Irish Economy
Irish Economy: Finnish lessons for Irish education?
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Feb 19, 2013 - 6:39 AM

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Irish Economy: Finland is acclaimed as one of the rare countries that has managed to build a school system where all children learn well and most schools succeed. It has no private schools; study time is low compared with other countries and a master's degree is the minimum qualification for a teacher. In South Korea students also get impressive results in a culture where parents regard failure to gain entry to university a huge shame. Looking beyond the entrenched power of vested interests and the common resistance to change in a conservative society, it appears that Irish education should learn some Finnish lessons. 

In South Korea, the high cost of private education including cramming schools known as hagwons is cutting the birth rate while the factory-style study system has put the country at the top of the league for teen suicides. In the US, many middle-class families now struggle to get by on two paychecks, whereas most got by on just one back in the 1950s and ’60s. It is claimed that part of the reason is that many second paychecks today go toward financing a largely fruitless bidding war for homes in good school districts.

The high rankings achieved by Finnish and Korean high school students are based on academic achievement tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The PISA tests are held every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, maths, and science. Finland has ranked at or close to the top in all three subjects on every survey since 2000, along with students from South Korea and Singapore.

The PISA results issued in Dec 2010 showed that Ireland slipped down the rankings in literacy and maths. On reading levels, Ireland plunged from 5th place in 2000 to 17th place, the sharpest decline among 39 countries surveyed.

Some argue that the tests focus on areas too narrow to capture whole spectrum of school education and thus ignore social skills, moral development, creativity or digital literacy as important outcomes of public education for all. It has also been argued that chosen measurement methodologies in current international tests favour Finland because they better match with the culture of teaching in Finnish schools.

Finland has however shown that good test scores can be achieved without making time at school miserable while providing equality of opportunity for all citizens. It has also out-smarted oil rich Norway in education.

Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University, said in The New Republic in Jan 2011

"The reflexive critique of comparing the Finnish and US educational systems is to say that Finland’s PISA results are consequences of the country being a much smaller, more homogeneous nation (5.3m people, only 4% of whom are foreign-born). How could it possibly offer lessons to a country the size of the United States? The answer is next door. Norway is also small (4.8m people) and nearly as homogeneous (10% foreign-born), but it is more akin to the United States than to Finland in its approach to education: Teachers don’t need master’s degrees; high school teachers with 15 years of experience earn only 70% of what fellow university graduates make; and in 2006, authorities implemented a national system of standardized testing. The need for talent in the classroom is now so great that the Norwegian government is spending $3.3m on an ad campaign to attract people to teaching and, last year, launched its own version of Teach for America in collaboration with Statoil - - called Teach First Norway -- to recruit teachers of math and science.

Moreover, much as in the United States, classes in Norway are typically too large and equipment too scarce to run science labs. A science teacher at a middle school in Oslo told me that labs are unfortunately the exception, not the rule, and that she couldn’t recall doing any labs as a student a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, much as in 2000, 2003, and 2006, Norway in 2009 posted mediocre PISA scores, indicating that it is not necessarily size and homogeneity but, rather, policy choices that lead to a country’s educational success."

According to the OECD's 'Education at a Glance 2012,' Finland's public spending on education was 6.8% of GDP (gross domestic product) in 2009; Ireland spent 6.5% (Ireland's GDP is inflated by the profits of foreign multinationals and GNP - - gross national product - - is about 20% lower. So effectively Ireland spends more on education than Finland). The UK spent 5.6%, Sweden spent 7.3% and Norway 7.3%.

The annual cost in US dollars adjusted for local value (PPP - purchasing power parity), spent per student in educational institutions for all levels in 2009 was $10,773 in Ireland and $9,910 in Finland. It was $10,587 in the UK and $11,400 in Sweden.

Public expenditure on education as a percentage of total public spending in 2009, was 13.4% in Ireland; 12.2% in Finland, 21.2% in New Zealand; 11.5% in The Netherlands and 13.2% in Sweden.

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Centre for International Mobility and author of a book 'Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?', in December 2001, spoke at the Dwight School in New York City and told his audience in the $35,000 per annum tuition school that "there are no private schools in Finland."

Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland but they are all publicly financed and none is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either.

The book does not suggest that tougher competition, more data, abolishing teacher unions, opening more charter schools or employing corporate world management models in education system would be a solution for countries facing education policy failure. Quite the opposite. The main message is that there is another way to improve education systems. This includes improving teaching standards, limiting student testing to necessary minimum, placing responsibility before accountability and handing over school and district level leadership to education professionals.  

