Finland, Where Teachers are Truly in Charge

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With a minimum qualification of a master’s degree for teachers and a broadly-outlined national curriculum designed by experts, in collaboration with the ‘common’ teacher and other stakeholders, Finland administers only one national assessment for students seeking admission into higher institutions at the completion of their upper secondary education. Peace Obi reports

The Finnish education system has so many things that make it unique and different from the closest Nordic country’s education system. In what can be described as a pure-Finnish local content education policy, the system has no room for school inspectors, performance or league tables and no national coordinated examination for students until the age of 18 or more, children do nothing but play until they start compulsory education at age seven.

This is also a country where teacher autonomy stems from the trust the policy/decision makers have on its broadly-outlined national curriculum, teachers’ educational training, teacher quality, competence and trust. The system relies so much on teachers’ competence and ability to rightly follow the curriculum and to correctly assess students’ learning outcomes. A school system where students address their teachers by their first names, where teachers teach only four lessons every day with two hours a week dedicated to their professional development while students are given home work that will not last more than 30 minutes, among others.

Giving insights into the Finnish education system during a meeting organised by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for some journalists invited by the ministry to participate in the just concluded UNESCO World Press Freedom Day in Helsinki, a university don from the Department of Teacher Education, University of Helsinki, Ms. Hannele Cantell, said one interesting thing about Finland’s education system which people have continued to ask questions about, is the area of testing and assessment.

“Finland has only one national test for children of same age group and the exam is done at the completion of upper secondary school. So, the students take the test when they are about 18 or 19 years before that we don’t have any national test.”

Cantell, who hinted that the policy has always sounded unbelievable to people, said it is true and that the absence of test or assessment for Finnish students does not in any way make them inferior in international comparison, rather, the country has continued to rank high in international rankings like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

She explained that the movement from one class to another within the basic and upper secondary school levels does not happen automatically, but that the assessment at those levels is done by the teachers and that there is no national standard for it. “We do have some guidelines in our curriculum, but it is not that strict like a national test and one big thing is that we trust the teachers and that is something I know may be difficult to understand.”

According to her, coming a long way in its trust for the teachers as well as being a society that lives on trust, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture ceased to have school inspectors in the early 90s when it was decided that teachers can be trusted to do their job without Ofsted-style surveillance.

She said the authorities consider internal control over schools to be more effective than the external, adding that reliance on prescription, testing and external control over schools do not necessarily improve school the system.
Cantell reiterated that the least qualification for Finnish teachers is master’s degree and that they are thoroughly immersed in educational theory. “We have educated the teachers so well that we trust that they are able to follow core curriculum and have that kind of assessment they feel that is most suitable. And until now, it has worked. So, we have only one national test because we trust our teachers.”

In her presentation titled ‘Education in Finland – School System and Curriculum’, Cantell declared that education is free at all levels, from pre-primary to higher education and that the country has two official/instructional languages – Finnish and Swedish.

According to her, the Finnish school system guarantees equal learning opportunities regardless of social background, gender or location, as it is mainly public schools providing education for the Finns. She said instead of comparing and testing students, the focus is on supporting and guiding them, ensuring equality between boys and girls; as a culture, the country trusts its education system and has so much respect for teachers.
The university don added that in Finland, children do just start going to school, but that they are allowed to enjoy their childhood by being in daycare and kindergarten where they are allowed to play and learn to go to school along the line.

“We do have kindergarten and it is a very important part of our system, most of which are government owned. Before the proper schooling starts at age seven, we don’t consider them to be schooling because we have this kind of idea that a child’s creativity is in the child, you don’t have to harass him, he/she doesn’t have to be so good in academics, it will come later. But of course in the pre-school centres, there are also some kinds of learning, but it is like more of having fun and play.”

She said the seven years official school take-off age also marks the beginning of the nine-year compulsory basic education for all Finnish children, which is guided by one national curriculum to ensure uniformity in standard, among others. The completely free of charge educational service also comprises instruction, school materials, school meals, healthcare, dental care, transportation, and even special needs education and remedial teaching.
Cantell, who is a member of the national curriculum groups of Finnish National Board of Education, told journalists that the country has a national curriculum and it is the same for all Finnish school children and teachers.

Explaining that after the basic education, the students can choose to go to upper secondary school or vocational school or work, she said, “all our teachers have to follow the national curriculum. Also, all our school books have to be made so that they follow national curriculum but the curriculum is somehow open that it is possible for the teachers to do some kind of individual teaching, that is, the schools can do it a little bit differently.”
Disclosing what makes the national curriculum for Finnish schools special to be the collaborative efforts of experts from the National Board of Education, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, national curriculum groups, NGOs, students and more importantly, the teachers, she said the country considers teachers as the best experts in curriculum design.

“The teachers are the ones who understand what is happening in schools better than anyone else or any professional group. In Finland, what is very special about the national curriculum is that it is not a paper which comes from the sky or from some kind of office to school; it is an ideology which is designed together with pedagogical officials from the National Board of Education. But what is very important is that in curriculum groups, there are always teachers- ordinary school teachers, because in Finland, we think that they are the best experts.”

Highlighting the premium placed on teachers by the society and even among the academia, the teacher educator said: “The best experts are not PhDs or some university people or some people in some ministries. The best people who understand what is happening in schools are teachers and that is why we respect teachers’ opinions a lot and in curriculum groups.

“There must be teachers otherwise we will design some kind of stupid curriculum which is not relevant, especially when we don’t understand the reality in the schools. That is why it is very important to communicate with teachers and even the students.”

Disclosing that the country’s curriculum reform circle is 10 years, Cantell told journalists that a new curriculum is expected to take effect during the next school session in August, 2016. “We have just finished with our last reform and we will start with a new curriculum. So in August, we will start with new ideas in every Finnish school. So, it is quite interesting always to start a new curriculum.”

She stressed that before the new curriculum is implemented, teachers and important stakeholders are taken through trainings to familiarise them with the new curriculum and implementation strategies. “And before then, there has to be a lot of courses for teachers and the schools on how to follow the curriculum. What are the new things there, how should you interpret the curriculum?”

Listing some of the trends in the new curriculum to include global education, phenomenal-based learning, themes like food, energy sustainable development, history and future in Helsinki, Cantell said it is hoped that through interdisciplinary projects, students are expected to learn themes combined in various subjects and that subject teachers are expected to work together to achieve a better implementation.

On the flexibility it allows for implementation, she said: “The curriculum gives frames and ideas, it also gives freedom to the teachers for instance if they are interested in drama pedagogy, they are free to do it. In Finland, what is very special is that the curriculum is an ideology which is designed together with pedagogical officials from the National Board of Education. So, it is a kind of open process.

“This is the first time it was possible for everybody to comment in the curriculum text. It is like a together-made paper and that why I think many schools see it as important because it is not just something that comes to them that they must follow but something we have done together.
“One important thing is that nearly all Finnish schools are public schools. So we don’t have private schools system. We do have some private schools but they also follow our national curriculum.”