Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Richard Knights Safe in our European home?

There is a darker side to Finland. Over the course of the last year a pall of gloom has descended over the country due to two infamous school massacres. On November 7th 2007 Jokela secondary school student 18-year-old Pekka-Eric Auvinen, killed nine of his fellow students, the school nurse, the principal and then committed suicide. The morning of the incident Auvinen posted a video on YouTube announcing the forthcoming event. On September 23, 2008 22 year-old culinary arts student Matti Juhani Saari walked into Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences in Kauhajoki shot ten students dead and then shot himself, he died later in hospital.

In October Oulu suffered its own tragedy, all four members of a family were found shot to death in their home in a semi-detached house in the Kaijonharju district. The father of the family used a shotgun to kill his wife, his two children, and finally himself. Both of the parents were local schoolteachers.

Gun ownership is the third highest in the world, 1.6 million guns in a population of 5.3 million. The government is looking at measures to control the easy access to guns. Other social problems include alcoholism, domestic violence and a high suicide rate. The shootings have prompted a period of introspection and soul-searching. Splenetic ‘Times’ journalist Roger Boyes used the occasion to write an edgy ‘controversial’ article on this sickness that was inflicting Finnish youth. Sorry, but the actions of two crazed individuals are not an indictment of the whole of society.

Finland has had to manage the change from a primarily agricultural nation that was dependent on trade with the former Soviet Union to a high tech and services based economy.

There was in interesting article in ‘The Guardian’ that quoted a Finnish psychiatrist, Nina Torkkola who works with teenagers. She noted that, “One reason for the mental health problems of young Finns is that it is common for parents to leave their children on their own. Many parents perceive it a good thing for a child to be independent from a very young age. But this goes on as early as primary school level, when you still need your parents. A bigger problem is the lack of psychiatrists at schools and colleges. Schools need to pay attention to those students who are quiet and lonely. At the moment this is seen as the norm so nobody looks after them.”

In the Finnish schools that we visited they mentioned the PISA results on many occasions. There is a danger that you might rubbish SATs tests but use the PISA results to commend Finnish style schooling where national tests, league tables and a prescriptive curriculum are absent. The PISA tests examine basic abilities in core subjects, you could make the charge that the Finns are just good at being average. What can’t you test? Imagination, creativity and the love of learning. Other studies have shown that whilst Swedish children don’t do as well in the PISA tests they find school more fun and are better at expressing themselves verbally. In Finland children pay attention to the teacher but is this at the price of creativity and communication?

How will the Finns with their love of conformity deal with the challenge of immigration? In Helsinki 10% of the population were born outside of Finland and in some schools a quarter of the children do not use Finnish as their first language. Sweden and Denmark have struggled to integrate immigrants and their model of a welfare society is under threat.

Will young people demand more personal freedom? Is Finland just Dullsville, a boring conformist ‘utopia’, a version of the ‘Truman Show’ where people are screaming to get out?

I’m asking some rhetorical questions here, I loved Finland, true the people tend to be quiet and reserved, but this is a society that is at ease with itself. Wouldn’t you like to live in the kind of place where 6 year-olds can walk to their nursery? It isn’t like America where their great cities seem to be close to barbarism, on the verge of social meltdown. You won’t see legless veterans begging from wheelchairs, they don’t leave the mentally deranged to fend for themsleves on the streets and the public infrastructure isn’t literally crumbling in front of you.

The shootings in Finland generated acres of news coverage, compare that with the almost totally unreported civil war in the Congo, where it is estimated that over 5 million people have died. That’s equivalent to the population of Finland. We’re still safe in our European homes.

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.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jamie Campbell Special Education Needs Schools

We visited two schools specifically for pupils with Special Education Needs. The first school was a new build primary for pupils with Severe Learning Difficulties, Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties and Autism. This was a well equipped, spacious school with similar resources to ours, e.g., sensory room, although on a bigger and newer scale. The teaching methods used for these pupils were identical to ones used by us e.g., TEACH.

