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Tag: education systems

Pathways-ED: Starting with the Finnish

Stuart Middleton
7 September 2012


I have been reading an interesting book lately – Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg (2010, Teachers College Press, NY).

There is a wealth of information in this book about the process that Finland went through in changing its education system from an OK system into arguably the world’s top education system. It is a system that Australia and New Zealand envy.

Of great interest to me was the creation of sectors that better provided for young people. This required from teachers from the different schools that had once existed to come together to be part of the key institution in Finland – the Pereskoulu.

In simple terms, the Pereskoulu is a Unified Comprehensive Basic School that covers the range of experiences from entry at Year 1 to Year 9 (Age 7 – 16). It is the school that provides the basic education on which young people can springboard off into the differentiated secondary schools that follow. The lower six years of the school are at the “primary level” while the top three years are styled as the “lower secondary level” but both levels constitute one school. Key features of the Pereskoulu are interesting in the light of the way in which we treat the issues of special needs and careers advice in our systems.

In Finland about 50% of students will have received “special needs” assistance in the course of their basic schooling. Rather than the legal definition /resource allocation and rule-driven approach of meeting special needs that we favour, the Finnish approach says that if a learner has a special need, respond to it.

In the last three years of Pereskoulu, while we agonise over careers information, advice, guidance and education, the Finnish school offers a two hour a week individual entitlement for students to personal counselling as to pathways, a career etc. In addition each student must have a two week experience in a work situation.

It seems to me that they have interpreted individualised learning to mean just that rather than the job lot / batch approach that we take. It must be harder for the incremental slide towards disengagement or failure to get momentum in that system than it clearly is within ours.

An astonishing fact – the Finns believe that learning in a socially mixed environment is in itself an important educational outcome, schools have a similar mix of people from different backgrounds. There is a difference between schools in terms of outcomes of less than 5%.

Then come the Upper Secondary Schools – three years of differentiated schooling from Age 16 – 19 years – Academic Schools (two foreign languages), Upper General Secondary Schools (one foreign language) and Upper Vocational Secondary Schools which are as the name implies offering a range of courses that are oriented to the trades. Now this might seem a little like tracking as we once knew it but there are key differences:


  •          differentiated upper secondary schools start at age 16 rather than age 13 as was the case in our systems back in the times when tracking which was turned into streaming in many schools;
  •          there is a common block of courses that each kind of senior secondary school teaches;
  •          students choose “courses” of about 6-7 weeks duration and can choose to add a course from a different school should they wish to;
  •          students are not grouped in age related groups nor is there a control on progression through the years;
  •          a system of prerequisites sees study increasing in complexity and sophistication over the course of the three years;
  •          students can transfer between different kinds of schools;
  •          students must achieve a total of 70 courses but typically achieve around 90.


Entry into higher education is by way of a matriculation examination. Since higher education in Finland is free there is high participation in universities and polytechnics.

The interesting thing about this entire Finnish story is that the changes occurred relatively quickly with teachers changing the kinds of job they had and accepting that in the interests of the students and the nation, that major change was needed.

What is more accompanying the lift in performance of the Finnish education system is a drastic rise in the esteem with which teachers are held. A teacher in Finland is held in higher esteem than doctors!

Other lessons from Finland will be detailed occasionally over the next few weeks.


1 Comment

Talk-ED: Learning, especially from others

Stuart Middleton
12 September 2011

I have been wondering about the differences between education systems that seem to be successful and those that struggle with the issues that dog us at this end of the world. Those issues of disengagement and concerning levels of educational failure and persistently lacklustre levels of success at postsecondary levels just don’t seem to respond to efforts made to address them. While huge effort is made it is hard to escape the conclusion of the recent New Zealand Institute Report (More Ladders, Fewer Snakes) that the trends of improvement are not yet apparent.

We make it hard for ourselves by being unable to yet report on cohort success and continue to be able only to wind back the education success odometer as if it were a second-hand car to produce a percentage figure that doesn’t tell us what is happening. This habit can hide improvements just as easily as it can mask declines.

It can not be a coincidence that the set of countries that share these issues to a remarkable level of similarity – a level that defies chance – and which consists of New Zealand, Australia, Canada the United Kingdom and the United States of America all have a similar unitary education system in which comprehensive high schools provide programmes that are very much the same for all students and are premised on the conventional academic track to university. Developments over the past thirty years have cemented this in place very firmly.

This has led to a situation where the secondary school is now seen as the key site for change and where notions such as multiple pathways are called for.

By contrast, the dual systems of Europe and Scandinavia multiple pathways are available to students with flexible options in the senior secondary school which are well-connected to the tertiary sector. Students are able to move across pathways as aspirations and aptitudes become clearer.

The unitary systems are characterised by the focus on one general education offered to age 19 in comprehensive secondary schools which have continued the traditional focus of universal primary education and the elitist provision of higher education in a new combination of a general academic programme for all. Trades have disappeared from secondary schools with their being located very predominantly in the tertiary sector. This was the result of a range of factors but the experiment with the new subject of “Technology” must raise education eyebrows.

There has been a bifurcation of these unitary secondary school systems into one group that is favoured (high decile in New Zealand, private in Australia) and those viewed less positively (low decile in NZ and state in Australia). Across both systems disengagement has increased and effective connections with postsecondary education and training has decreased.  This has overshadowed the good work that is happening in schools.

Meanwhile in the dual systems there are clearer differentiated curriculum offerings in the senior secondary school with a clearer vocational focus in some. There is also a concerted attempt to maintain the growth of general education (language, mathematics, digital skills) to a higher level. Work experience is frequently built into school programmes in a connected manner. But most importantly, there are effective systems for tracking students and monitoring them. It is far less optional, attending and applying, than is the case in New Zealand.

Take Finland as an example. It set about reorienting its education system in the latter part of the last century after serious financial shocks from the collapse of Western Russia. About one third of students pursue vocational pathways, success in international measures of attainment is at the top and they have less than 5% (and diminishing) levels of disengagement.

If Finland can do it, surely New Zealand and Australia can.

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