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John Simkin

Finnish education is the best in the world

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Article in today's Guardian by Polly Curtis:

http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/st...1368427,00.html

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international Paris-based thinktank, Finnish education is the best in the world. The study of test results from 250,000 15-year-olds in 41 countries ranked it number one in science and reading and second only to Hong Kong in maths.

The UK, meanwhile, did not submit enough information to be included in the study. However, a crude analysis, which was dismissed by the Department for Education and Skills as incomparable and relegated to the annexes of the 400-page report, suggested that in the three years since the survey was last undertaken, the UK has dropped from fourth place to 11th in science, seventh to 11th in reading and eighth to 18th in maths.

So what is Finland doing right?

Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, says just about everything. "They have no league tables, no Ofsted, no literacy/numeracy hours, no heavy government interference generally.

"The lessons from that is screamingly self-evident; dismantle much of the intervention machinery and have just a thin outline of policy."

Which is what the Finns do. There is a national curriculum, but it's more of a guide on which teachers base their lessons around. The only national exams are the school-leaving ones at 18. In comparison, English children are tested on a national basis at seven, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. Instead of national tests and the school league tables constructed from them, the Finns do an annual sample test to gauge school standards. Essentially, schools are given much more autonomy.

Erno Lehtinen, a professor of education at the University of Turku, the second largest university in Finland, and policy advisor to an influential thinktank of the Finnish parliament, says the idea that schools should be run from the centre, or even have their test results published, is unthinkable in Finland.

"Apart from those at 18 all the examinations are local so that teachers themselves are not controlled. They [the government] are not allowed to publish the results of individual schools, because according to our policy all that will do is increase the differences between the schools and it doesn't help very much," he says.

What is unique about the Finn system, says Professor Lehtinen, is that in the 1960s a decision was made to have a comprehensive system - a decision that has been stuck to. "There is very little variation in standards. There are differences in achievement because of background, but the quality of teaching is as good in inner city working class areas as in upper class areas."

This is made easier partly because there is less social variation in Finland. The country has a more homogenous population, but even where deprivation does exist, school standards are maintained. There is practically no private system to drain-off the brighter pupils, and where private schools do exist it is because they are specialist - such as Steiners, foreign language and the odd Christian school - but all are state subsidised, meaning all children have access to them.

But there may be an even simpler reason why Finnish education is such a success. "There is a very strong support for education. It's very highly valued in the culture," says Professor Lehtinen. "In the lower social groups, among the working class, education is very highly valued. That's one very important reason that means across the whole society there is very strong support for schools."

This is particularly felt towards teachers; the profession is seen on a par with law and medicine, although still not as well paid. In Finland, even primary school teachers have to be educated to masters level. Professor Wragg says this is a marked difference from the UK. "I'm afraid that teachers are paying the price of being rubbished by successive governments."

Both professors agree there's a lot to learn from the Finnish system, although the social differences are, in many ways, harder to overcome - a more diverse population in the UK, for example.

But Professor Wragg adds: "The 2002 Education Act stipulates that teachers are supposed to apply in writing to ministers with their plans to innovate. In Finland the idea that you should have to ask to innovate and fill in a form is unthinkable. In Finland you're permitted organic growth. You try to improve and if it works better you carry on. I think we've got the wrong educational climate."

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Yes, I've just finished reading the PISA report. Finland was the only country to outperform Australia in literacy, only four other countries outperformed us in mathematics (Korea, Hong Kong, Finland and the Netherlands), and three others outperformed us in science (Finland, Japan and Korea). We performed equally or better than OECD level in all areas.

And guess what - we have no inspection system, no exams until Yr12, no league tables, no national curriculum, no literacy/numeracy hours and much less testing than the UK. However, we do have a very large private system highly funded by our federal government, so interesting to know if that is a factor or not. Also, depressing news is that the newly re-elected right-wing govenment is about to start on all of those above mentioned "reforms" which have been proving so disastrous in the UK, so we may not do so well in the future!!

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>Finland was the only country to outperform Australia in literacy<

Of course, the Finns have a built-in advantage when it comes to spelling their own language. Finnish has straightforward sound-symbol correspondence, while English orthography can be a nightmare, particularly for students with special educational needs.

A while ago I came across Finland Forum:

http://www.finlandforum.org/bb/index.php

I was looking for literature in other European languages about the teaching of modern foreign languages to students with special educational needs. I chanced upon a Finland Forum thread where the teaching of foreign languages to dyslexic students was under discussion. One of the contributors was able to give me the title of a book in Finnish, "Yli Esteiden - Oppimisvaikeudet ja vieraat kielet", which I have since purchased. You would never guess that meant "Over the barriers - learning difficulties and foreign languages", would you? Anyway, Finland Forum provides a fascinating insight into life and culture in Finland for English speakers. Many contributors are English-speaking expatriates living in Finland.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com

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Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, says just about everything. "They have no league tables, no Ofsted, no literacy/numeracy hours, no heavy government interference generally.

