Right after the Second World War, Finland was largely a land of woodcutters and agriculturalists. Finland’s education system and student achievement at that time were unremarkable.
In the early 1990s, Finland was forced to completely re-think its economic strategy. An overheated economy combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major trading partner, to produce a precipitous decline in GDP and an unemployment rate of 20%, higher than in the Great Depression. Following this cataclysm, Finland applied for entrance into the European Union and began to move away from its traditional export strategies. The government decided to funnel resources into the development of the telecommunications sector, hoping to reinvent Finland as a global telecommunications capital. Nokia took on a leadership role in developing this industry. By 2003, 22 of every 1000 Finnish workers were involved in the research and development sector, a figure almost three times higher than the OECD average, and more than four times higher than in Finland in 1991. The Finnish economy had undergone a major transformation.
The education system was able to respond to the workforce needs created by the events of the early 90s because of a series of extensive reforms that had begun in 1972, which had changed the face of teaching and learning in Finland. These began with creation of a unified comprehensive education structure and national curriculum guidelines. Accompanying the restructuring of schools was a restructuring of teacher education, with responsibility for teacher training moving to Finland’s universities, where Finland’s other most valued professional had long been trained. Other measures were also aimed at improving the quality of the Finnish teaching force. Over time, mathematics, science and technology all took on greater importance in Finnish curricula, as did higher-order thinking skills like problem-solving, teamwork, creativity and interdisciplinary studies. These reforms and others, described in more detail in other sections on Finland on this site, made Finland’s economic survival in the 1990s possible.
Now, Finland is counted among the world’s high technology leaders, with a very modern economy centered on the telecommunications, consumer electronics, forest products and metals industries.
When the Finns surprised themselves and everyone else when the first PISA scores were announced, and were asked how their students had managed to outperform not only the Swedes but everyone else, they said they had no idea. That is because there was no single point of inflection in the development of the Finnish system to which anyone could point, and say, “There, that was the policy initiative that did it. That is the secret.” The Finnish story is not unlike that of Singapore, in that eventual success was the result of a long, slow and rather steady process, not the result of a single development, policy, program or administration. Each step in the development of the modern Finnish education system built sensibly on those that went before.
Most observers have come to believe that, if there is a key to the success of the Finnish system, it is the quality of their teachers and the trust that the Finnish people have vested in them. Some would argue that this, in some sense, makes the Finnish case irrelevant to the decisions to be made by other countries, because they lack the culture in which such a high value is placed on teachers and teaching. But, when one examines the specific policies that the Finns have adopted with respect to the recruitment, selection, training, supervision and support of teachers, and the way in which the intense focus on teacher quality is matched to the Finnish approach to accountability, curriculum, instruction and school management, then one begins to see that teacher quality in Finland is not the result of an unmatchable culture, but rather of a specific highly integrated system of policies and structures that other nations can emulate to produce a culture that is no less supportive of teachers and no less likely to result in superior student performance. One could certainly argue that such a system could not be implemented quickly in a country that now has a very different system, but it is important to keep in mind that it took decades for the Finns to build the system whose fruits they are now enjoying.
Like any high-performing country that wants to remain at the top of the league tables, Finland is not resting on its laurels. Every four years, the government prepares a development plan for education and research, using that plan as a vehicle to make sure that the Finnish system is constantly adapting to the changing needs, including the economic needs, of the country. Though Finland’s population is very homogenous (more than 98% are descended from Finnish stock), that is changing and the Finns know that their education system will have to change to adapt to these changing demographics. Lower-skilled work is also being exported to other parts of Europe and a greater proportion of Finnish jobs will require ever-more-sophisticated skills, another factor that is accounted for in Finnish education planning.
The government’s stated priorities going forward include reducing class sizes, enhancing remediation and special needs teaching, improving teachers’ working conditions, establishing new opportunities for teachers to develop their professional skills, and overhauling adult education and training. In September 2011, the Ministry of Education and Culture also began a reform of the polytechnic system intended to upgrade the system significantly. By 2014, the Ministry intends to have legislation in place that will shift full responsibility for polytechnic funding to the government, a change from the current system in which polytechnics negotiate with the government each year to obtain core funding, and must make up the rest of their operating costs from other sources. With this control in place, the government will combine some of these institutions into “large and innovative high-standard competence environments,” present in every province, and programs of study will be focused on ensuring that graduates can begin working in their fields immediately upon graduation.
Finland’s Education System at a Glance
Finnish National Board of Education. (2010). “Basic Education Reform in Finland – How to develop the top ranked education system?,” Presented at the Building Blocks for Education: Whole System Reform Conference (Toronto, Canada). (PDF).
Video: “Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Finland,” Pearson Foundation
Video: “Finland has best education system in the world,” NBC Nightly News
DEMOGRAPHIC AND ECONOMIC INDICATORS
Source: CIA World Factbook (September 2013)
and OECD Education at a Glance 2013
PISA 2009 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science