Finland - more myths
My last post on 'Why Finland is finished as a role model in education' generated some great contributions from people who do teach in Finland. Their comments were welcome and I don’t want to repeat them here. But I do want to include some other voices, with views on Finnish teachers, class sizes and selection, that run counter to that great Finnish saga, which presented Finland as an educational paradise. They largely blame PISA, as it was PISA that sparked off the mythology, exaggeration and cherry-picking. Finland is not to blame for this, indeed many I speak to seem a little embarrassed by the attention – it is not in the Finnish character to puff your chest out in public. Indeed, many Finnish voices have been drowned out by the evangelist Pasi Sahlberg. Note that this is not his fault, as he's quite realistic in seeing the Finnish system as non-transferable to other countries.
I mean people like myth-buster Fred Durvin, Professor of Multicultural Education at the University of Helsinki, who points to‘Mythologies’ (1957) by Barthes, to expose the process where myths (such as the Finnish educational myth) easily slip into being ideologies. That's exactly what is happening here, for example, with the UK government's adherence to PISA as the standard against which our education system will be judged. He does not see PISA as a good tool for assessing ability and claims, counter to the mythology, that the Finnish system is highly competitive, with children generally starting school at age two, not seven. He also points towards the lack of reporting around violence and major gun massacres, as a typical example of the selectivity of the evidence and mythologising. I had never heard of the school massacres at Rauma (2 dead), Jokela (9 dead) and Kauhajoki (11 dead) before reading Durvin.
Finnish teachers – the myths
The problems come when positions are exaggerated. Finnish teachers are NOT paid the same as Doctors. Indeed many, many teachers are paid more in other European countries and countries around the world (see OECD stats). The statistics are also skewed by the fact that teachers in Finland take 20 years to climb the salary ladder, compared to 12 in England and 6 in Scotland. Oh and they do have a National Core Curriculum and the country does teach to set textbooks.
Class size is also misrepresented. Finland has small class sizes, as they have a very low population density. This point was made in 'Finland’s PISA success: Myth and transferability' by Johann C. Fuhrmann and Norbert Beckmann-Dierkes, who showed that Finland, which is marginally smaller than Germany, has a population density of only 17 per square kilometre, compared to 230 in Germany. This is why 70% of Finnish schools have fewer than 7 teachers, with a quarter of all schools having less than 50 students and only 3% with more than 500 students. This is why the Finnish government has just announced a 260 million Euro cut to the schools budget. The stagnating economy can no longer afford to keep so many small schools open.
Do Finns send their kids to the local school? Are they free from the pressures on parents in the UK to choose a school for their children? In fact, the usual sharp elbows of the middle class do select into certain schools. You may be surprised to learn that parents in Finland have had that choice since 1999, and that many do exercise that choice. In fact, in Turku and Helsinki, about 40% go to schools that are NOT the nearest. The exercise of that choice seems to be correlated with wealth and social class. This has caused problems for politicians who espouse a local schools policy, with no option to choose, then choose to send their own children to non-local schools. It may also surprise many, it did me, that pre-school education is NOT free but means tested and Finland DOES have many dozens of private schools.
A lot of the so-called evidence comes from fleeting visits by observers who see what they want to see. In practice, the Finnish school system is far from being bad and, as Mark Cuchner explains, there is much to admire. However, it is far from being the utopia we have been sold. The problem is that the word ‘Finland’ has launched more ‘agendas’ than Viking ships. That agenda is either right-wing politicians getting obsessed with maths and PISA, teachers getting obsessed with higher pay and status or teacher-trainer organisations demanding higher and higher qualifications for teachers.
The truth is more prosaic. Finland has become a political football, where admirers cherry-pick the things they want to hear and ignore the rest. In an interesting experiment, Finland has been reported as scrapping cursive writing lessons in favour of keyboard skills and touch typing – it will be fascinating how both the right and left react to that one! Guess what, neither have jumped on that bandwagon – as it’s on no one’s agenda.