This week I had the privilege of travelling to Finland to find out what makes their world-beating education system tick- and what the UK could learn from their achievements.
As Finland slides into view, Paavo Piik, an Estonian theatre director I’m working with, smiles and gestures towards the coastline. “There it is,” he says, “the promised land!” To teachers all over the world, Finland has become a byword for getting it right in education. I’m exhausted after two back-to-back early mornings but that doesn’t dampen my excitement as our ferry approaches the end of its two-hour crossing from Tallinn and Helsinki takes shape in front of us. I’m halfway through my final term as deputy head at an inner London primary school and since I started teaching in the British system twelve years ago, and throughout all the frustrations that has involved, I’ve always wanted to come and see this for myself.
I’m here in my half-term at the invitation of the Theatre of Europe. We’re creating a show exploring the challenges facing educators, particularly in the UK, through an international lens. My companions are all Estonians: Paavo is a director, Paul is a producer and Arun is a filmmaker, here today to document our visit. We’re visiting two schools in very different settings before meeting Krista Kiuru, the former Finnish education minister. One of our aims is to learn the secret of their success: how do they achieve such apparently high standards (Finland consistently outperforms the UK in the PISA international rankings) while ignoring almost all the instruments a succession of British governments has insisted on using to achieve the same goal? In Finland there is no statutory testing until children are sixteen, they have no formal inspectorate and teachers have the freedom to teach as they see fit with almost no interference from government. The pressures and anxieties that are causing an unprecedented number of British teachers to leave the profession simply don’t exist here. These facts also make us keen to play devil’s advocate as we explore this apparent Nirvana first-hand: what’s the catch? Surely nothing in life is this simple.
Our first stop is Siltamäki, a small town just outside Helsinki. The first people we see are a kindergarten class sitting outside singing with their teacher. Estonian is pretty similar to Finnish and Paavo is able to inform me that the song (sung to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus”) is about a duck who goes “quack quack quack.” Straightaway it looks like a British education minister’s nightmare: a group of children doing something “fun” and “woolly” rather than “rigorous.” I can almost hear the them scoffing in my head. The children sit close together but in whatever position makes them comfortable, facing whichever direction they please. Everyone looks remarkably relaxed.
The principal meets us at the door and I’m amused by her demeanour, which is considerably more familiar to me and is probably the same all over the world: formidable, energetic and intensely proud of her school. She doesn’t really care who we are: there’s a film crew in her school and she’s determined to show off its achievements. They’ve been working on a musical production, and she shows us some of the children’s artwork it has inspired. In everything she says, she keeps coming back to the musical which seems to have been the focus of the school’s work for weeks if not months.
“I pity the children who don’t like musicals!” Paul says as we’re led into the hall to watch a snippet of the production itself which is being rehearsed. Every child in the school has made a contribution and everyone is involved in its performance and execution. Standards (meaning actual standards, not test results as that word has come to mean in the British system) are extremely high. Without a national assessment agenda, there is far more room for children to follow their interests and that is true in this performance: some of the children are hunched over a laptop controlling the videos they’ve filmed and edited with remarkably high production values, others are on the stage in beautifully-crafted phoenix costumes performing a dance while about twenty others form an extremely impressive band including singers, percussionists and a variety of instrumentalists including a tiny boy with a bass guitar who is cooler than any British person will ever be. The only children in the hall are those needed for this particular section of the performance and all of them are involved- no one is sitting around waiting for “their bit.”
“This is all very nice,” the acid tone of the Tory minister I’m carrying around in my head says, “but children need to learn basic skills. Where is the rigour?” I finally sit down with one of the children, a sixth-grade girl who is twelve years old and one of the few ethnic minorities in the school. I’ve just seen her singing beautifully in the show but once again the Tory minister in my head pipes up: “we as a nation can’t compete in the global race by singing.” so I ask her what her favourite subject is.
“Maths,” she replies immediately, “it’s really fun and you have to think in lots of different ways.”
I smile and complement her English (plenty of English twelve-year-olds can’t speak English as confidently.) Some children must find that difficult, I say. Of course, she replies, and the teacher spends extra time helping those children. The same is true in all the subjects they study. They spend plenty of time studying what we in the UK would call “core subjects”; they just don’t get themselves wound up about it by assessing them obsessively and crowding everything else out of the curriculum.
