Justice and equity in Finland education system

Publised: Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The workshop “Inclusive education development in Kazakhstan – learning from the Finnish experience” was conducted under support of Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan (SFK) for school teams from five regions of Kazakhstan. The workshop is within the  initiatives started by SFK in 2014. Saule Kalikova, Public policy advisor (SFK) used the opportunity to talk to  two Finnish experts - Sai Väyrynen, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Open University, Helsinki, and Hennariikka Kangas, Master of Education, Class teacher in Primary School, Rovaniemi, Finland.

Saule Kalikova: Over the last decade, the Finnish system of secondary education remains the world leader, demonstrating persistently high level of academic accomplishments of students whose performance indicators are uniformly distributed among schools throughout the country. Apparently, Finnish schools well serve all students, regardless of their origin, socio-economic status and abilities. In my opinion, this is the power and efficiency of the Finnish school system. Could you comment on this and explain what has contributed to such a result?

Sai Väyrynen: In 1970s Finland undertook a major reform in education. At that time, a common 9-year free basic education for all learners was introduced. Before that children’s parents had to make a choice after primary education between a more academic (and payable) route of 8 years, or a more practical (and free) route of 4 years. The comprehensive school granted all learners with same education in all corners from Finland, for free. This free education also covered (and still does) school lunch and transport if the nearest school is located at certain distance from home. The reform was based on the key values of equity and equality which are still at the heart of our education system.

With this reform, teacher education was also reformed: it was extended first to a four year University programme, and later to a four-five year Master’s degree programme in education. Because of the increasing numbers of learners who were entering the new education system from disadvantaged families, and from families where ‘academic education’ was not common, as well as learners who had previously been placed in special schools (or exempted from education), part-time special education provision saw a huge increase, especially in the 1980s. Special teacher training was widened from the traditional category-based disability focus to address, for example, a range of learning difficulties and emotional-behavioural difficulties. The curriculum, financing, book production, teacher education and assessment, to some extent, were all reformed.

As a result, the overall level of education has increased, the regional discrepancies have decreased – although we still have them – and a lot of human resources have emerged. Instead of focusing only on assumed ‘high abilities’ we believe that if we give a chance to everybody, we will find more potential, more human resources for the building of the society. Our thinking is that ‘equality’ does not mean ‘the same for everybody’. Rather, it means that we must provide an opportunity and support so that everybody can achieve their fullest potential if they so wish and are willing to work for.

Regarding the performance indicators, yes, in Finland the difference between the indicators is very small compared to other countries. I believe this is the result of enormous investments in education during the past 40 years. It has paid so far, Finland has climbed up among the wealthiest and healthiest countries in the world. It is a question of priorities, and education has been among the top priorities for us.

Saule Kalikova: "We trust our teachers" - we heard this phrase during our training trip to Finland, organized by Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan for Kazakhstani experts last year. What is the basis of this social contract?

Sai Väyrynen: This is a hard question because it is so natural to us. I don’t have any one answer but I try to describe our national mentality, if such mentality exists.

We Finns consider ourselves very honest and truthful. If you promise to do something, you are expected to do so. Breaking a promise, lying and cheating are not a part of our everyday behaviour. If you find a wallet on the street, you don’t take it for yourself but you take it to the Lost and Found office. We generally follow rules and regulations, and because we do so, there is no need for extensive follow-up systems. Teachers are well educated, we expect them to know the rules and regulations, and expect them to work accordingly. And we trust that they do so.

Teacher profession is very highly regarded in Finland. Teacher education is one of the hardest disciplines to get to study in Finland. Every year we accept only about 10 % of applicants to teacher education. Teacher profession in Finland is attractive as teachers have plenty of freedom to organize their work and develop their pedagogy. Especially class teachers are can use their skills and areas of interests in many ways in the school work as they may teach all the subjects.

All our teachers have Master’s degree. They are experts in education, practitioners and researchers at the same time. We believe that this background education ensures that they are competent, and they will continue developing their professional skills further.

Maybe we also have a tradition of appreciation of teachers. In the old times, there were only very few academically educated people, particularly in the countryside. There was the village priest, and there was the village teacher. Teachers were involved in various activities of the village, and they knew everybody. Teachers are still very active in all kinds of voluntary work, such as in sports clubs. I don’t think Finnish sport clubs would survive without the teacher volunteers who coach, plan the club activities, organize tournaments and such!

Saule Kalikova: In today's world there are active debates about the future of education. The ideas voiced in this discussion realm at times impress with their originality and unconventional perception of seemingly immutable things. In particular, one of such ideas came from Finland, which is transition to a "focused training", implying withdrawal from school organization and management process as part of individual school subjects. Is this true and if so, what is the gist of this reform and how did teachers in Finland feel about this idea?

