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Tag: Finland

Terve! Terve! Terve! What’s going on here?


There has been a great gathering of the good in Wellington last week – the International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

Like most international gatherings, the whole affair was choreographed in the interests of giving everyone a fair go at the air-time that was available. This doesn’t always allow for the real issues to emerge as there is an element of chance in the chosen country reports actually having something to say on the designated issue.

And this was the case with the plenary session on equity. Excellence and equity are the themes of the summit and why not.[1]  It is an OECD supported organization and their PISA activity is an instrument that makes explicit the relative performance of education systems in this regard. New Zealand does very poorly on the second of those measures – while high on excellence, it performs poorly on equity.

This is not to say that we don’t care about equity – we do but the path towards lifting performance on that measure is seemingly not becoming clear very quickly and the indicators are stubbornly slow to encourage us. So I looked forward to the afternoon that was to be devoted to a discussion of equity.

What did I learn? Well, that everyone seems to be struggling a little (and in some cases a lot) and the three or four high performers were annoyingly quiet on the issue. The warts are never going to be exposed in a setting of an international summit.

I learned a little more the next morning when walking from the hotel to the venue. I spotted a fellow with the right sort of conference satchel walking along Lambton Quay so I fell into step with him.

“Where are you from?” I enquired. “Finland” he replied. Ah, I thought, the holy mecca for those who seek the way, the truth and the light of equity.

We chatted and I shifted the topic away from the fact that the streets of Wellington appeared to be deserted (it was 8.00am on a Saturday!) and mentioned that I had read Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons, and felt that there were in that book some lessons for New Zealand.

“He was one of my teachers at High School,” my fellow Finnish walker replied exhibiting no relish at all for following up on that opening.

Change of tack. “Of course Finland took a bit of a slide down in the last PISA results,” I offered. We had stopped at a traffic light and he turned to face me. “That is because the students have got so slack.” “Is this perhaps the result of becoming famous for doing so well?” “I don’t know, I think that the parents care more about taking their kids to hockey practice and basketball games instead of seeing that they are doing their homework.”

The lights turned green and I wondered aloud why each of the Scandanavian countries had slid back a little. His instant analysis told me that Norway, it seems, is going to the dogs because it has so much money – he suggested that in a couple of years they would have so much money that they would be able to abolish income tax. There was a tinge of envy in his voice I thought.

By then there was a couple of people walking along the footpath towards us so I was able to comment on how busy Wellington was becoming. Perhaps first thing in the morning is not the right moment to get a conversation going about equity.

And so Day 2 started. First country up was Singapore addressing the question “How are learning environments created that address the needs of all children and young people?” A crisp, clear exposition of Core Values (Respect, Responsibility, Resilience, Integrity, Care, Harmony)  and a clear set of 21st Century Competencies free of the clutter that often surrounds such discussions.

I had the feeling that Singapore understood quite a lot about equity. No wonder they have a picture of a classroom on their $2 note.


[1] Actually, “inclusion and fairness” are also among the themes but I imagine that a non-inclusive and unfair education system is neither excellent nor equitable so I think that is covered!

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Pathways-ED: Accentuate the positive!


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:

  1.     provide free lunches to every child in school;
  2.     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;
  3.     introduce a clearly differentiated set of pathways at the Year 10-13 level that includes access to technical and vocational pathways;
  4.     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;
  5.     make a Masters level degree the basic teaching qualification at all levels;
  6.     require regular upgrading of qualifications of teachers;
  7.     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;
  8.     cluster schools and allow a lot of local independence in each school;
  9.     all tuition right up to university qualification is free;
  10.    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.


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Talk-ED: Keeping the register: who should be let in to teaching?

Stuart Middleton
10 September 2012


The continued debate about the use of unregistered teachers, this time in the Partnership Schools, seems to me miss the point of the real issue.

On one level it is clear that people who work in schools should be subject to a set of criteria that ensure so far as is possible, the safety of young people. The importance of this is constant at all levels but has increased intensity with the younger students. Police checks, established identity and perhaps other tests of character are important and a “registration” process is one way of maintaining a standard across the education sector.

But when the demand that teachers in schools be “registered” is code for a view that teachers in schools should have qualifications from the current set that typifies teachers then the argument breaks down. If the educational outcomes of schools is to change, and I hear no arguments being pursued that this is not the case, then we do need to think through the question of “who should teach in schools?” This is not the same as saying that all teachers in schools be registered.

With younger students there are many schools in the country that would benefit from having a wider set of language skills reflected in their teaching staff. Te Reo Maori, Pacific community languages, the languages of migrant groups are all very special in their contribution to the language development of young members of different communities and to the richness of an education in New Zealand for all young students.

Teachers trained in the Pacific who have fluency in both English and a Pacific community language are available and would add greatly to the effectiveness of education in linguistically diverse settings. But the current registration process seems to get bogged down because of its pre-occupation with course approval. (Health has the same issues.)

At the secondary level, much of the work currently being done indicates that many students when offered the opportunity to engage in what many still persist in calling “vocational education” (so as to mark it out from “academic education”) will make better progress and reach higher levels of attainment across the board. But this requires teachers who have a different career trajectory from the traditional school to university and back to school track that the conventional qualifications imply.

Such people do not sometimes meet the criteria for “registration” because of the courses they have undertaken. But they are needed as teachers and given a “clean” background ought to be able to work in schools without financial penalty

At all levels there are roles for people to work in different ways to contribute to effective education outcomes. Short bursts of input in specialist areas, the instruction in specialised settings that broaden the education experience, and specialised contributions from people whose lives are spent predominantly outside of the school and such other people all have contributions to make. They are, if their backgrounds are appropriate, “fit to teach”.

This all adds up to saying that teaching requires a set of people with wide skills to bring out the best in a set a young people with wide needs, interests, aptitudes and capacity to make progress.

I promised some more snippets from my recent reading about Finland.

There are in Finland five kinds of teachers who work with students in the K-12 part of the education system:


  1.     kindergarten teachers working in the one year kindergarten programme (age 6) prior to starting school (age 7);
  2.     primary school teachers responsible for years 1-6 (age 7-13) in the 9 year comprehensive schools (they usually teach at one grade level and only teach several subjects);
  3.     subject teachers working in the upper levels of the basic school (ages 14 – 16) in the subject disciplines such as maths, physics, chemistry etc;
  4.     special education teachers working with individuals and groups  throughout the comprehensive schools;
  5.     vocational education teachers working in the upper secondary vocational schools.


So perhaps Finland has built into its system greater diversity. But there are some tough requirements too. All Finnish teachers must hold a Masters degree, introduced in the belief that teaching was a scholarly activity that should be based on research. Interestingly, there is only one teachers’ organisation in Finland to which 95% of all teachers at all levels from kindergarten through to university teaching belong. This implies a parity of esteem that we have yet to achieve.

Believing that we need a wider group of people in teaching does not lead to an inevitable loss of standards but rather could lead to a general increase in both standards and quality both in terms of input through teaching and outcomes through learning. With what we know about the importance of teacher quality, this bears thinking about.



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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.


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