William Doyle, an American academic, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times about a five-month stay in Finland during which time his seven year old son attended the local primary school. His article is written in a lambent style that conveys the pleasure of the stay and of his son’s experience in what he calls “a stunningly stress-free, and stunningly good, school system”. Aged seven, his son attended the first year of formal schooling: until then, Doyle tells us, many Finnish children are in day care and learn through play, songs, games and conversation. Even in the primary school, the emphasis is on learning through play: Finns put into practice such cultural mantras as “Let children be children,” “The work of a child is to play,” and “Children learn best through play.” The emotional climate of the classroom, Doyle reports, was “warm, safe, respectful and highly supportive”.
The experience of a child in a Finnish primary school seems very different from that of many children in English schools. In England, children as young as five or six encounter standardised testing (such as the so-called “Phonics Check”) and a curriculum that emphasises the development of “skills” rather than a more rounded and implicit approach to learning. They are affected, as are their parents and teachers, by a political climate that currently proposes to extend the length of the school day and to force all schools to join “academy chains”, sponsored by business, which will not be subject to local control and accountability.
A political and business takeover of school education has not been permitted in Finland. “Our mission as adults is to protect our children from politicians,” one Finnish childhood education professor told Doyle. “We also have an ethical and moral responsibility to tell business people to stay out of our building.” Finnish society appears to trust and admire teachers, who are required to have a master’s degree in education with specialisation in research and classroom practice. Again, the contrast with England is striking. Teacher education within England has largely been taken away from universities and devolved to already overstretched schools. The result is a crisis of both recruitment and morale, the responsibility for which government refuses to recognise.
According to Doyle, “Finland delivers on a national public scale highly qualified, highly respected and highly professionalised teachers who conduct personalised one-on-one instruction; manageable class sizes; a rich, developmentally correct curriculum; regular physical activity; little or no low-quality standardised tests and the toxic stress and wasted time and energy that accompanies them; daily assessments by teachers; and a classroom atmosphere of safety, collaboration, warmth and respect for children as cherished individuals.”
A profound lack of “warmth and respect for children as cherished individuals” is shown in the current government obsession with the instruction and testing of formal grammar. The pioneering English teachers that attended the Dartmouth Conference in New Hampshire, 50 years ago, initiated an approach to language that respected the speech that a child brought to the classroom and worked with this to develop fluency, articulation and intelligence. As Michael Rosen and many others have shown, English children are increasingly terrorised by the expectation to learn an intricate and incoherent formal grammar that does nothing to aid their reading, writing and general expression. The ideological motive behind this, conscious or otherwise, is to ensure that many children will fail to gain cultural capital and remain losers within the English class system. Finnish children, by contrast, enjoy age-appropriate instruction and spend 15 minutes playing outside the classroom for every hour of the school day. One day last November, when snow came to his part of the inland, Doyle heard a commotion outside his office window. The school field was full of children savouring the first taste of winter amid the pine trees. A special education teacher said to him: “That is the voice of happiness.”