March 27, 2013
This is the second in four parts of my observations on a recent trip to Finland with a group of Kentucky educators to learn about its school system that consistently rates high on international assessments.
School Structure and Accountability
There are no mandated tests used to publicly rank schools or students. However, assessments do occur within schools to ensure pupils are learning. Teachers are trained in research and assessment and, with their principals, carry out this duty.
Principals hire teachers with the cooperation of the municipal department of education. There is no seniority guarantee in placement; rather, the principal can choose among all applicants and, after screening, provide to the department a list of preferred candidates they feel best fits their school. Almost always, the choice of the principal wins, according to one principal we met.
Compulsory education begins at age 7 and continues for 9 years through lower and upper primary. After that, students may apply to an academic high school or a vocational program. During those first years, counseling is regularly available for students to determine their chosen path.
Close to ninety-five percent of students go on to the next step: about 60 percent choose the academic path, and 40 percent go to vocational route. Recognizing this is young for making final career decisions, the government emphasizes that there are “no dead ends,” meaning a student change directions at any time.
These students will enter upper secondary speaking at least three languages, and will generally learn four. English is mandatory and begins at grade three. Finland schools must provide education in the students’ “mother tongue,” which is usually Finnish, but for five percent of the population it is Swedish, and in the northern country it may be Sami. Other languages are offered in upper secondary with the most popular being German, French and Spanish.
Our team agreed that the focus required to master foreign languages well is the kind of focus that helps children develop a keen learning skills.
Finnish children all take religion or ethics studies, and many choose among a number of options that match their faith background, or a general ethics or “philosophy of life” course.
After upper secondary, graduates may choose to apply to academic universities or to polytechnic universities. University education is free to students, and they receive a living stipend during their education.
The strong vocational options are important to ensuring there are workers for occupations in demand. The training is respected and successful.
I met a lovely Finnish girl – who spoke perfect English – while buying chocolate at a candy counter and during a brief conversation I found out that she is a student at a polytechnic university, studying tourism management. She said the program is challenging and will take her about three and a half years.
Her English was perfect, almost without accent, and she explained that she is half Indian and her mother spoke English at home. This international culture is increasing in Finland, where the population has been very homogenous but changing.
There are about 45 languages spoken in Helsinki. One significant immigrant population is Somali.
There is support for families and children that prepares them for compulsory school. Children aged 0-6 have access to preschool and to preprimary (kindergarten) as well. At least 95 percent of children go to kindergarten, but they don’t have to. The government guarantees a place in preschool or daycare for any family who requests it. An additional support for young children is the country’s leave for new parents. Mothers can get paid leave of up to 9 months, and can even stay home for three years, with the employer required to guarantee a same-level job upon her return. There are generous paternal leave options as well.
Young people are required to serve about nine months of military or civil service after high school.
Schools don’t worry about transportation (except for rural areas generally), health care or who’s paying for lunch. I was surprised when visiting a lower primary school, that when the day ended – at about 1:30 p.m. – children bundle up and head out the door on their own. And, ALL children get a warm, healthy meal every day for free — no administrative worries with who can pay and who cannot. Finally, Finland has universal healthcare, so everyone has access to quality care.
Students may go to their resides area school, or choose another. It is the same in upper primary. But for the next level, students apply to upper secondary. This is where the Finnish system, in larger cities, looks somewhat like our magnet programs. The public knows the average GPA at various high schools and there is some competition in who will get into which school.