What we could learn from Finnish education


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.”

Cream teas and the curriculum

I have often thought that analysing the language of schooling would be a dismal activity. Thinking of the language of reports, for example, what words would appear most frequently? Despite technological changes in modes of reporting, I suspect that over the years similar terms will occur: “work”, “effort”, “result”, and so on. At the present time, most political and media discussion of education deals in similar terms, with emphasis on students‘ success rates in examinations, skills acquisition, discipline and effort – and their teachers’ responsibility for ensuring constantly improved standards in all these. It is as if school is nothing but an endless process of work and effort to prepare oneself for an adult life of … work and effort. In fact, within the discourse of school, work and effort become goods in themselves, so a positive report may say nothing more than that a student “works hard” and “makes an effort”. My son was once told in a school report that he “made no more than the necessary effort”, implying that this was a negative characteristic. When I mentioned this to him, he replied, with impeccable reason, that there never was any need to make more than the necessary effort. (Why should I, writing this, tap any harder than necessary on the computer keys? A lighter touch might be more efficient.)

A sad aspect of British schooling is how few opportunities for pleasure it offers many students, and possibly also their teachers. When comprehensive education became widespread in the 70s and 80s, it was assumed by many that the homogenising social ethos of the grammar or independent school had no place in a school of diverse students of varying aptitudes and social backgrounds. It is not clear, however, that the new schools always imported enough social glue of their own kind to create a functioning community. The nineteenth-century designers of the US high school made no such mistake. It was an all-ability, neighbourhood school, but it was also socially attractive, so that even an indifferent student would gain pleasure from the many sports and social activities that have become a traditional part of American life. Indeed, the ‘prom’, graduation ceremonies and parties, school year books and similar institutions are increasingly found in UK schools.

The British school, however, still lacks sufficient institutionalised sources of social pleasure. Many “academic” problems would be solved or ameliorated if students simply wanted to be in the place, rather than wanted to disrupt it. Some teachers understand this and improve the school experience for all concerned by foregrounding student activities. These may involve expensive foreign trips, which are less inclusive than they should be, or they may involve something as simple yet demanding as putting on a record-breaking (in terms of size) cream tea event for the local communityThis video, from Tiverton High School in Devon, has a wonderfully symbolic stop motion sequence where an examination hall is transformed into a tea room for hundreds of people and then returned to its academic shape. The video was made by the students themselves, led by a former student of the school who has made a name for himself as a producer of news bulletins that follow standard generic forms in an entertainingly local manner. If we can forget (for a moment) the language of ‘work’ and ‘effort’ with its implication that these things are good in themselves, we could consider what the students involved learned from putting on this highly organised social event.