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.