Why Finland's schools are the best in the West

Teacher Robert Smol compares Finland's top-ranked school system with Canada's.

In what's often called the real world, successful businesses are those that encourage their best employees, respond effectively to their clients needs and invest continually in their programs and infrastructure.

But does the same hold true when we talk about public education and substitute students for clients and teachers for employees?

As far as I'm concerned, yes. But don't take my word for it. Just look at Finland.

Over the past decade its public education system has consistently been ranked as one of the best in the world, particularly so among Western democracies, in terms of student success.

The Aalto University School of Science and Technology in Helsinki. Post-secondary education is free in Finland, one of the reasons over 90 per cent of its high school graduates carry on with their education. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

Its main qualities? A public education noted for its highly educated teachers, innovative student-centered learning and decentralized management.

In the international student achievement surveys, carried out for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Finland has almost consistently remained in the top four rankings in all three assessment categories: reading, math and science.

The only exception was the most recent 2009 survey where Finland fell to sixth place in math. But that has more to do with other, in this case Asian, countries upping their scores than the Finns falling behind.

Yes, Canada has fared pretty well, too, in some of these rankings, particularly when you focus on the results from Ontario, B.C. and Alberta. 

But another no less important testament to Finland's success is how little the test scores differed among its disparate schools. The results by school were the most consistent among the systems that were studied.

Clearly, Finland's public school system is doing something right and any country interested in improving its own might want to take a serious look.

Higher standards

One obvious reason for Finland's success is the high educational standards for its teachers.

In Finland, a master's degree is required to be a teacher at any level, including the primary grades.

Global rankings

The Paris-based OECD surveyed the reading, science and math performance of half a million students from more than 70 countries, employing a two-hour pencil-and-paper test. A difference of 40 points is roughly equivalent to a year of schooling.

Here are the top 10 rankings and scores for reading:

  1. Shanghai province (China), 556
  2. Korea, 539
  3. Finland, 536
  4. Hong Kong, 533
  5. Singapore, 526
  6. Canada, 524
  7. New Zealand, 521
  8. Japan, 520
  9. Australia, 515
  10. Netherlands, 508

Here in Ontario, I receive a monetary stipend for my master's degree; in Finland I would have to have that same post-graduate certificate just to be considered for the job.

There, though, the higher requirement is more attainable in that all post-secondary education is tuition free.

Another distinctive hallmark of the Finnish system is the high level of autonomy given to municipal boards and school administrators.

In Finland, schools and courses are primarily organized around the needs and wants of the specific community that they serve.

"The state grant is not divided into specific amounts for salaries, labs, instruments, books or whatever — it is a lump sum and the school authorities can use it as they like," says Reijo Aholainen, a spokesperson for the Finnish ministry of education.

"You have to follow the national core curriculum but how you do it, whether you want more teachers or more computers, is a local decision on the part of the school board."

Less time in the classroom

Although they consistently hover near the top of the international rankings, Finnish students overall spend the lowest amount of time actually in the classroom when compared to other OECD countries.

This is especially true for students age 9-11, where the Finns spend 640 hours in class over a school year as opposed to 810 hours on average for the OECD countries.

In Finland there is no formal kindergarten as we know it although pre-primary programs are almost universally attended.

Students in Finland begin their compulsory education in Grade 1 where the usual intake age is seven. This would appear to challenge the belief held by many of my generation that the sooner you start formally teaching kids, the smarter they will become.

What's more, Finland's primary, middle and upper secondary school classes are typically organized in 45-minute blocks, with each one followed by a 15-minute recess.

If these teaching blocks need to be merged, say for high school science labs, then the free time is added to that as well.

Let's put this in a Canadian context. Here in my high school near Toronto, students typically take four 75-minute classes with only five minutes between classes and a 40-minute lunch Certainly not much time to recharge.

Consumer choice

Another surprise about the Finnish system, particularly given its high test scores, is that school is only compulsory up to the end of Grade 9.

Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Finnish teens (over 95 per cent) apply to go on to upper-secondary school. But the key word here is apply, which means that the student is making a personal choice to continue learning. In my view, it is foolhardy to force those teens who clearly have no interest in learning to remain in school until they are 18, as we do here in Ontario. Believe me, I know!

But the truly impressive part of the Finnish system is the clear choice of educational streams that students have should they choose to continue on.

Of the more than 95 per cent who stay in school, roughly 38 per cent move on to the separate vocational high schools, which offer a more hands-on, workplace-focused system of instruction, designed to set them up for further post-secondary education in the field of their choice.

Over here, technology or shop courses are often seen, even at the institutional level, as "dumping grounds."

In Finland, on the other hand, non-academically inclined students are, at least from an institutional perspective, given a clear, parallel and respectable educational choice.

Can we duplicate this?

Can we learn some things from Finland? Absolutely! But can we import it and expand it in Canada? I doubt that very much.

For the most part, we are still in survival mode here in Canada when it comes to public education. To think of finding money to expand the system and pay for more highly qualified teachers is the stuff of dreams.

Can these same schools find the extra money to hire the extra teachers to help those students who fall behind, as the Finns do?

Is the Canadian taxpayer finally ready to invest in an elaborate parallel system of vocational high schools to accommodate those students who will not be going to university?

Can Canadian universities and colleges ever be tuition free?

Sadly, I would reply no to all of the above. But we can dream.