Educational Policies: the Finnish Approach

I’m reading a paper by Pasi Sahleberg on policy in Finland. As a country, population wise  it is similar in size to Scotland, and occupies an eqally marginal location in relation to Europe. This paper offers an interesting exploration of policy issues in Finnish education and the underpinning vision and values which have created the conditions for change.

Finland has bucked a global trend. This is interesting because reading this paper shows you how Scotland hasn’t. This paper explains how three common features have been evident globally in attempts to improve the quality of education.  They will sound quite familiar if you come from Scotland. They are:

1.Standardisation. Outcomes – focussed reforms. Setting high performance standards for schools, teachers and learners.

2. Increased focus on literacy and numeracy

3. Consequential accountability systems: success or failure as determined by external evaluations (inspections/exam results).

So Finland, having been a “slow implementer of dominant market- orientated educational reforms,” designed flexible and loose standards instead of high, clear and centrall prescribed ones. Policy makers there  set learning targets, and  encouraged curriculum innovation. Instead of a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy equal value is given to all aspects of learning including  individual’s growth of personality in a creative, moral way.

Most interestingly for me  however is the culture  of trust-based professionalism and intelligent accountability systems for teachers. All teachers seeking permanent employment are educated to Master’s level . Teachers are prepared for a research based profession, and with their degrees can work (and are sought after) in public and private sectors- a well educated profession is one of the cornerstones of the reforms, and the high status that the profession attracts gives it leverage to select high calibre entrance candidates. A focus on high levels of professional competency in turn enables and encourages teachers to engage actively in school developments. Compulsory professional development has disappeared and teachers regard it as their right to continuously upgrade their pedagogical professionalism. Parental trust in teachers is high.

Accountabilty works recipriocally between schools and authorities. A framework for the evaluative process is stipulated by law and stakeholder roles are defined in the document. As a previously highly centralised system, transition to a more decentralised culture occured during the economic crisis of the 1990s. The driver for change here being financial constraints and reluctance of central government to be seen to make unpopular decisions. Trust is a core value in Finland – it can only flourish in a climate of good governance and close to zero corruption. With decentralisation, teachers became more involved in school developments and so participated actively agents in policy making processes, and school improvement emerged. PISA success followed and the educational pilgrimages began!

It seems that the drivers for change were economic – Finland moved (fairly late) froma rural, agrarian society to a  technological one ( 1980s) Financial downturn in the 90s leads to decentralisation. Pitched aginst the background of trust and  high degree of professionalism in the teaching profession, the decentralisation works. Does this then make  teachers more empowered as participants in both the policy making process and the policy implementation process? The suggestion is yes it does. Another really strong value that comes out in this paper is the importance of equity  – in society and in education.  I think power in relation to policy is demonstrated in trust and involvement of teachers in developments locally and nationally. A culture of  innovation and trust, high degrees of  professional knowledge, and an apparent resistance to demands of comptitiveness and market forces, seem to have brought about a system in Finland which sees teachers as essential to policy formation and process. Bravo. Good paper – worth a read.

Pasi Sahlberg: Education policies for raising student learning: the Finnish approach.

Journal of Education Policy 22:2 March 2007


About catrionao

I'm a lecturer at UWS and a PhD student at Stirling University, studying a school based practice of teacher professional learning.
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2 Responses to Educational Policies: the Finnish Approach

  1. Really interesting post Catriona

    I will be coming back to this when I am more alert – saved to my delicious for the moment.

    Two colleagues from my school are going to Finland on a study visit this year – still time for others to apply –


  2. catrionao says:

    Thanks Alan – always welcome your thoughts! It will be really interesting to see what your colleagues think about it when they go – it all sounds a bit too good to be true. Having heard someone who’d been on a study visit a few years ago say that regular routine testing was fairly commonplace, I thought that warranted a bit more investigation.I was supossed to be examining issues of policy and power in this paper- not sure I did that very successfully. Let me know how your colleagues get on.

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