Next we head upstairs and visit a lesson. The children are about eight or nine; each of them is at a computer and each of them is just playing Minecraft. The spluttering, red-faced rage of the minister in my head is not even comprehensible now. The class teacher, a long-haired, tattooed guy in a t-shirt who would look more at home at a metal concert than in a primary school classroom, explains what they’re doing. Each student is helping to design and maintain a city. They each have a different role in overseeing the effective administration of the virtual city and all of them have unique problems to solve, all of which are controlled and monitored at the teacher’s terminal. We ask the teacher what subject the children are doing and he shrugs. It’s not something he really worries about. They’re learning about the world they’re going to have to live in and the problems they might have to help solve when they’re older. He tells us he loves Sid Meier’s “Civilization” computer games and I nod enthusiastically. I’ve often said those games taught me more as a teenager than any subject I learnt at school.
This free-flow approach to the curriculum is the next step in Finland’s evolution as the school’s vice-principal explains to us when we emerge from the class. I’d read about this in the UK news a week or so before our visit but she is able to explain it with a clarity the British media always seems to lack when reporting education stories. Of course there is a compulsory framework, she tells us, but it’s a basic outline and the rest is about the teacher’s creativity and the interests of the students. I ask how this curriculum is to be enforced. How does the government know that the basic offer (such as essential maths and Finnish language content) is being delivered? We’re told that schools are required to publish their own curricula on their websites (ha! You DO have to do something we have to do!) which is shared with parents and must be agreed with the education department. And that’s it. That’s Finland’s accountability system.
We thank the staff and we’re left with considerable food for thought as we drive away. What we’ve seen was wonderful but could it work with the levels of inequality we have in England? Or in the multicultural communities that inner London schools now serve? That’s what we’re going to find out. Our next destination is Aurinkolahti, a multi-cultural primary and secondary through-school in inner-city Helsinki. There is a new challenge here. Only 5% of Finland’s population was born overseas, even that figure is a considerable increase compared to a decade ago and the country’s ethnic minorities are heavily concentrated in this part of its capital.
Again we’re met by the principal but this time she immediately delegates the job of showing us round to a group of students. These are teenagers who’ve recently done something for the very first time: national tests. It’s the last week of term (I’m told Finnish schools have seven more weeks of holiday than we do in the summer, as well as shorter days and more breaks- well of course they do) and many of the younger children are on trips. This visit is an opportunity to see the results of Finland’s education system: its sixteen year-olds who are the “Finnished product.” (sorry)
Over the hour that follows my mind is completely blown. Throughout the school there are dozens of sixteen-year-olds, from a wide range of social and ethnic groups, doing quite literally whatever they want. Some of them are lounging around on bean bags chatting or reading, some are playing sport in the gym and the majority are engaged in their own business using the school’s generous resources: there are students in the best-equipped design and technology workshop I’ve ever seen working on their own projects with a range of tools and machinery, there is another group in a maths classroom working out how to program a robot to walk and dance, there is a group of girls in the art studio producing beautiful portraits and another group gathered around a stage making props and costumes for a performance.
No one is running, no one is shouting and there is no sign of any tension or argument. Wherever we go, we meet young people enthusiastically wanting to show us what they’ve been doing. They recently went on a school trip to London and they play us a video they’ve produced of the trip. In temperament, they’re as sweet and polite as the most pleasant primary school classes I’ve taught. In intellect, they just seem like well-rounded adults.
This is the last week of term and it isn’t typical. Before their exams, their timetable varied between three and six hours of classroom learning a day and they attended subject lessons like anyone else. The difference is that the exam syllabus was only one part of what was valued in those lessons. I ask how their exams went and, with a shrug, they say they were fine. Paavo asks whether the exams are important. They tell us they can be and that universities “take an interest” in the results. Some of them are planning to go to university and some of them aren’t. Those that aren’t tend to have very specific plans for the technical courses they intend to go on to based on the skills they’ve had the opportunity to develop at school.
Life isn’t perfect, they tell us, and of course adolescence isn’t easy anywhere but, the more I speak to these remarkable young people, the more I realise the concept of the “teenager” isn’t inevitable. The stroppy, rebellious, antisocial youths prone to cruelty and excessive risk-taking we see all too often in most English-speaking societies aren’t inevitable: we have created them. Their behaviour is a choice we have made and continue to make. As I’m led around this school, I’m torn in two by two equally powerful but competing emotions. I’m utterly inspired by the sight of what’s possible when young people are nurtured and empowered rather than patronised and scrutinised but I’m also furious with my own compatriots, realising how stupid and primitive we Brits really are when it comes to one of our most important responsibilities: the education of our young. I feel like a time-traveler visiting the future from an earlier and more savage age.
