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Do the Finns have the best education system?

Are the Finns really better than the rest at education? This blog posts questions the media’s received wisdom that the OECD league tables tell the whole story…

From Start To Finnish

A well-circulated story doing the social media rounds states Finland has none of the inspection, curriculum or league table protocols that most other nations have and yet manages to consistently top the education charts. Can it really be true? How do they know if there are no league tables? Surely the internet has not lied to me…

Those stories, including other notable educational performances by Japanese, Dutch and Shanghainese students, are prompted by education reports from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published every three years.

Established in 1961, the origin of the OECD can actually be traced back to its forerunner the OEEC, an organisation set up to run the US-funded Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of a war-torn Europe. Today, 34 OECD member countries worldwide regularly turn to one another to discuss and analyse statistics, identify problems and promote policies to solve them.

When it comes to education, the OECD updates its evidence every year, but the results tend to prompt eye-catching headlines which become accepted wisdom for many years to come.

The latest report from the OECD, published in October 2014, praised the work of countries in the European Union in developing education and skills, despite the economic difficulties. East Asia, meanwhile was highlighted for the “breathtaking pace” at which it is putting “more and more highly qualified people on the market.”

The underlying theme of much of the OECD work understandably features job prospects and economic growth. Its decision to pay attention to education may seem obvious, but it still finds it necessary to point out part of its raison d’être: ‘a lack of skills only strengthens the risk of unemployment’ and ‘the labour market rewards high educational attainment and high skills’. It also looks to data on earnings to spot where the gaps between the ‘haves and have nots’ are and equates these back to educational failings.

Other findings this year show that in the majority of OECD countries, education now begins for most children well before they are five years old. Remember, in Finland, as our internet meme points out, they start full time education aged seven. But wait a minute: “Although compulsory primary education in Finland starts at the age of seven,” says the OECD, “one year later than most countries, one in two pupils is enrolled in pre-primary education by the age of three.”

Finland’s wide-ranging reforms 40 years ago made school fees and private tuition either illegal or unheard of, but as of 2012, they did not result in more of the population attaining a tertiary education than, say the UK. Nor Ireland. Nor Australia, Canada and top of the pops, the Russian Federation.

Maths skills are not particularly good in Finland, at least compared to the rest of the OECD, but it does not have a gap between boys’ and girls’ attainments that many others do.

Younger Finns are also doing better than older Finns, more than 55% of adults attaining higher levels of education than their parents. This is well above the OECD average and second only to neighbours Russia and South Korea, two countries that have perhaps had a more difficult history over the past three generations than the peace-loving Finns.

With children not sorted into sets, and by-and-large educated in their local comprehensive, the Finns do come out well in terms of classroom size, averaging 11 students per teacher in early childhood education (the UK averages 19). At secondary education level the figure is one of the lowest across OECD countries (9 students against 14 on average). Teachers are paid a similar wage in Finland to British teachers and most, up to 90%, do not leave the profession.

In fact, Finland is one of the OECD countries in which teachers enjoy comparatively better working conditions, especially women teaching in upper secondary schools. At the beginning of their career, secondary teachers’ salaries are around 13% higher than the OECD average, but salaries fall to around 14% less than the average as they reach the top of scale. Women teachers in upper secondary schools earn 22% more than other similarly-educated female professionals. When including men, the average salary of upper secondary teachers is 9% higher than those of other similarly-educated professionals. A marked contrast to their peers across other OECD countries who earn around 8% less.

Teaching hours in Finland are comparatively low; teachers in both primary and secondary schools spend over 100 hours less per year teaching than the average in OECD countries. The outcome the OECD notes of these factors is: “that a vast majority of lower secondary teachers (95%) feel satisfied with their jobs, according to the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) results.”

There are undoubtedly many interesting lessons that can be learnt from the Finnish system, and from other countries which have a completely different way at looking at forms of education than ourselves. Yet, before we hail one system the world’s best (“It is a model that has seen education experts from all over the world make a beeline to Helsinki, to try and find out whether the Finns’ magic formula can be translated into other countries,” says The Telegraph) we should not underestimate the influence of cultural and historical differences. Or the dangers of hyperbole. Or the importance of the well being, knowledge and experience of the adult stood at the front of the class.


OECD “Education At A Glance 2014”:

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