Finnish education system: a success story rooted in humility

The Finnish education system is widely acknowledged as one of the best in the world. It has been studied and celebrated by filmmakers, journalists, researchers, educators, and policymakers. Finnish students have been front-runners in every PISA test since 2000. Ninety-three per cent of Finns graduate from university or At the same time, they are the happiest students around the world, as well as some of the least anxious. 


Yet, Finland does not spend considerably more on education than other high-income countries. The public spending per student is actually lower in Finland than in countries with worse PISA scores, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States, the latter of which ranked 36th in the most recent PISA board for math, out of the 79 participating countries and regions. Finland’s pedagogical success is often explained by a number of factors, such as a high-quality teacher education, which contributes to teaching being a respected profession that attracts highly motivated students. But one still wonders how these factors came about. When looking at how the processes of the Finnish education system are put together, multiple aspects are built upon the principles of Humble Governance. Those are: 



There is widespread political consensus on the importance of education.  This was not always the case. Following the Second World War, there were different competing interests and ideologies on how education should look in the country – which was initially more rural and agrarian-focused. However, continuous political and legislative debates led to a growing consensus for better education. This led to the creation of the New Basic School System which allowed all students to enrol, regardless of their backgrounds and interests. Further shifts by political parties towards education for all and teacher education further solidified, towards the successful education we see today. This wide consensus was an important aspect underpinning the reform that led to the current system, with different political parties supporting the overarching goal but for varying reasons. 



The system is built on devolved problem-solving. Local curricula are based upon the national curriculum but take into account the locality of each school. The local curricula are drawn up by the education providers, and they concern all aspects of formal education, from cooperation with parents to teaching, evaluation and student welfare. The purpose of the local curricula is to complement and emphasize the goals set out in the national curriculum from a local perspective. The delegation of power from a central authority to local units happened gradually in the 1980s and 1990s and is also reflected in the autonomy accorded to teachers who not only participate in the development of the national curriculum and their own local curriculum but also can interpret them and decide how to put them into practice


This gives each school and teachers substantial autonomy to teach based on what they see fit for their respective students. One result of this is in special education services, which 30% of pupils receive, where they are given personalized material by excellent special education teachers to ensure they are not left behind in classes. Rigorous assessment of individual needs and consequent investment in students in the form of personalized material, results in the good rankings Finland obtains in PISA; in fact, Finland most significantly outperforms other countries in the lowest-performing quantile. Behind this success are excellent special education teachers that collaborate with other professionals, and a student welfare group that evaluates the performance of each class, and if needed, each student, at least once a year. 



Feedback mechanisms are a pivotal part of the system, even though the Finnish compulsory education system famously has no standardized tests. Continuous feedback loops are arranged through other means. Instead of testing student performance through examinations, the Finnish system monitors mainly low performing students. It does so to identify potential learning difficulties. This allows the system to determine if and when pupils need additional support through individualized instruction according to their needs. 


Another feedback mechanism between schools is an existing network and culture of partnership for schools and teachers. This fosters continuous professional improvement of teachers and collaboration between schools. Teachers come together to share learnings, which makes them feel less isolated and spreads good practices. At a central level, this is further supported by the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC),  an independent agency that evaluates the education system for continuous development. FINEEC also monitors learning outcomes for basic and upper secondary education with the overall aim of guaranteeing the quality of education. The information produced by these evaluations can then be used by local regional and national actors as well as for the purposes of continuous development.



The national curriculum is periodically revised. An example of a revision in the latest reform was the criteria used to evaluate pupils. This stems from a perceived inequality in evaluation which has caused concern among teachers as well as parents. The aim of the revision is to make grades awarded in different schools more comparable and to eliminate room for interpretation. A steering group put in place by the National Agency for Education is in charge of the work and consists of teachers as well as other relevant stakeholders. The goals and contents of separate subjects are also revised to take better into account changes in society and the likely changes in what is demanded of a citizen in the future.


As demonstrated above, the means by which the Finnish education system has evolved – as well as its widely recognised success – include many elements of what we call Humble Governance. The political consensus characterised by joint commitment enables long-term policy-making, where local units wield authority in the development of the curriculum, as well as autonomy with regard to its implementation. Through continuous feedback loops, knowledge sharing is realised across the borders of local units, informing the periodic revision of the national curriculum. 


These elements can be applied in other areas as well. In fact, they aren’t far from what the latest management research encourages companies to develop, or from how the biggest accomplishments on environmental protection have been achieved. 


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