In a country where compulsory schooling doesn’t begin until the age of seven - and there are no school inspectors, league tables, or exams until the age of 16 - results are among the best in the world. So how exactly does Finland achieve its huge success? I was fortunate enough to join a group of headteachers from Essex on a trip there, organised by the Association of Secondary Headteachers in Essex (ASHE), to try and find out how this nation operates its education system, which enables pupils to achieve so highly. Educational leaders in the UK are always eager to learn and share ideas to boost achievement, so to visit a society that produces such skilled children was very exciting. When visiting any school, one always learns something and Finland was no different. However, I did come away thinking leaders and teachers in England are probably some of the very best in the world too, and perhaps we need to celebrate that.
In Harlow, our multi-academy Trust comprises four primaries and one secondary school. We are looking to create a system where children join us at the age of three and stay with us until they are 16 and so I was particularly keen to visit Finland and see a system where students stay in the same school between the ages of seven and 15. Marios Solomonides, head of Freshwaters Primary Academy - a member of our Trust - and myself were keen to see a highly successful cross phase school in action and maybe come away with fresh ideas on developing even closer links between our primaries and secondary.
What Marios and I did find is although children in Finland do not start school until much later than our own youngsters, at the age of seven they are hungry to learn and ready to take responsibility for their own education. It’s quite impressive to see children who have not experienced schooling before just getting their heads down and getting on with learning. Even children as young as seven were assessing their own maths work, having completed a range of problems. I think it is important to note that many pre-schoolers in Finland do attend some type of educational provision, however, so there is some form of learning, albeit less formal, already taking place outside the home. There appeared to be a level of independence among the children and indeed less reliance on the adults than we experience in England. If the children fall over, they get up and dust themselves down, they do not wait for a parent or teacher to rub it better.
Their own devices
One thing I was really interested to learn about was the quality of teaching. In Finland, they have excellent teacher training, as we do - but then teachers are left to their own devices. You can be 24 years in the classroom with nobody observeing your work or giving you ideas for improvement. Compare that to schools in England: almost every school has weekly sessions where teachers are given ideas to improve. We observe each other on a regular basis. We certainly don’t believe completing your teacher training makes you a finished product and we strive to improve our practice continuously.
Without any observations in Finland, teachers are allowed to do their own research and try out new techniques. They really trust their teachers over there, and I am not sure this is the case in England. I have trying hard at Burnt Mill not to be too prescriptive about what teachers deliver in the classroom and in fact encourage innovative practice. We expect outstanding progress and because our teachers are professional, they are skilled enough to achieve that however they want; that is how you create inspirational teachers the children will remember. Generally in the UK, though, I think we try to control our teachers too much and that is something we can learn from Finland. We need to give educators the freedom to be amazing. I think it is time to “let the lid off” the teaching profession.
I don’t know what I expected to see in a Finnish classroom and although I met many enthusiastic professionals, I did leave feeling quite confused because I didn’t see anything that made me say ‘wow’. However, I did observe a system where teachers are trusted. Teachers assess their children and appear to be free from the pressures of an excessive examination system – it seems to me that the possible positive impact of a lack of testing needs exploring further.
The languages of success
Many people have asked me what excited me about Finland. I must say I was very impressed by the emphasis on language acquisition. In Finland, all pupils learn Finnish, Swedish and English from the age of seven and continue to follow this until the age of 18. This has confirmed in my mind that our children must learn a modern foreign language as early as possible. We met an 18-year-old who was training to be a hairdresser, but was still learning English and could speak to us confidently in that language about his chosen career. He even knew the specialist vocabulary a hairdresser needs in English. That was really powerful. This has really encouraged me to ensure languages are everywhere in our schools. We already hold MFL breakfast club at Burnt Mill every morning so our children can practise their language skills daily, but we need to start this earlier. Developing those language skills will mean they can be confident, and communicate as the Finnish children do. In Finland, children study languages several times a week from the age of seven. This is something Marios and I really want to start across our primary phase. It is about time we acknowledge the skills that learning a language gives.
Finland clearly has an excellent education system and the nation’s kids are bright, confident and motivated - but I came away thinking that our kids are, too, and that the teachers and school leaders we have in the UK are probably also some of the best in the world. I have been in education for more than 23 years, and I have never seen such an ambitious group of school leaders and teachers. We just need to continue doing what we are doing, working tirelessly every day to ensure our children develop the knowledge and the skills they need to be successful.
My final thought on the trip is the observation that it takes a whole society, not ‘just’ a school, to educate a child. In Finland, foreign television isn’t dubbed, café libraries are popular places for young people and their families to spend time, porridge is eaten by both teachers and students at lunchtime without a murmur of discontent. We need to have a little bit of self-reflection on how UK society contributes to the education of our children. It’s not all just about school.
5 things Finland definitely gets right:
- Investing in the teaching of languages from an early age, preparing children for the world stage
- Giving teachers freedom to be creative and innovative
- Creating a culture of independence among children
- Trust in the profession
- A more sensible assessment regime
About the Author
Helena Mills is headteacher of the outstanding Burnt Mill Academy in Harlow, Essex