There is something a little misleading when arguments are conducted mostly in the negative. A recent educationalist from Finland visited the country and most of the media coverage appeared to be a list of things not to do. It was a catalogue of things that were familiar to us.
Don’t have a national testing regime, don’t consider differential pay for performance and so on. They constituted a list that fitted neatly into the predilection of those who argue for no change.
What would have been instructive would have been the challenges that the Finnish experience poses to the New Zealand current way of working. Here is a little list of things that Finland has done and which the same educationalist is enthusiastic about:
- provide free lunches to every child in school;
- unify the Year 1-10 into one sector with shades of difference rather than wholesale difference between the first 7 years and the last three years;
- introduce a clearly differentiated set of pathways at the Year 10-13 level that includes access to technical and vocational pathways;
- treat young adults like adults rather than the young – the upper secondary school allow for student choice, are not based on age related cohorts, students choose courses rather than subjects and so on;
- make a Masters level degree the basic teaching qualification at all levels;
- require regular upgrading of qualifications of teachers;
- make teaching a high-appeal career – 10% of applicants are selected (compared to 42% in New Zealand) and teachers are held in higher esteem that doctors by the public;
- cluster schools and allow a lot of local independence in each school;
- all tuition right up to university qualification is free;
- there is only one teachers organisation that covers the total spectrum from pre-school through to higher education.
All of this requires a vision and a level of professionalism that we have yet to achieve. Especially in the matter of social justice and equity. The Finns believe that learning about and within a mixed social environment is a key contributor to one of the major outcomes of education – a society that is just, fair and balanced in its respect between people and the way it treats special need and disadvantage. Schools therefore are planned to be mixed to something of the same degree.
The result of this appears to have been a key to producing the smallest difference between schools in the OECD without detracting from and perhaps actually being a key contributor to Finland’s high PISA ranking. Meanwhile we continue to wear decile ratings as either a mark of honour or a badge of shame greatly to the detriment of one end of the range and consequently we have one of the biggest gaps between schools. In dropping decile ranking in its reports, is ERO giving a message to us all?
To return to the nature of what we call the senior secondary school years – Years 11-13. In Finland the Years 11 -13 are based on courses that last about six weeks. Students choose the courses they want on the basis of their pathway plan (each student has a personal careers advice / information /guidance / education allowance). Systems of co-requisites and prerequisites give longitudinal coherence to study without compromising the choice element.
In this tertiary style approach, Finnish students are required to complete 70 courses in the three years. Most students study more than the minimum and many achieve around 90 courses successfully completed. Meanwhile we struggle to get many students up to the minimum.
While the teacher education results in the Masters level qualification required for teaching at all levels and while those courses have quite a degree of shared content, there is a slightly different emphasis in what appears to be three slices – the pre-school / early years, the middle years of the “community school” and the upper levels of that school. But the shared level of course content that all have allows for flexibility.
Finally,there is the question of hunger – does New Zealand have the hunger to do the things that need to be addressed to lift our world rating and to move our education system into the ranks of systems with equitable results? Finland clearly did but we need to take a good hard look at ourselves.
The public discourse is all about what NOT to do with very little focus on changes that need to be made. In this respect the discourse is timid and negative. Let’s get rid of the fear of ideas and have much more talk about what we might do. It has become a cliche that to continue to do the same things but expect different results is a clinical sign of madness. The evidence suggests that change is needed, big change, and fast.
When visitors come to New Zealand we should exhaust every last idea they have which might inform or excite us rather than simply seek support for digging our collective toes in.