HELSINKI — After a while, it starts to get really annoying. The Finns are always at the top of the class. They top the international testing scores conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which every three years since 2000 has evaluated the performance of 15-year-olds throughout the developed world in math, reading and science.
The most recently available results of the so-called PISA tests (2009) placed the Finns — once again — among the best in the world. They came close to No. 2 South Korea (Shanghai, China was No. 1), even without employing the kind of sleepless nights and corporal punishment that would be unthinkable in the land of Father Christmas.
And what’s more, Finland also tops the list of the best places for children to live, according to UNICEF’s ranking of child well-being in developed countries released in April. It is in many ways thanks to its schools that the country is a kind of children’s paradise.
So much so, in fact, that delegations from all over the world come to Helsinki to get training in education. These delegations include a number of Swiss experts, according to the University of Helsinki’s Patrik Scheinin, who is charged with analysing the results of the PISA survey.
A popular profession
In Finland, the teachers are what dreams are made of. That’s not difficult to believe when you see Omaia Zakik, 38, entering the Esplanad café located on one of the capital’s bustling roads. Summer dress, golden hair, almond eyes — the secondary school teacher looks like a princess. But she’s also extremely smart, because here all teachers, at both primary and secondary levels, must have at least a master’s degree (the equivalent of five years of university study). Teaching is a very popular profession, and extraordinarily competitive: Only 10% of candidates earn a place at university.
But that has nothing to do with the salary, which is just barely above average. Teaching is so popular because of the social recognition. “They trust us,” says Omaia Zakik, who teaches French and English to teenage students in Espoo, Finland’s second city. “We have a lot of freedom in the way we teach. I chose the textbooks and the methodology. Nobody controls what I do,” she adds.
The National Office of Education, which decides the educational framework, “is not a handbook and is left open to interpretation,” the office’s Tiina Tähkä says. “Originally, we copied the Swedish school system, but they didn’t take the push for teaching excellence as far.”
Kristiina Kumpulainen, education professor at the University of Helsinki, adds that teacher freedom is only limited by that of the students. “Teachers must carry out their own research to find out what works best,” she says. “Teaching is not just a vocation, it’s a science.”
A recent incident in Helsinki relit the debate on discipline in schools: After a verbal altercation, a teacher pushed a student in the cafeteria. The scene, filmed by students, found its way onto the Internet, and the teacher immediately lost his job. In Finland, teachers are forbidden to touch students. Parliament is currently developing a new law to expand teacher rights. If it passes, they will be able to physically remove a student from the classroom, for example. As it is, teachers don’t have the right to force a student to leave the room, to confiscate telephones or to open bags to inspect them. The worst punishment available to them is sending for the head teacher. What’s more, the students’ right to express themselves is protected.
No pressure, kids
In Finnish schools, students address teachers informally and use their first names. The atmosphere is relaxed and the hours not terribly demanding. The school day starts at 8 a.m. and finishes at midday for young children. Older students finish between 2 and 4 p.m. And because the winters are so harsh, Finns have 10 to 11 weeks of vacation in the summer, and many other days are added throughout the year.
Finnish schools don’t promote competition. There are no marks given for the first few years of a student’s schooling, and no national exams conclude the school year. “It’s up to them to decide if they do their homework,” says Zakik, the teacher. Teaching expert Mikko Myllykoski says that other countries place too much importance on tests. “The secret is freedom.” And yet, results count.
All students follow the same course from seven to 16 years of age. And virtually no one fails. Students who encounter persistent difficulties are allowed to work with special assistants who helps them through the lessons step-by-step or in small groups outside of classes. Because of this it is almost of unheard of in Finland for students to repeat grades, and 93% of students complete their obligatory studies successfully, compared to 80% in countries that are OECD members.
Interestingly, students’ socio-economic background has much less influence on their performance in Finland than it does in other countries. Schools that welcome migrants receive more funding to teach Finnish as a second language. “The Finnish school system is a pillar of the Nordic model according to which everyone should have the same opportunities, regardless of where he or she is born,” says Kumpulainen.
Yet the experts say students retain a sense of individuality, and special funding is given to schools that develop innovative projects. “Students are encouraged to develop their own skills rather than simply racking up knowledge,” Kumpalainen adds.
Everything is bankrolled by the governement: supplies, cafeteria, transport, health care, support classes. But money alone doesn’t explain the success, experts say. Finland spends 8,651 francs ($9,248) per student a year, less than the average of the OECD countries (9,004 francs or $9,625) and significantly less that the U.S. (12,133 or $12,970) and Switzerland (15,126 or $16,170).
Even the teachers’ union has little about which to complain. “It has been a long time since we have had to fight for something,” says teacher Ritva Semi. Harmony reigns between the Ministry of Education and the member organzation to which 96% of teachers belong, she adds with a smile.
Semi, a short bespectacled woman, was involved in all the reform battles of the 1970s that led to the birth of the current school system. She doesn’t hesitate to praise the schools.
“Finland has no diamonds, no oil, no coal. So our politicians decided that we had to invest in human capital. And it was there that the idea of free education for all was born. Later, the Right wanted to establish a national exam and encourage the privatization of schools. When the first test results were released in 2001, all those projects were frozen, and today not even the most conservative politicians want to remember that they were opposed to the current school system.
And yet, nine-year-old Parus is stone-faced amid all the international acclaim: “School? I prefer football and baseball.” In the country at the top of the class — just like everywhere else — it seems that the students don’t really like school that much.