Finnish Education Chief: 'We Created a School System Based on Equality'

By Christine Gross-Loh

Finnish education often seems paradoxical to outside observers because it appears to break a lot of the rules we take for granted. Finnish children don’t begin school until age 7. They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation. There are no gifted programs, almost no private schools, and no high-stakes national standardized tests.

Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world. Finland’s school children didn’t always excel. Finland built its excellent, efficient, and equitable educational system in a few decades from scratch, and the concept guiding almost every educational reform has been equity.  The Finnish paradox is that by focusing on the bigger picture for all, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of most every child.

I recently accompanied Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education and science, when she visited the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston, and asked her what Finland is doing that we could learn from.


I visited four Finnish schools while researching my book Parenting Without Borders. While there, I frequently heard a saying: “We can’t afford to waste a brain.” It was clear that children were regarded as one of Finland’s most precious resources. You invest significantly in providing the basic resources so that all children may prosper. How do these notions undergird your educational system?

We used to have a system which was really unequal. My parents never had a real possibility to study and have a higher education. We decided in the 1960s that we would provide a free quality education to all. Even universities are free of charge. Equal means that we support everyone and we’re not going to waste anyone’s skills. We don’t know what our kids will turn out like—we can’t know if one first-grader will become a famous composer, or another a famous scientist. Regardless of a person’s gender, background, or social welfare status, everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their skills.  It’s important because we are raising the potential of the entire human capital in Finland.  Even if we don’t have oil or minerals or any other natural resources, well, we think human capital is also a valuable resource.

How well do you think Finland’s educational system, one based more squarely on equity rather than high achievement, is working?

We created a school system based on equality to make sure we can develop everyone’s potential. Now we can see how well it’s been working.  Last year the OECD tested adults from 24 countries measuring the skill levels of adults aged 16-65, on a survey called the PIAAC (Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies), which tests skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. Finland scored at or near the top on all measures. But there were differences between age groups.  The test showed that all younger Finns who had had a chance to go to compulsory basic school after the reforms had extremely high knowledge; those who were older, and who were educated before the reforms, had average know-how. So, our educational system is creating people who have extremely good skills and strong know-how—a know-how which is created by investing into education. We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help. This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential.

I remember being struck by how many vocational or hands-on classes (home economics, art, technology, and so forth) were available to students at every Finnish school I visited.  At one secondary school I visited, kids were cooking breakfast; at another, I saw that all the kids had learned how to sew their own bathing suits.  More than one teacher remarked, “It’s important for students to have different activities to do during the day.” And there seems to be no stigma about vocational education. Is this attitude true of all schools in Finland?

Yes, we definitely believe that for young people handcrafts, cooking, creative pursuits, and sports, are all important. We believe these help young people benefit more from the skills they’re learning in school.  

Do you think that this takes time away from academics?

Academics isn’t all kids need. Kids need so much more. School should be where we teach the meaning of life; where kids learn they are needed; where they can learn community skills. We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings … and understanding it matters to take care of others. We definitely want to incorporate all those things in education.

I also believe that breaking up the school day with different school subjects is very important. We offer a variety of subjects during the school day. We’re also testing out what it’s like to have breaks in the middle of the school day for elementary school students. At a few elementary schools recently we’ve been offering sports, handcrafts, or school clubs during the middle of the school day, rather than just in the morning or after school as we already do. This is to help kids to think of something else, and do something different and more creative during the day.  

An American librarian I spoke with, who was a visiting scholar in Finland, was struck by things like the fact that there was no concept of Internet filtering or censorship there. She was struck by how much autonomy was given to children as well as to teachers. At the same time, she noticed how much support teachers in Finland get. She visited one first-grade classroom that was taught by a relatively new teacher,  and seven adults were standing in the back of the room watching the teacher: the master teacher, a specialty subject teacher from her teaching university, her advisor from university, and a couple of other student teachers. Right after the class, they got together and talked about how the lesson went. This sort of observation/debriefing seemed to be quite common. Finland is also well known for investing heavily in continuous professional development. Can you tell me more about this combination of independence and support?

Teachers have a lot of autonomy. They are highly educated--they all have master’s degrees and becoming a teacher is highly competitive. We believe we have to have highly educated teachers, because then we can trust our teachers and know they are doing good work. They do have to follow the national curriculum, although we do have local curriculums as well. But we think that we’ve been able to create good results due to our national, universal curriculum.

We don’t test our teachers or ask them to prove their knowledge. But it’s true that we do invest in a lot of additional teacher training even after they become teachers.

We also trust in our pupils. Of course we give them exams and tests so that we know how they are progressing but we don’t test them at the national level. We believe in our schools because we consider all schools equal. We don’t school shop in Finland and we don’t have to think about which area to live in to go to a good school.  

In Finland we are starting to have some issues … in some suburban schools with more immigrants or higher unemployment, but we support those schools by investing more in them, in the struggling schools. 

But you know, money doesn’t make for a better education necessarily. We don’t believe that spending on a particular school will make any one of them better so much as focusing on the content of what we do and giving children individual support. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/03/finnish-education-chief-we-created-a-school-system-based-on-equality/284427/