Depending on who you ask, Scotland has a world class education system, a Northern Ireland grammar school education is the envy of the UK, and pupils from Anahilt primary school go on to dominate the head girl and head boy posts in local post-primary schools (according to a leaflet in Lisburn Library).
Idly browsing through some tweets this morning I noticed a link to an article in The Atlantic about the Finnish education system which has been at or near the top of the OECD’s PISA survey since 2000.
Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In Finland, ‘exactly the same opportunity to learn’ doesn’t translate to a state-mandated curriculum, standardised testing and identikit schools. Instead, Finnish authorities seem to have set out foundational principles and then let each school do its best. Central administration was diminished. Learning is valued. Only 10% of applicants become teachers. There is no educational marketplace. There are no private schools in Finland. “Only a small number of independent schools exist … and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees.”
In many ways, they’ve cracked the strategy for “every school a good school”.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.
Pupils at many Northern Ireland grammar schools achieve high grades while simultaneously 9,000 children leave school without passing five or more GCSEs (including Maths and English) at A*-C. How successful are Finland at achieving good results for everyone?
Searching Google for ‘Finnish educational underachievement’ to find their Achilles Heel, I found the first (2008/2009) report of the Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce produced for the Department of Education NI.
Page 13 mentions both Northern Ireland and Finland:
Spread of achievement / High and low achievers
As well as looking at the average student, performance on reading and maths can be described by the size of the gap between the weakest and strongest students, and by examining students at either extreme of the scale. In Northern Ireland, the gap (in terms of scores on PISA mathematics or reading) is larger than the average across OECD countries. It is also larger than the gap found in England, Scotland or Wales, and is considerably larger than the gap in the Republic. Relative to the situation in many other countries, “weak” students fall further behind “strong” students in Northern Ireland.
PISA also describes student reading and mathematics skills in terms of proficiency levels. Students who fail to reach “baseline proficiency level” may not have the basic competencies that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life situations and in future education. In Northern Ireland, 21% of students (30% of males) failed to show baseline reading proficiency in PISA 2006. While this is close to the OECD average of 20% and 19% in England, it is considerably worse than in countries such as the Republic of Ireland (only 12% of students do not reach baseline), Korea and Finland (5%). For mathematics, 23% of students in Northern Ireland did not demonstrate baseline proficiency (OECD average 21%). The equivalent figures for England and the Republic of Ireland are 20% and 16%.
The data from PISA (and from GCSEs) suggest that Northern Ireland demonstrates a long “tail” of underachievement. While many students perform at a very high level, there are also many who fail to show what would be considered basic levels of literacy and numeracy. The future for such students is likely to include poorer employment opportunities, higher rates of unemployment, lower earning potential and an increased likelihood of living in poverty. [emphasis added]
While still encompassing one in twenty school leavers, 5% is much smaller than the one in five who were leaving school in Northern Ireland in 2006 without the baseline reading competency.
The final report of DENI’s Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce was issued in May 2011 and comments on recent reductions in educational underachievement in NI.
Almost one in five pupils continues to leave primary school not having achieved the expected level in English and Maths (in 2009/10, 81% achieved the expected level in English and 83% in Maths). The picture is similar at Key Stage 3 (in 2009/10, 80% achieved the expected level in English and 77% in Maths).
The report calls for “coherent leadership through a single organisation charged with raising standards for all pupils and with reducing the differentials in achievement that have persisted in the past” and says that the “delay in establishing ESA has caused considerable confusion and uncertainty among school leaders as to who has responsibility for providing guidance and support”.
Most evaluations of the Northern Ireland education system are based on internal comparisons. While comparison within the system is essential, it must be complemented by proper external evaluations and comparisons. In this regard, PISA (at post-primary), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (at primary) are vital tools. However, Northern Ireland is only joining PIRLS and TIMSS now, while the (disappointing) data from PISA do not get, in the view of the Taskforce, the attention it merits, including from public representatives and members of the business community. [emphasis added]
The report recognises that teachers in schools can’t raise standards of literacy and numeracy in isolation from parents in homes. But it also suggests raising the literacy and numeracy standards of NI teachers:
Teacher quality is central to pupil attainment. We must attract, and support the development of, highly effective teachers. It must become a priority to ensure that trainee teachers have a more than satisfactory grasp of numeracy and literacy skills. The current entrance requirements (Grade C in GCSE Maths and English or equivalent) are, in the view of the Taskforce, too low, and this may impact on the effectiveness of the teaching profession here. DE should give urgent consideration to the raising of this entry requirement or to following the example of England, Scotland, Wales and requiring applicants for teacher training places to pass basic literacy and numeracy tests. Improving the quality of mentoring that trainee teachers receive whilst on teaching practice must also be a priority. [emphasis added]
The search for weaknesses in the Finnish system carries on. In the meantime, I’m not sure that NI is yet doing enough to make a big leap forward.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.