252; experienced teachers earn $35,798, OECD average $37,832 and pupils have less teaching time 9-11 year olds 640 hours in Finland, OECD average 810 hours.

So there it is, really no big secret - a cultural tradition that teaching is a valued profession, recruit the best and leave them to get on with it. Either that or it's something to do with all that time they spend in the sauna.

In the afternoon we get time to walk round Oulu, I make for the Lutheran Cathedral, inside it's very sparse and austere. The Lutherans didn't believe in any adornments or 'graven images' they wanted to communicate with their God directly. In Holland when they took over the Catholic churches there was 'the iconoclastic fury' and all the statues and works of art were consigned to the flames.

There's an interesting article by Madeleine Bunting from 'The Guardian' in August 2008 she quotes from a book about Sweden by Andrew Brown called 'Fishing in Utopia'. The welfare state has been eroded over the last 25 years, their society was born from Calvinist protestantism and the intense interdependence of small rural communities. There's also the concept of Jantelagen the egalitarian conformity which forbids anyone to feel superior to their neighbours. Consumerism is a direct challenge to all of this, credit cards were only allowed in the 1990s. The Nordic model struggles to cope with cultural diversity, in Finland a far right anti immigration party has won record votes in the recent elections.

Sweden has introduced sixth forms run by for-profit private companies, already there are 'popular' schools where middle-class parents transport their children for long distances to attend and the 'sink' schools on the wrong side of the tracks. Will the Finnish schools be able to survive in their current state?

Meanwhile, I'm off for a well-deserved sauna.

Knowsley TIPD visit to Oulu Finland 2008

The entries on this blog are personal points of view and do not reflect the position of Knowsley Council.