"The lessons from that is screamingly self-evident; dismantle much of the intervention machinery and have just a thin outline of policy."

I agree 100%. The rot set in with the introduction of the National Curriculum - a reflection of the control-freak mentality of the Thatcher years and which our current government in the UK has built upon instead of dismantling it.

I have been to Finland many times. My general impression is that the Finns are a hard-working, well-educated nation. Virtually everyone speaks English. The spelling system of their own language, as David Wilson points out, is more or less phonetic, but its grammar and lexis are impenetrable to visitors from other countries.

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>Finland was the only country to outperform Australia in literacy<

Of course, the Finns have a built-in advantage when it comes to spelling their own language. Finnish has straightforward sound-symbol correspondence, while English orthography can be a nightmare, particularly for students with special educational needs.

Does that mean I can tell out Minister that we actually did even better than we thought??

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The PISA report has caused some soul-searching in Sweden, since Sweden has slipped down the list compared with last time. One factor which has been identified by many commentators here concerns the Finnish system of teacher training. In Sweden teacher training has been becoming more and more theoretical and less and less practical (believe it or not, there is even a subject called 'theoretical woodwork' as the only practical option in some schools!). The impetus for this has, of course, come from the academic world, where possession of a Ph.D. (in just about anything) is seen as a universal prophylactic for any problem.

It'll be interesting to see what our government does about this, since we're nearing the point where the new system of teacher training which was introduced three years ago is evaluated. The government ministers have been very blunt - any university which continues to ignore practical teacher skills will have its right to train teachers taken away from it. The word on the street is that a lot of illustrious heads will roll, if they actually do this.

-------

As regards the UK situation, I heartily agree with what's been said about the rubbishing of teachers over the years. I got out of teaching in the UK in 1980, when the situation was already intolerable for me. I often (jokingly) referred to myself as a political refugee from Thatcherism, since, as a teacher, I was so often made to feel like a persona non grata by the politicians 'in charge' of me both locally and nationally. Even in the early 1980s there was an advert in the Times Ed every week from 'The Teachers' Escape Committee'. If we had had ministers who were at all concerned about education, that should have rung warning bells loud and clear. How on earth can you hope to have a successful education system without teachers who are confident, relaxed and able to think freely, and with significant numbers of teachers who just want to get out?

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David writes:

As regards the UK situation, I heartily agree with what's been said about the rubbishing of teachers over the years. I got out of teaching in the UK in 1980, when the situation was already intolerable for me. I often (jokingly) referred to myself as a political refugee from Thatcherism, since, as a teacher, I was so often made to feel like a persona non grata by the politicians 'in charge' of me both locally and nationally.

I sympathise fully. I had already got out of secondary education and into higher education by the time Margaret Thatcher came into power, but the control-freak mentality that characterised the Thatcher government's attitude to secondary school teachers began to encroach upon higher education too. By 1993 I had had enough and took early retirement.

The freedom that I used to have when I joined the teaching profession was taken away from me, but I have now regained that freedom as a free-lancer.

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Report on PISA from Australia

Barry McGaw, an Australian, said the assessment of 276,000 15-year-olds

in 41 countries, published this week, showed Australia was "right up

there" with the world's best.

"I think we've had a fairly good education system, despite the domestic

debate about whether standards are falling," he said.

"Unless you get this international data, you can't get a comparison.

"The Australian school system seems to be pretty good, because of the

strong national focus on standards and an agreed curriculum framework."

The OECD 2003 program for international student assessment showed only a

handful of countries performed significantly better than Australia in

problem solving, and mathematical and scientific literacy. Just one

country, Finland, had a clear lead over Australia in reading.

The assessment, which included 12,500 Australian students from 321

schools, revealed the Australian students' strength in problem solving.

Dr McGaw said the Asian countries that performed significantly better -

South Korea, Hong Kong-China and Japan - were leading the way in

innovative mathematics teaching that challenged students to work out

problems rather than memorise facts.

"The moral is they teach problem solving, they don't teach rote

learning. The teacher education focuses on quite specific ways on how

you teach subjects, but it's clearly problem solving."

Finland ranked with those Asian countries in problem solving and topped

all categories. Dr McGaw said Finland's dominance in the 2000 and 2003

assessments could be partly attributed to its highly skilled, six-year

trained teachers. "Teaching is as hard to get into [at university] as

medicine," he said.

Dr McGaw has worked for the Paris-based OECD for six years. He was in

charge of the 1997 review for the NSW Government that led to the

overhaul of the Higher School Certificate.

After the 2000 international student assessment he warned that the gap

between Australia's highest and lowest performing students in reading

required policies aimed at disadvantaged students.

In the recent assessment, which focused on mathematics, this gap was

lower than in reading three years ago. But there was still 14 per cent

of 15-year-olds who could not do basic maths such as multiplication.

Dr McGaw said mathematics was learnt almost solely at school, so social

background had less effect on academic performance. This differed from

reading, which was learnt at school but was enhanced by parents reading

to children at home.

