Ireland’s global position in education has slipped rather badly in recent times: we came 17th in one international study of literacy. A nation of writers and bards – for shame!

Top of any European list in the education league now is – Finland. In the most recent study by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) Finnish 15-year-olds came first in literacy skills, and pretty near the top at Maths, usually dominated by China, Japan and the Koreas. So what is Finland doing right? Can others learn “Finnish lessons” about education?

Surprisingly, until the 1980s, as Finnish educationalists emphasise, their education system was “”mediocre”. Before the 1970s, it was almost backward. Finland in 1950 was at the same stage of educational development as Sweden in 1910. Now it has far surpassed Sweden, where there are problems with the school system.

“We were a poor people, an agrarian people,” says Professor Arto Kallioniemi, the professor of teacher education at Helsinki University. And Finland is still quite traditional in some regions. “There are many places in Finland where people have never seen a foreigner.”

And yet there are also schools in Helsinki where 40 per cent of the pupils are from immigrant backgrounds, which is not an easy situation: until recent years Finland had a restricted attitude to immigration, which some even considered xenophobic. In the old Soviet Union, dissidents used to advise: “never defect to Finland – they’ll send you back: always defect to Sweden ” But now, says Professor Kallioniemi, a big, fresh-faced man who would not be out of place in Co Kerry, “we have accepted an immigration law and we will make it work.”

This is also a central challenge to their educational system. Immigrants are about 4 per cent of the population of just over 5 million, but it is clear that immigrants will be taught to be Finns. Learning Finnish – a difficult language related only to Estonian and Hungarian – is an absolute requirement. You won’t find entire estates in Helsinki – as in Bradford – where the women only speak Urdu.

But how did their educational system become so successful? They did a radical overhaul of the system in the 1970s, called peruskoulu. Streaming was abolished, as were school inspections, which they reckon make teachers “stressed”. But above all – and this was emphasised repeatedly when I attended a recent seminar on Nordic education – there was enormous investment in the teaching profession. Teaching became a high-status profession – as many men as women seek to enter it. To be a teacher in Finland is as good as being a doctor, and better than being a lawyer.

They made teaching much tougher to get into, too: teachers have to be academically trained, and many candidates are rejected. Pay for teachers is comfortable but not lavish – calculated at between US $40,000 and $55,000. Finnish teachers are so academic that their conversations may begin with phrases like: “what is your pedagogical theory?” Vesa Linnanmaki, a 39-year-old Finnish teacher doing a stint at a school in Essex says that British teachers looked at him agog when he brought that question up in the staffroom.

In some respects the Finnish school system strikes the outsider as very liberal: no inspections, no emphasis on homework, no competition between schools, shorter school days than elsewhere, classes lasting 45 minutes followed by a 15-minute break. Schools are often small, community-based, and have special support for academically weaker pupils.

There are only two semesters: January to May and August to Christmas. Teachers are seldom fired – maybe they’ve been so rigorously selected at training level they are likely to be the cream of the crop. It does occasionally happen – mainly for alcoholism.

But underneath this liberalism there are conditions which even the Finns admit might be difficult to translate to other cultures. There are virtually no private schools. There is virtually no home schooling. There is basically no “choice” of schools: you attend your neighbourhood school, and that’s that. There’s a useful book called “Finnish Lessons”, by Pasi Sahlberg, published by Columbia University, which gives details about the theory and practice of Finnish education, and although teachers and “pedagogical theory” are much to the fore, parents are seldom mentioned.

Parents support the Finnish system, says Professor Kallioniemi. “We are a homogenous culture,” he explains. “People trust the system. It is not politicised.” Maybe in our societies, this might smack of over-conformity. You get a high-quality education system, but dissent isn’t welcomed.

Perhaps everyone can learn something from “Finnish lessons”, but the Finns themselves point out that cultural context is vital. They are, in general, a taciturn, reserved and modest people. Loquacity is not particularly admired. “Small talk” is deplored. “If you’ve nothing to say, say nothing,” is a traditional proverb. Irish culture, by contrast, is talkative and generally outgoing, welcoming the stranger being more important than silence and reserve.

Yet there is one area where there might be a helpful parallel: Finland’s ingrained bi-lingual skills. The Finns once had to speak both Swedish and Finnish, and many also had to speak Russian.

There is even a weak parallel with faith traditions. Religious studies are included in Finnish schools – though only one hour a week. There is a choice, now, of 13 religious faiths. However, 80 per cent of faith instruction is still Lutheran. “And we are very proud of our Lutheran tradition,” says Professor Kallioniemi. “Historically, the priests started our schools.” It strikes me, then, that the unapologetic Finnish pride in their own culture and values may contribute to the national self-esteem which puts them top of the class in the western world. ENDS . I.I. Mag. April 2012.

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