This book draws from the following that are explained in detail:

  • Finland has an education system in which young people learn well and performance differences between schools are small - - and all that with reasonable cost and human effort;
  • There are no league tables of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main focus of education policy is not competition between teachers and schools, but cooperation;
  • This has not always been so;
  • Teaching is a prestigious profession - - to enter the profession, a postgraduate degree is required - - and many students aspire to be teachers. Teaching has become the number one profession among young Finns  -- above medicine and law  -- and primary teacher education in Finnish universities is one of the most competitive choices of study;
  • The Finns have probably the most competitive teacher education system in the world;
  • As a consequence, teachers in Finland have a great deal of professional autonomy and access to purposeful professional development throughout their careers;
  • Those who are lucky enough to become teachers normally are teachers for life;
  • Almost half of the 16-year-olds when they leave comprehensive school have been in engaged in some sort of special education, personalized help or individual guidance;
  • In Finland teachers teach less and students spend less time in studying both in and out of school than their peers in other countries;
  • Finnish schools lack the standardized testing, test preparation and private tutoring of the United States and much of the world. Teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they devise themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each term and the Ministry of Education monitors national progress by testing a sample groups across a range of different schools. There is a National Matriculation Exam at the end of secondary school;
  • Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance;
  • All of these factors which are behind the Finnish success seem to be the opposite of what is taking place in the United States and much of the rest of the world where competition, test-based accountability, standardization and privatization seem to dominate.

Finland pays its teachers as well as lawyers and doctors but less than what Irish counterparts receive.

In 2010, OECD data shows that the maximum pay level for a primary teacher was €40k in Finland and €61k in Ireland. It was €45k at upper secondary level and €61k in Ireland.

'The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030' report which was published in January 2011 stated: "Salaries account for three-quarters of total current expenditure on higher education in Ireland - - compared with an international average of two-thirds. This means that Irish higher education operates with lower (nonpay) recurrent expenditure than is typical in other countries."

In Finland in 2009, a Finnish GP’s (general medical doctor) pay was 1.8 times the average wage and 3.5 times in Ireland; a salaried specialist earned 2.6 times the average wage in Finland and 4.5 times in Ireland.

Dr Pasi Sahlberg says on Finnish reform: "At the beginning of the 1990s, education in Finland was nothing special in international terms. All young Finns attended school regularly, the school network was wide and dense, secondary education was an open option for all Finns, and higher education was an option for an increasing number of upper secondary school graduates. However, the performance of Finnish students on international assessments was close to overall averages, except in reading, where Finnish students did better than most of their peers in other countries.

The unexpected and jarring recession of that time period brought Finland to the edge of a financial breakdown. Bold and immediate measures were necessary to fix national fiscal imbalances and revive the foreign trade that disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Nokia, the main global industrial brand of Finland, became a critical engine in boosting Finland from the country’s biggest economic dip since the Second World War. Another Finnish brand, Peruskoulu, or the 9-year comprehensive basic school, was the other key player in this turnaround of the Finnish economy and society."

He adds that there are countries around the world where education leaders find their own educational systems in a situation very similar to that of Finland in 1990.

The global economic downturn is hitting many schools, universities and entire education systems hard. "Take Ireland, Greece, England or United States. Student achievement is not anywhere close to what it should be in knowledge-based economies where productivity and innovation are necessary conditions for competitiveness. Students seem to find teaching offered in schools and universities increasingly boring and irrelevant to their needs in a rapidly changing world."

Article [pdf] by Sahlberg in the American Educator journal

OECD's tribute to the Finnish system

"Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background, socio-economic status or ability. This chapter looks at the possible factors behind this success, which include political consensus to educate all children together in a common school system; an expectation that all children can achieve at high levels, regardless of family background or regional circumstance; single-minded pursuit of teaching excellence; collective school responsibility for learners who are struggling; modest financial resources that are tightly focused on the classroom and a climate of trust between educators and the community.

"Finland is a relatively young country, having only established its independence from the Soviet Union in 1917. Finland had to fight long and hard to preserve that independence through the Second World War. For a nation with a population of less than 4 million, the cost of the war was devastating: 90 000 dead; 60 000 permanently injured and 50 000 children orphaned. Additionally, as part of the 1944 peace treaty with the Soviet Union, Finland was forced to cede 12% of its land, requiring the relocation of 450 000 Finnish citizens. A Soviet military base was established on a peninsula near Helsinki, and the communist party was granted legal status.

"In 1991 only 5 Finnish workers out of 1 000 were in the research and development (R&D) labour force. By 2003 this number had increased to 22, almost three times the OECD average. By 2001 Finland’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index had climbed from 15th to 1st, and it has remained at or near the top in these rankings ever since." More...[pdf]

Finland had a 3rd ranking in 2012/2013. Ireland was at 27th compared with 11th in 2001.

Irish Economy: Innovation, a failed enterprise policy and inconvenient facts for 2013

NBC Nightly News report from Finland

Pasi Sahlberg speaking at Vanderbilt University

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