Sai Väyrynen: Our forthcoming new National Curriculum Framework which is to be implemented as of August 2016, sets a minimum of ‘interdisciplinary learning course’ every year. It means that the schools have to provide at least one ‘interdisciplinary learning course’ on themes that are current and of interest to learners, teachers and for the community. It is about identifying phenomena or local topics that will be studied from the view point of various subjects. For example, the topic of ‘Changes in the environment’ could be studied from the point of view of history, biology, geography, social sciences, arts and craft and so on. The purpose of this idea is to better connect school learning to what is happening around the schools, and to construct understanding to phenomena around us.

This is actually nothing new. When I studied educational sciences in the 1980s, we future teachers were taught about ‘subject integration’ which meant the same than this new interdisciplinary approach. Many teachers and schools have used this approach for many year, I did as well when I worked as teacher, but not all schools and teachers. It is now formalized so that all learners in all schools would benefit from projects and learning that is tightly connected to life outside the school. I think this is also a good way of making teachers to work together on planning, implementing and evaluating teaching and learning across subjects.

This may be quite new to some teachers but I think that in most schools in Finland thematic, interdisciplinary projects have already been carried out. Perhaps the formulation in the curriculum will make this approach more systematic.

Saule Kalikova: Many young people in Finland want to be teachers. What is the reason for this choice? Why did you choose this profession?

Hennariikka Kangas: Teacher profession is valued in Finland. There are a lot of people applying for teacher education in the universities every year. The applicants consist not only of young adults but also of adults, who want to change their profession. Teacher profession is respected in the society and teacher education will give you a master’s degree in education. Teachers are trusted in their work and they have a lot of freedom to choose their own ways of teaching. Teacher profession also gives you many options to proceed in your profession or to develop your knowledge and teaching competencies. For example you can specialize in certain subjects that you are particularly interested in teaching or you may want to apply to be a principal - overall teacher education is considered to give you a broad knowledge and a platform to grow professionally. The working hours of a teacher and the vacations are part of the attraction, too, though not all of the work is visible for others.

These might be some of the reasons why we have so many people who want to become a teacher. For me it was an easy choice. I wanted to become and want to be a teacher, because I want to participate in building the future. I want to give my input and construct the future school and society together with the stakeholders of the future - so together with the children. For me the work of a teacher is very meaningful, even the little words or gestures might have a great impact on the child’s growth and learning. My task is to think of ways how I can best meet the needs of the children in my classroom and how we can together build an environment that offers a good place for learning and growth for all.

Saule Kalikova: One of the challenges of school education in the Republic of Kazakhstan is excessive pressure on students and their parents – they have to work very hard at home. Therefore, my question is: what does an ordinary school day look like for a Finnish school student? For a teacher? What about homework assignments?

Hennariikka Kangas: From the child’s perspective the school day starts with the road to school, which can be done by walking, cycling, by bus or a car - or even by skiing! The length of this trip might differ from less than five minutes to half an hour, and for example in the northern part of Finland it might take even longer. The school starts in the morning, usually at eight, nine or ten o’clock, and the starting time can be different on different days of the week.

On the first grade the child will have approximately 20 lessons in a week. Year by year the number of weekly lessons will increase so that at the end of basic education, the ninth grade, he might have 31 lessons in a week. These weekly lessons are calculated with a formula that a lesson lasts 45 minutes and is followed by a 15 minute break. The schools have the freedom to give lessons of different lengths, for example in the school where I work we use lessons of 60 minutes and have longer breaks, but this doesn’t change the number of weekly lessons. During the breaks the children will play freely at the school yard, even in the winter time! In the school the child is offered a free school lunch and for the first and second graders there is usually a possibility to participate in an afternoon club.

Teacher’s day differs from the pupil’s one so that the lessons need to be planned and prepared before-hand. During the school day there might be sudden situations that need to be dealt with during the breaks or after school. After the lessons we might also have meetings with parents or school staff, we are in contact with the parents, plan co-teaching lessons with other teachers or do some paper-work.

Children are usually given homework that they can do by themselves at home. This means that it is chosen so that it strengthens the skills learnt at school instead of teaching them something completely new. The content or amount of homework might not be the same for all pupils, but homework is often chosen to meet the child’s needs for learning. For teachers, in my opinion, the homework is to reflect on his or her own teaching - what could I do more or differently to enhance the well-being and learning of my pupils!

Saule Kalikova: Different countries have different approaches, for example, to such an issue as school meals. With all the variety of approaches, this aspect is usually considered in terms of additional support for children from low-income families. But how is this issue addressed in the Finnish schools?

Hennariikka Kangas: In Finland school lunch is free of charge for all children. This is true for all pupils and students of pre-school, basic education, high school and vocational education. The right for a school lunch is also stated in the Finnish Basic Education Act (628/1998). School lunch is a good situation to learn about health issues, good table manners and the Finnish food culture. In addition it is a possibility for the children to socialize between themselves and have free discussions with their peers.  Altogether the school lunch is considered to promote the well-being and growth of the child and for that reason it is guaranteed as a right for every child.