The Finnish education model: stop romanticising, start doing

The Finnish education model: stop romanticising, start doing

We often marvel at the Nordic countries as if they’re some utopia. Who can really blame us? Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland seem to top virtually every form of human development ranking out there. They’re economically prosperous, socially progressive and, perhaps most importantly, the happiest. For students across the globe, a source of envy lies within the highly idealised Nordic education systems, in particular Finland’s. We’ve all seen social media posts about how kids in Finland don’t start school until they’re seven years old, how they get an hour of recess and how they don’t really do homework or standardised testing. The appeal of no homework, coupled with the fact that the likes of the US, the UK and Australia are slowly slipping in world education rankings, has led students from the Anglosphere to accept that their own education system will always be inferior to the likes of Finland. But is this really productive? Too often we romanticise the Nordic countries as some exception, miracle or fantasy. Too often we forget that we have much to learn from the success of these countries. Let’s stop romanticising and start doing.

Rich school, poor school

In an attempt to close the socioeconomic divide that persisted in Finland prior to the 1970s, Finnish schools have been prohibited from raising private funds. As with any other country, there are independent schools – mostly religious – but they are wholly publicly funded. Finnish students also have equal access to free school meals, healthcare, psychological counselling and individual student guidance.[1] As a result of these reforms, there is no longer an idea of a ‘rich school’ or a ‘poor school’ in Finland. In one documentary on the topic, Finnish parents revealed that they never even have to think about where to send their children to school because all Finnish schools are equally good.[2]

In Australia, there is a worrying trend of what the ABC has dubbed the ‘infrastructure arms race’ – wherein elite private schools boast Olympic sized swimming pools, and public schools in low SES suburbs are ridden with ripped carpets and leaking roofs. It has been reported that the richest one percent of schools spend as much on infrastructure projects as do the poorest 50 per cent of schools.[3] The standard argument in favour of private schools spending mammoth amounts on infrastructure projects is that schools should be free to spend their money as they see fit. Nevertheless, some education experts have pointed fingers at the government for allowing the socioeconomic divide to widen by increasing government funding to private schools in recent years. In the years 2009 to 2017, government funding to private schools rose twice as much as to public schools. At the vast majority of private schools, the amount allocated to capital projects is worth a significant portion of their recurrent government funding. Sometimes, it even exceeds it.[4]

Although all Australian schools are reported to be falling in academic performance, schools at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are falling even further behind. This is all very important because research has shown that educational inequality widens the gap between rich and poor and could even cost the Australian economy billions.[5] As Emma Rowe of Deakin University asserts, ‘We’re really going back to the industrial era in terms of how much of what your parents earn will determine your life pathway.’[6] By using the OECD prediction that a 50-point fall in test scores results in long-term GDP falling by 0.87 per cent per annum, the researchers determined that the economic cost of educational inequality could add up to $20 billion over six years.[7] We simply need to do more.

Let’s give our teachers some more love

In Finland, teachers are highly trained, respected and free. It is a requirement that aspiring teachers complete a master’s degree. In addition to this, the teaching profession is highly selective. On average, the acceptance rate into these prestigious programs stand at around 10 per cent. Applicants are assessed on multiple criteria, much like the admissions process for Australian medical programs. At Finnish universities, applicants to teaching programs are assessed based on academic record, extracurricular activities, entrance exam and interview.[8] It’s the Finnish way of filtering out those who may not have the right motivations for becoming a teacher. But perhaps the main reason why teaching quality ranks so highly is that Finnish teachers have autonomy in their profession. As with most education systems, Finland has a national core curriculum. However, the framework is super flexible, so Finnish teachers are empowered to implement the curriculum as they see fit. There’s a great sense of trust bestowed upon teachers by parents and authorities alike.[9] 

Up until recently, the only deciding factor as to whether an applicant to a teaching program at an Australian university was going to make it was the ATAR.[10] In fact, the selection criteria for the majority of Australian tertiary courses continues to be based solely on the ATAR. This is yet another gripe that many have with the Australian education system, which we will discuss later. Fortunately, authorities are starting to realise the importance of holding our future educators to higher standards. Across the nation, state governments are imposing new selection criteria for prospective teachers. In Victoria, the minimum ATAR for education programs was raised to 70 in 2019.[11] Applicants are also required to sit a mandatory literacy and numeracy test. Previously, those who failed the test were given provisional registration and required to pass the test within two years. From 2019, those who fail the test will be barred from teaching.[12]

Although the imposition of stricter entry requirements is a move in the right direction, Australian teachers do not feel as respected or as empowered as their Finnish counterparts. In a nationwide survey, just over half of Australian teachers reported to be satisfied with their job. An alarming one-third of teachers expressed dissatisfaction with being a teacher. In addition to this, the results reveal that teachers do not feel appreciated for the work that they do.[13] The successes of the Finnish school system have suggested that autonomy motivates teachers to provide better education. Some Australian teachers are shaking things up by following suit. In one submission to a parliamentary inquiry, an Australian English teacher revealed that her students’ reading comprehension results improved when she switched from the curriculum’s prescribed texts to those that she deemed more appropriate for her students.[14] While this movement is a welcome change, there remains a role for government to play when it comes to designing more flexible national curricula. Those training to become teachers should also be routinely encouraged to exercise their professional judgement.