The second school was a vocational college for SEN pupils. We do not have a purpose built facility such as this though our pupils can still access vocational courses off site.

It appears that the SLD schools are run on a very similar manner to our own down to Individual Education Plans, annual reviews, etc. One difference is that each mainstream school would have a dedicated SEN teacher to assess and help these pupils with more moderate learning difficulties.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Richard Knights Friday October 31st

During the brief summer people in Oulu go a bit crazy and host events like the World Air Guitar Championships. In winter for six months they are virtually snow bound and indulge in seasonal sports like ice fishing, cross country skiing and herring slapping (OK, I made the last one up).

In the morning we visit a Secondary school for 500 students from 13-15 years (grades 7-9) based at Oulu University. Students are selected according to distance from the school, whether other siblings attend, previous primary school, but not on grades. As students come up to the 7th grade there is a parents' evening where police and youth workers talk to pupils.

To guide them through the transition there are counsellors, special needs teachers, welfare officers, psychologists and nurses. Teachers from the primary school (grades 1-6) are also consulted. Mixed ability classes are formed based on the views of teachers, parents and students. In the first term there are lessons in 'How to live your life', interviews with pupils, help from counsellors and older students provide peer support. They even monitor whether new students are using the dining hall.

Sixty per cent of students from this school go on to an academic Upper Secondary. the national figures are 35% academic and 65% vocational. There are no national tests but work is graded from a fail -4 up to 8, grades 9 and 10 are exceptional.

We move on to Karjasilla Academic Upper Secondary which was built in 1958, they are waiting for a new school in five years time. They have 300 students with 20 teachers. 45% of students go to University, 40% to Polytechnics. Nationally 70% of Finnish students (one of the highest figures in the world) go on to tertiary education.

In the corridors the students are well behaved, there seems to be lots of them sat down hugging or clasped around each other. They are also very wary of strange English teachers offering them badges.

We walk down a forest lined footpath and Jani informs us that there are bears in the woods, but attacks are very rare. This could make for a very interesting compensation and retirement package. The only problem will be getting all of the other teachers to corroborate the evidence.

The Lintulan kindergarten was opened in 1994 and has pioneered an immersion programme where children are taught for part of the time in English. It is open from 6.30 am until 6 p.m. and the 14 staff work on a shift system. The children are all in fancy dress and sing 'Twinkle, twinkle little star' and 'Bah, bah black sheep'. Shamefully we can't give them any Finnish songs so I give them my version of three ball juggling. 'Mum, we had these strange English teachers in school...'

The nursery has a system of formal assessment, but nothing like our Early Years tracking with 13 areas, 9 different outcomes supported by 2 pieces of evidence and a target score of 78. They don't have national panics about 'only 58% of 5 year-olds can write their name'. The Finns expect children to learn through play. Could this be one of the reasons why their children seem so well-adjusted?

Last port of call is the Luovi Vocational Institute for special needs young people and adults. There are many different units throughout Finland run by the Pulmonary Association - forty years ago TB was common. The units work with students that have mental health problems, development delays, reading and writing difficulties and development disorders. Training at upper secondary level is free of charge and the unit can call on the services of 600 experts. The aim is to provide the basis for independent living.

As we walk back a blizzard begins to envelop us. When we get back to the hotel Gary goes outside to build a structure in the snow. A passing group of Inuits make a light touch inspection and conclude that it is a 'failing igloo', I decide that we will need to employ an exorbitantly expensive Australian consultancy firm (Building Snowhouses in Finland) who will show us how to use local materials to make shelters.

The snow is settling on the ground the wind piling it up into drifts. I wonder if we'll make the flight home? Our little group from Knowsley (just outside Liverpool) will have to use 'Grey Sky Thinking' in a crisis we will need to 'Think outside the snowdrift'. If we do get stranded I'll miss my wife, children and cat but I'm more than ready to claim educational asylum here.