Formal Education in Finland
Written by Anvita Tripathi
Illustrated by Anoushka Damani
The education system that the Finnish school-going population enjoys today is one of the best, if not the best education system the world has ever seen. The system, which is mostly public and ranks at 1 as per the latest Worldwide Educating for the Future Index 2019 report, is reputed for its incredibly qualified teachers along with so many other accomplishments. But the system we know today doesn’t merely resemble the one the Finnish had to encompass a few decades back. Before the 1960s, the Finnish population faced a terribly unequal system and didn’t have opportunities for higher education or even primary education, for that matter. Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the PISA. Finland built its excellent, efficient, and equitable educational system in a few decades from scratch, and the concept guiding almost every educational reform has been equity. But how does this seemingly flawless system work? What are the factors that make it the best system there is? Here to answer the most pressing questions and more, Anvita Tripathi presents another edition of ‘Formal Education: The World Tour’.
1. What are the core principles and features of this education system?
In Finland education is free at all levels from pre-primary to higher education. In pre-primary and basic education, the textbooks, daily meal and transportation for students living further away from the school are free of cost. At secondary level and in higher education the students themselves or their parents purchase their own books. At secondary level the students have the right to a free meal and in higher education meals are subsidised by the state.
Guidance and counselling is seen as the work of all education personnel. Thus teachers are required to treat the children and young people as individuals and help them to proceed according to their own capabilities. All pupils and students have the right to educational support. This support can be remedial instruction or support for the pupil’s special needs.
Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Both language groups have their own institutions also at higher education levels. In addition there are educational institutions where all or at least some instruction is provided in a foreign language, most commonly in English. Local authorities are also required to organise education in the Sami language in the Sami speaking areas of Lapland. Care is taken to ensure educational opportunities for Roma and other minorities as well as for people who use sign language.
The Finnish education system has no dead-ends. Learners can always continue their studies on an upper level of education, whatever choices they make in between. The practice of recognition of prior learning has been developed in order to avoid unnecessary overlapping of studies. Finland has a long history of participation and promotion of adult education and therefore, the participation rate is high in areas throughout the nation.
2. What is the structure of this system?
The structure of the Finnish Education System is considered to be the most free-flowing and unique systems in all the world. The students first begin their educational journey through ECEC, or, Early Childhood Education and Care. The municipalities are the ones responsible for arranging these ECEC services and their quality and supervision. Basic education encompasses nine years and caters for all those between 7 and 16 years. Schools do not select their students. Every student is allocated a place in a nearby school, but they can also choose another school with some restrictions.
All schools follow a national core curriculum, which includes the objectives and core contents of different subjects. The education providers, usually the local education authorities and the schools themselves draw up their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum.
After compulsory basic education school-leavers opt for general or vocational upper secondary education. Both forms usually take three years and give eligibility for higher education. Vocational education and training are popular in Finland, more than 40 percent of the relevant age group starts vocational upper secondary studies immediately after basic education. The biggest fields are technology, communications and transport, and social services, health and sports. The selection of students for upper secondary school is based on their grade point average for the theoretical subjects in the basic education certificate. Entrance and aptitude tests may also be used, and students may be awarded points for hobbies and other relevant activities.
Vocational qualifications can be completed in upper secondary VET, apprenticeship training, or as competence-based qualifications. The majority of young learners complete their upper secondary vocational qualifications at vocational institutions. Competence-based qualifications are usually completed by adults.
3. What sets the Finnish Education System apart from the others?
As per common opinion, the Finnish system has proven to be a state of the art education system. Out of the many features that set it apart from the other systems, here are a few:
Selected Curricula for Nationwide Application: They leave freedom for local education authorities to arrange teaching in the best way suited to local circumstances. This decentralised system is based on the locally designed and implemented curricula, in which pupils' individual needs are taken into consideration. The local curriculum design at school level commits the local teaching staff to the development of the education system and gives them wide pedagogic responsibility in the teaching work.
No Standardised Tests: Unlike the majority of education systems, Finland has no standardized tests. Their only exception is something called the National Matriculation Exam, which is a voluntary test for students at the end of an upper-secondary school which is equivalent to high school. All children throughout Finland are graded on an individualized basis and grading system set by their teacher. Tracking overall progress is done by the Ministry of Education, which samples groups across different ranges of schools.
Lesser Number of Assignments: According to the OECD, students in Finland have the least amount of outside work and homework than any other student in the world. They spend only half an hour a night working on stuff from school. Finnish students also don’t have tutors. Yet they’re outperforming cultures that have toxic school-to-life balances without the unneeded or unnecessary stress.
Providing Professional Options Past a Traditional College Degree: Many students across the world choose not to go to college in fear of incurring massive debt, under the impression that college shall do nothing for their future. Finland has helped solve this dilemma by altering its previous system, bettering it and imposing it on the structure of the newer system. Now, there is a lesser focused dichotomy of college-educated versus trade-school or working class. Both can be equally professional and fulfilling for a career.
In Finland, there is the Upper Secondary School which is a three-year program that prepares students for the Matriculation Test that determines their acceptance into a University. This is usually based on specialties they’ve acquired during their time in “high-school”. Next, there is vocational education, which is a three-year program that trains students for various careers. They have the option to take the matriculation test if they want to then apply to University.
4. Teacher’s Cut
Learning how the average teacher in a country is trained and taught is arguably just as crucial as understanding how the average student is educated. In the 1970s, teacher education was moved from seminarium, or teachers’ colleges, into universities and teachers were required to hold a master’s degree. Only eight universities have teacher education programs (five vocational colleges offer teacher certification for aspiring teachers of vocational subjects who already have the appropriate qualifications from their respective industry), so quality control and consistent standards are easy to achieve.
Primary school teachers are required to major in education, with a minor in two primary school curriculum subject areas. Secondary school teachers are required to major in the subject they will teach, and to complete a fifth year of education designed to ensure that they have mastered their craft, either alongside their major fieldwork or after they have completed four years of subject coursework. This five-year program results in a master’s degree. Teacher education is heavily research-based, with a strong emphasis on pedagogical content knowledge. Students must also spend a full year teaching in a teacher training school associated with their universities before graduation. These schools are public schools that are subject to national curriculum and teaching requirements just like any other municipal school. However, they have been particularly designed pedagogically to support both pupils and teacher-students in their learning. They are university-affiliated model schools, where prospective teachers and researchers develop and model new practices and complete research on teaching and learning. Teacher education programs in Finland are monitored by the Higher Education Evaluation Council.
Finnish education often seems paradoxical to outside observers because it appears to break a lot of the rules we take for granted. And this Finnish paradox has stunned the world as it shows that by focusing on the bigger picture, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of almost every child. There are no gifted programs, almost no private schools, and no high-stakes national standardized tests. Prioritization is different than in the majority of the world. There is an emphasis on allocating resources for those who need them most, high standards, support for special needs students, qualified teachers taken from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates and who must earn a Master’s degree, evaluation of education, balancing decentralization and centralization. And even though this system vastly varies from the rest of the world, it definitely seems to have come out victorious. Now, the next question that might arise is whether or not the global education system shall follow it. It is no mystery why the worldwide school and college-going population gets more and more tired of the current state and quality of education as the days pass by. Will taking a page from Finland’s book finally solve our problem? Well, one can only answer so many questions in a single article. Perhaps, for another time. As for now, goodbye! Or, as the Finnish would say, Hyvästi!