Scrapping the homework, calling off the tests

The Finnish school system initially became a point of interest for netizens when word spread that Finnish students don’t really have homework or tests. This is part of Finland’s ‘less is more’ principle. In addition to homework being scrapped and tests being called off, Finnish kids enjoy shorter school hours, longer recesses and they don’t even have to start school until they’re seven years old.[15] In Finland, there’s an emphasis placed on learning for learning’s sake, not the achievement of top grades. Standardized testing in Finland is pretty much abolished. The single exception is the Finnish Matriculation Examination. Schools aren’t ranked based on educational performance, either, which helps to prevent the socioeconomic division that would have otherwise resulted from parents cherry-picking schools.[16] 

In Australia, high school students can hardly be blamed for staying up late to complete homework or to cram for tests. After all, entry into Australian tertiary courses is almost completely centred on getting a good ATAR. Instead of learning for the sake of learning, students feel pressured to aim for perfect grades. Not only is one’s education compromised in this way, our obsession with measuring and ranking things gives rise to mental health implications. A survey by Reach Out Australia has shown that two-thirds of Australian high school students experience worrying levels of exam stress. When asked about the source of that stress, one-third cited the pressure of getting into their preferred course.[17] Hardly surprising. And then there’s the dark side. When students become desperate, it’s not uncommon for them to turn to study pills or cheating.[18] A culture that is obsessed with grades promotes rote learning at best, and academic misconduct at worst.

However, there are signs that things are about to change. With the current pandemic deeming it impracticable for universities to assess students based on ATAR alone, the current policy is to individually adjust every Year 12 student’s ATAR based on the COVID-19 impact. Importantly, it’s forced policymakers to rethink how we will do Year 12 for future years. [19] It’s critical to note that abolishing the ATAR or NAPLAN isn’t going to solve all of our problems. For that, we’re going to need substantial cultural shift from within our classrooms and beyond. What we also need to acknowledge is that by reforming standardised testing, we will have set ourselves up to achieve just that – teachers will turn to alternative means of assessment, parents will stop incessantly comparing their children to other children and students will actually be motivated to learn.

William Doyle argues that Finland’s secret is ‘a whole child-centred, research-and-evidence based school system.’ He goes on to claim that ‘these are global education best practices, not cultural quirks applicable only to Finland.’[20] As we have discussed, many aspects of the Finnish school system offer valuable lessons that can be put towards addressing the limitations of our own school system. It’s time that we make strides towards an education system that champions equality, provides superior teaching quality and prioritises learning and growth.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

[1] Gao, H. (2016, October 6). “Education in Finland: A Model for Equality.” The Borgen Project.

[2] Visions of Helsinki. (2016, September 15). “Why Finland has the best education system in the world.” YouTube.

[3] Ting, I., Palmer, A. and Scott, N. (2019, August 13). “Rich school, poor school: Australia’s great education divide.” ABC News.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Remeikis, A. (2018, April 3). “Educational inequality widening Australia’s rich-poor gap, report finds.”

[6] Ting, I., Palmer, A. and Scott, N. (2019, August 13). “Rich school, poor school: Australia’s great education divide.” ABC News.

[7] Remeikis, A. (2018, April 3). “Educational inequality widening Australia’s rich-poor gap, report finds.”

[8] Saavedra, J., Alasuutari, H. and Gutierrez, M. (2018, December 28). “Teachers and trust: cornerstones of the Finnish education system.” World Bank Blogs.

[9] Sahlberg, P. (2015, October 5). “Do teachers in Finland have more autonomy?” The Conversation.

[10] Cook, H. (2016, November 23). “Lifting the grade: tough new standards for Victorian teachers.” The Age.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cook, H. (2019, January 14). “Teachers must now pass mandatory literacy, numeracy tests.” The Age.

[13] Heffernan, A., Longmuir, F., Bright, D. and Kim, M. (2019, November). “Perceptions of Teachers and Teaching in Australia.” Monash University Faculty of Education.

[14] Moore, T. (2019, March 4). “Teachers’ autonomy vital for classroom learning, inquiry hears.” The Sydney Morning Herald.

[15] Colagrossi, M. (2018, September 10). “10 reasons why Finland’s education system is the best in the world.” Big Think.

[16] Ibid.

[17] McMillan, A. (2019, October 30. “Achieving a high ATAR is not worth lowering your mental health, psychologists warn.” MOJO.,exams%2C%20a%20clinical%20psychologist%20says.&text=By%20SHIANI%20BRIARD-,Current%20year%2012%20VCE%20students%20may%20develop%20anxiety%2C%20depression%2C%20and,exams%2C%20a%20clinical%20psychologist%20says.

[18] School Governance. (2016, May 12). “Final Year Cheating now at “Endemic” Proportions.” School Governance.

[19] Davey, M. (2020, Aug 7). “Victorian Year 12 Students’ VCE Results and ATAR to be Adjusted for COVID Impact.” The Guardian.

[20] Strauss, V. (2019, August 30). “What Finland is really doing to improve its acclaimed schools.” Washington Post.