He said the reading debate in Australia - and the alleged downgrading of

teaching phonics - was occurring in other countries such as the United

States. Research overseas showed that "a balance of methods" produced

the best reading results.

The federal Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, said he ordered a

national reading inquiry after concerns raised by academics such as the

Macquarie University professors Max Coltheart and Kevin Wheldall that

"the way in which we are teaching reading is not based on best

evidence".

"That's disputed by an equal number of eminent experts in the field," Dr

Nelson said.

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Jean writes:

Dr McGaw said mathematics was learnt almost solely at school, so social

background had less effect on academic performance. This differed from

reading, which was learnt at school but was enhanced by parents reading

to children at home.

This is also true of modern languages. Children who grow up bilingually have a distinct advantage over children living in monolingual households. Children who grow up speaking French, German or Spanish at home tend to outperform children learning these languages at school by a wide margin. Children who speak community languages at home tend to fare better when they begin to learn another language at school. I used to teach in an HE college that was located in an area where several community languages were spoken (Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and Polish). We had a significant number of students from these communities who took degrees in French, German and Spanish. Once you have learned one foreign language, the second one seems easier.

Finland is a bilingual country: Finnish and Swedish. All Finns are "aware" of Swedish even though the language may not be spoken that well by Finns who do not live in Swedish-speaking communities. On the other hand, all Finns learn English at school up to a high level - they have to in order to be able to communicate with the rest of the world.

According to a recent survey, knowing a foreign language can boost your income, and foreign language speakers are also seen as sexier, more intelligent and more interesting:

BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/3966413.stm

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Some more intersting stuff about PISA and TIMMS

Author: Jennifer Buckingham, Schools editor

Publisher: News Ltd

Publication: The Australian, Page 016 (Mon 13 Dec 2004)

Keywords: Australian (1),Education (1),Union (1)

Edition: 1 - All-round Country

Section: Features

Trumpeting PISA results a little hasty

THE PISA results for 2003 released last week can be viewed in a couple of ways. It is certainly pleasing that Australia's results are among the best of the 40 countries surveyed.

In raw rankings we were fourth in reading, sixth in science and 11th in maths. But even these ranks may underestimate Australia's performance, because in some cases scores were so close as to be statistically inseparable. It is also pleasing that Australia has made progress in alleviating the effect of socio-economic status on academic performance (as predicted on this page in September.)

Some have taken comfort from these results. The Australian Education Union has used our literacy performance to question the necessity of the national reading inquiry.

One can make the relevant points about averages masking the proportion of kids failing, and the tragedy of the indigenous literacy results, but there are additional reasons to take the PISA results with a grain of salt.

While it is true that on the PISA assessment we look good compared to other countries, it is worth considering whether this assessment is comprehensive, and whether the comparisons are exhaustive.

First, there are serious concerns about the PISA definition of literacy. At the back of the Australian report of the 2000 assessment was the statement that children were not marked down for errors of spelling and grammar. Many people would object to a definition of literacy that does not require accuracy in communication.

Likewise, the PISA 2003 Australian report uses the words spelling twice and grammar only once. On page 101, in the section on reading literacy it says ``answers with mistakes in spelling and/or grammar were not penalised as long as the correct point was made.''

Yes, the test is for reading literacy, not writing literacy, but one has to wonder if performing well in a test that marks this answer from a 15-year-old as correct -- ``because before than it disapeared completly and at that time it reapeared'' (sic) -- is a dubious honour.

The other major international study is the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS). It is run by the IEA (International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement) and differs from PISA in important ways. Where PISA tests skills rather than knowledge, TIMSS is curriculum-based and therefore tests both knowledge and skill.

TIMSS also has several countries that do not participate in PISA, including Chinese Taipei and Singapore, both of which were in the top three countries in maths and science in TIMSS 1999.

Comparing TIMSS and PISA is interesting. Countries that do well in PISA do not always do well in TIMSS. Finland, for example, was a high flyer in PISA 2003 -- ranked first in science and second in maths. In TIMSS 1999, however, Finland was placed 10th and 14th. On the other hand, Hungary was an average performer in PISA 2003 -- ranked 17th in maths and 25th in science, but had been third in maths and ninth in science in TIMSS 1999.

In the years since then Australia has embraced educational concepts that prioritise the development of skills over content knowledge -- ``learning how to learn''. Specific subject disciplines are often eschewed in favour of cross-curriculum learning, in some states to a greater extent than others. This sits well with the PISA assessments, but since TIMSS also tests subject knowledge, we may see a division.

The 2003 TIMSS results will be released this week. It would be nice to think that our grand experiment in curriculum and pedagogy has not worked against us and we'll still be on top of the world.

SPEAKING of accuracy, last week I (perhaps optimistically) wrote that the most recent published national literacy and numeracy benchmarks are for 2002. The most recent national benchmarks are for 2001, and 2002 results are expected to be published next year.

* Email automatically generated for Profile "Australian Education Union"

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