Is my education system better than your education system? Finland vs the world.

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.

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  • mick mccann

    X numbers of comments about whether the PSNI includes or incorporates the name RUC in the above thread. No responses however to a useful article about education. It’s not only the politicians who prefer the sectarian issues over the real issues.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Additionally, of course, the students who do best from the system are the least likely to stay. And we wonder why Allstate are reduced to running ads for IT professionals on bus shelters.

  • Mack

    As a potential drawback / something not to import – Janten laki?

    To be honest I don’t know much about the Finnish system, working on the presumption that there is some level of similarity to the Swedish education system then the cutting down of ‘tall poppys’ may be an issue.

    I know an American family that relocated to Sweden and found their daughter learning maths a couple of years behind where she was in the US. They found support within the public education system for kids with high potential to be poor (i.e. nowhere near what was available in the US).

    The Swedes have probably eliminated relative poverty as a drag on educational attainment and in the process pushed the averages way up, but at the expense of (at least anecdotally) providing suitable outlets for more gifted children.

    Removing private wealth as a driver of educational attainment (by providing top class facilities for all) is a fine goal. Focusing on the gap between top and lowest achievers as something to be narrowed is barmy. It can be narrowed from both ends. Education systems should provide appropriate support for smart kids (as well as the less gifted) regardless of parental wealth..

  • FuturePhysicist

    Sweden the land of Ångström, Rydberg, Klein, Bäcklund and firms like Volvo, Ericsson and Electrolux have not produced suitable outlets for gifted children because of Jante Law?

    I’m beginning to doubt that Max. If anything I’ve learnt from my mathematics education is that basic statistics show there is a case for “defying the odds”.

    The comments against poor people are ridiculous. When is a bank balance ever a measure of intelligence or even the desire for intelligence. Are we to believe that hypothetically for example the child of a rich landowner descended from a long line of incestuous relationships somehow than say the child of a Belarussian nuclear physicist living on a subsistence wage solely on the basis on their “potential to be poor”? You have to be kidding me here with this gombeen elitism here.

    Before you think this is just a Scandinavian thing… this is Cambridge University students’ Jante Law reaction to David Willets.

  • Mack

    Just one family’s experience of it, moving from a different country whether it’s representative or not is another matter, but I suspect it might be. They certainly thought so.

    Btw, what comments ‘against poor people’ ?

  • FuturePhysicist

    Maybe I may’ve misinterpreted the situation, I apologise.

    However I don’t necessarily think that a child’s gifts are wasted simply because an educational institution is focusing on some other problem. I don’t think Sweden is prioritising poverty above neurodiversity and it is a very limiting understanding that believes ones education is only confined to schools.

    There are many ways to apply and develop mathematical gifts outside of school if the school isn’t challenging enough, there is plenty of applications and idea to broaden ones mind and ability on the subject.

    Mathematics requires more independent learning than any other subject in my opinion. Whatever support can be offered is limited, and possibly counter productive at times, if there’s reluctance to do the questions for yourself because short of some basic theory about the fundamentals, and perhaps a few formulas … you cannot rote-learn the vast majority of the answers,

  • Mack

    That’s all true – most of the better kids in that situation will find other ways and activities (while the inverse isn’t true for the weakest kids). The American family being a case in point (looking outside the state school system so their daughter could continue where she was). Ideally it would be good if those needs could be met within the state education system.

    Some bright kids might suffer though. E.g. Get bored in class and begin to become disruptive.

    If someone was doing an objective analysis of education systems it could still be a potential con (in contrast to very many pros) in the Scandivian model.

  • ForkHandles

    mick, dont worry too much, this site is mainly run for the ranters to rant. it has nothing to do with what would be considered normal peoples views or interests in the outisde world of NI.
    This is another good thread on the education system. But it seems to have alot of PC sentiment and feel good sound bites. I have mentined my views before, I support a Grammar school system here because it is available to all based on their own ability. In this environment the kids do very well, much better than the UK average. PC people cannot accept that some people are just better academically than other people.
    The problem in NI is in the secondary schools and is related to the disruptive and badly behaved children spoiling the chance to learn for the other children. PC people wont accept that some kids are bad wee shits and need to be removed from the class/school.

  • ForkHandles > mick, dont worry too much, this site is mainly run for the ranters to rant. it has nothing to do with what would be considered normal peoples views or interests in the outisde world of NI.

    Well, I’m certainly not writing posts in order for ranters to rant – and the increase in yellow/red cards and black spots over the past couple of months is I believe intended to discourage random trolling/ranting.

  • Mack

    The Atlantic on a similar theme ->

    “The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.”

    Can’t help but think they are drawing the wrong conculsions with that tag line.

    Equality of opportunity is itself excellent, but facilitating the pursuit of excellence is also important too.

    My bet is that the big improvements you see from enhanced equality of opportunity come from raising the level at the bottom (much the way most of the increase in life expectancy is due to a reduction in infant mortality).

    It should be possible to learn from the Scandinavian experience and enhance it.

    If you were to consider the application of the same model in school sports, we could improve every child’s fitness and life-time attritude towards physical exercise, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of limiting opportunities for gifted athletes to fully develop their abilities within the system.

    I’m not convinced that providing one need exclude the other..

  • antamadan

    apparantly in the south, (other than technical schools, mainly arranged for those that leave school early), mixed standards avail in ‘secondary schools’, but. The but is that there is a higher and lower paper in all subjects at Leaving Certificate, and thus in each school there is a class(es) following the higher syllabus, and another class following the lower/’standard’ paper. Now, a smart kid takes a load of higher papers, but another kid could be good at say Art and Technical Graphics and be in the higher group for those subjects. The end result is that the top students are not held back by very weak students, but there is a good mix, very positive for relationships in say a small town with one school.

  • antamadan

    I should have clarified that they take maybe 7 subjects in the south, and thus the kids weaker in general, might still choose to take the higher course in their best subject(s), but are in the lower group for all other subjects. It goes both ways. Say someone who is great at maths and science, might take the lower course for French or Irish. Anyway, most people end up mixing in school, is the main point. I guess religion is for another discussion, but they seem to mix more in southern schools there too, but I could be wrong.

  • Mack

    There is streaming by ability in many schools in the south (not sure if it is universal), beyond ordinary and honours level testing.

    If streaming is conducted on a per subject basis it has the advantages highlighted by antamadan above. The same person could be in the top stream in English, but a lower one more appropriate to their abilities in Maths or French.

    I’ve noticed some attempts to attack or rollback streaming, on the basis that it is elitist lately (and the argument goes not effective).

    I think refining streaming and ensuring fluid mobility between streams (e.g. potential movements every term if an improvement is shown) would be much better.

    That’s much less final, and less universal across all subjects than the 11+ exam (which doesn’t even test aptitude in many subjects – or at least didn’t -e.g. languages).

    It might be better aggregating schools by age. Rather than a locale having two or more competing schools, have two or more schools that focus on different age groups. That would give economy of scale at each age group. (I.e. more 12/13/14 and 15/16/17/18 year olds per school would mean more classes per subject, more sports teams, more extra curricular activities etc).