Next we interview two teachers; one teaches maths to the older students and the other teaches English and German. We’re astonished that they’re happy for this to take place with an audience of about twelve of their students. This is a testament to the relationships between teachers and students here: they are friendly, informal and authentic. There are no uniforms for the students, teachers wear whatever makes them comfortable and everyone calls everyone else by their first name. The teachers talk completely candidly about their job including its challenges (even Finnish teachers have some paperwork- there’s still no way round the need for safeguarding procedures, for example) and the changes on the horizon in terms of the creative, topic-based curriculum. They love their job and, while they still feel pressure, I can’t help feeling that it’s the right pressure: to make learning inspiring for their students and to ensure they’re motivated to be the best they can be, not just to be good at exams but to be thoughtful, focused, friendly and skillful in a range of disciplines.
Somewhat stunned by what we’ve just experienced, we get back in the car and, after a brief stop for lunch, we’re off to the Finnish parliament building for our final appointment: a meeting with Krista Kiuru, the former education minister and one of the architects of its current evolution. We sit around a table in the café and reflect on what we’ve seen during the day. I’ve met quite a few politicians and she has the same studied charisma and careful presentation that I’ve observed in all of them but there’s an authenticity and warmth about her that her British counterparts often lack. There’s also genuine and unmistakable passion as she warms to the theme of Finland’s education system. What’s amazing is the lack of complacency; she doesn’t want to talk about Finland’s achievements but about what it needs to do to be even better.
Scoring well in the PISA rankings was never Finland’s primary objective- its aim was to create a better life for its young people and its performance in the international tables was just a welcome bonus (which makes the remarks of Gove, Morgan and Cameron about Britain’s drive to climb those same rankings look even more absurd) but, having achieved what they did, they were then a little spooked when they dropped slightly between 2012 and 2015. Yet Krista’s response to that drop is to insist the Finland needs to go even further down the road it is already taking: to put even more emphasis on student motivation, engagement and well-being.
Finland is still haunted by two US-style mass shootings in quick succession in 2007 and 2008 in which a total of 20 students at a high school and a technical college respectively lost their lives. This has made it easier to argue for an system that puts student’s happiness at its centre and what is most remarkable about Finland’s education agenda is that it enjoys complete cross-party support. Krista’s Social Democratic Party is out of power now and the government is dominated by the centre-right. While this brings frustrations (for example, Krista believes the new administration is failing to provide sufficient funding to schools with additional challenges presented by immigration and inequality like Aurinkolahti) the basic direction of travel has the agreement of everyone in the Finnish parliament. Rather than becoming the political football education represents in the UK, Finland’s school system has adopted a consistent direction of travel, agreed in collaboration with teachers, to which the entire country has seemingly signed up. Paavo asks if Krista is certain that the new reforms can make standards even higher and simultaneously make the education process even happier and more inspiring. Her answer is simple: “it must.”
I want to talk to Krista about the challenges we would face in exporting the Finnish model to the UK. I tell her that our Tory government have always insisted we must learn from the best international examples and I ask her if she ever had any contact from British ministers asking for her advice when she was education minister. She just laughs, shakes her head and looks at me with what I can only call pity. As well as education minister, Krista has also been Finland’s housing minister; she talks briefly talks about how Finland has striven to ensure socially mixed communities and how important this has been to the smooth functioning of their education system. I want to talk about this further, especially as housing is something we’re making even more of a mess of in the UK than education, but we’re out of time. Paul has already gone to get the car and he texts to tell us we need to leave or we’ll miss our ferry. Our seven hours in Finland have absolutely flown by.
Minutes later, we’re sitting quietly aboard the ferry, individually reflecting on everything we’ve seen and heard. I walk up the deck and watch Finland recede into the distance. So much of what I’ve witnessed has only been possible because of Finland’s unique circumstances. It has an adult population that values education more than the majority of British adults do, it is a far more economically equal country than the UK and it has a parliamentary system that encourages gradual evolution rather than dramatic ideological swings. Yet there is so much I’ve seen that we could start doing tomorrow in the UK if only there was the political will.
In the UK we’re failing our young people. We’re clobbering them with an enormous, prescriptive barrage of exam content and building our entire system around that content, rather than the students themselves. It isn’t going to change tomorrow and it isn’t going to change next year. But, turning my back on a remarkable country and facing into the powerful breeze from the open sea, I try and find a reason for a little optimism. No one knows what the future holds, even our politicians. That imagined government minister whose voice was rattling around my head earlier suddenly seems so utterly small and pathetic. Our government have no answers to the big questions about education in the 21st century and they get laughed at by the people who do. I decide there is only one conclusion I can allow myself to draw from today: the promised land is out there, I’ve seen it with my own eyes and maybe one day we’ll get there too.