An education system based on trust and responsibility
The central objective of Finnish education is to provide equal access to high-quality education and training to all citizens - irrespective of race, ethnicity, social status, gender, or age. Education is decentralised to reach all segments of the society.
The country’s education administration is organised at two levels. Education policy is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC). The implementation of the policy is the responsibility of Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) - in addition to developing the objectives, content and methods for early childhood, pre-primary, basic, upper secondary and adult education. So said Petra Packalen, FNBE Counsellor of Education, in conference with Suomi/Africa.
Local Education administration in Finland is the responsibility of local authorities - most commonly municipalities or joint municipal authorities. These authorities make the decisions on allocation of funding, local curricula, recruitment and of personnel. Pre-primary and basic education form a part of the municipal basic services in receipt of statutory government funding, which is determined by the number of 6–15 year olds living in a particular municipality and each municipality’s socio-economic circumstances. Funding allocation is not ear-marked, not dictated by central government; the municipality can decide for itself how it allocates finance.
“This helps to ensure accountability and fight corruption,” said Ms Packalen – adding that, although most institutions are publicly-funded, all are expected to raise external funding from private sources.
The funding for upper secondary education and vocational education and training is based on the number of students attending each school, as well as an MEC ‘unit price’ formula. To polytechnics the government allocates resources in the form of core funding, which is based on a unit costs per student-calculation. Universities are either independent corporations or foundations. Each university works with the MEC to set operational and qualitative targets and determine the resources required over a three-year period, and a method for monitoring and evaluating achievements. Like schools, universities receive funding from the state but are expected to raise external funding.
Free to learn
In Finland, education is free at all levels from pre-primary to higher education - except adult education. In pre-primary and basic education, textbooks and daily meals are free, as is transportation for students living in a distance from school. Ms Packalen said, “It is only when they are at secondary level and in higher education that the students or their parents are required to purchase their own books. Here again, however, they are provided with free meals.”
All six year-olds have the right to participate in pre-primary education, which municipalities are obliged to provide. At this level children are taught basic skills, knowledge and capabilities in different areas of learning, and in accordance with their age and abilities. Early childhood education and care can take place at kindergartens or in smaller family day-care groups in private homes.
“The fees are moderate and are based on parental income,” Ms Packalen said.
Compulsory or basic education starts in the year when a child turns seven, and lasts for nine years. Local authorities assign school places to pupils as close to their homes as possible -- but parents are free to choose the comprehensive school of their preference, with some restrictions. Ms Packalen reported, According to Ms Packalen, “Education is provided within a single structure, meaning there is no division into primary and lower secondary education” in the first six years of formal education. Learning is facilitated by the same class teacher for most subjects in those first six years, and by subject specialists in the last three years of compulsory education. While the national core curriculum is determined by the FNBE, there is room for local or regional specificity provided it is within the national core curricula framework. The core curriculum is itself subject to review approximately every ten years.
“The school year is the same everywhere, but timetables are local,” explained Ms Packalen, The school year constitute 190 days, between mid-August and the beginning of June. Schools are open five days a week, and the minimum number of lessons per week varies from 19 to 30, depending on the level and number of optional subjects taken. Daily and weekly timetables are determined by the schools themselves, and there is local autonomy with regard to extra holidays.
More than 90 per cent of students start general or vocational upper secondary studies immediately after basic education. Although the syllabus at this stage is designed to last three years, students may complete it in two or four years. Learning is organised in modular form, and is not tied to year classes, so students can create their own tailored study schedules rather freely. Each course is assessed on completion - and when a student has completed the required number of courses, which include compulsory and elective studies, he or she receives a general upper secondary school certificate. General upper secondary education itself ends with a national matriculation examination, which comprises four compulsory tests, to suit the candidate’s choice of subjects.
Vocational education and training covers eight areas. There are more than fifty vocational qualifications and over a hundred different study programmes. Vocational qualifications take three years of study, and each qualification includes at least half a year of ‘on-the-job’ learning in workplaces. Vocational education and training can be take the form of school-based or apprenticeship training.
Special needs education is also provided primarily in mainstream education.
“If a pupil cannot be taught in a regular teaching group, he or she must be admitted to special needs education and support,” Ms Packalen confirmed. Special needs support is also provided in upper secondary education. “In vocational education and training, students in need of special needs education are provided with an individual education plan.”
Ms Packalen stressed that no one is left out of the educational system, and that care is taken to ensure educational opportunities in both of the nation’s official languages - Finnish and Swedish - and that minorities are addressed equally as well as the general population. Furthermore, adult education is very popular in Finland, and the education system is considered to have no dead-ends. Ms Packalen observed, “Learners can always continue their studies at all levels of education, whatever choices they make in between. Educational institutions organise education and training as flexible as possible in order to enable adults to study alongside work.”
Assessment and guidance
Returning to mainstream education, Ms Packalen said that pupil attainment is mainly achieved through continuous assessment during the course of studies, complemented by a final assessment stage. Continuous assessment is designed to guide and help pupils through the process of learning. Each student receives a report at least once every school year.
One task of basic education is to develop the pupils’ capabilities for self-assessment with the purpose to support self-knowledge growth and study skills as well as to help pupils to learn to be aware of their progress and learning process. So, there are no national tests for pupils in basic education. Instead, teachers are responsible for assessments in different subjects on the basis of objectives written into the curriculum. Grades in the basic education certificate and the final certificate given at the end of year nine are also decided by teachers. On the basis of this combination of continual and final assessment, pupils are selected for further studies.
Educational providers in Finland are responsible for practical teaching arrangements, as well as for the effectiveness and quality of education.
“There are no regulations governing class size, and education providers and schools are free to determine how to group pupils and students,” Ms Packalen said. “Teachers have pedagogical autonomy. They can decide for themselves the methods of teaching, as well as textbooks and materials to use.”
Polytechnics and universities enjoy extensive autonomy too. The operations of both polytechnics and universities are built on the freedom of education and research. They organise their own administration, decide on student admission and design the contents of degree programmes.
An educational policy based on trust and self-evaluation -- not on control
Since teachers are recognised as keys to education quality, there is no external evaluation of teachers. There is no inspectorate and no standardised tests before the end of general upper secondary education. Ms Packalen explained, “Educational providers have a statutory duty to carry out self-evaluation and to participate in national evaluations.”
These “national evaluations” of learning outcomes are based on samples of national evaluations, national statistics, or other forms of research - which, according to Ms Packalen, “are used for development and evidence-informed policy-making, not for control or sanction.”
In higher education, the polytechnics and universities are responsible for the evaluation of their own operations and outcomes, too. In this they are supported by a national body that is responsible for developing the quality of education.