The Finnish school system – a success story

Finland consistently ranks at the very top of the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. This small country is well known for its high level of education among the population, as well as for its education system that is characterised by equality. What are the factors that have contributed to Finland's rise to the top of the list of the world’s leading education countries? According to Professor of Education and Research Director Janne Pietarinen, the success can’t be explained by a single factor alone; instead, it is all rooted in a society that values education and is a result of decades of hard work.  

Text Nina Venhe Photo Varpu Heiskanen

Society with a positive attitude towards education

The Finnish comprehensive school system has been characterised by equality for several decades. Schools are highly homogeneous, guaranteeing that children will receive an equally good education, regardless of where they go to school.  

Janne Pietarinen

“We see education as part of a child’s upbringing, and parents tend to have a high regard for schools and for teachers,” Pietarinen says.  

The Finnish comprehensive school system also evens out families’ socio-economic differences, making sure that children will have an opportunity to engage in further study irrespective of their parents’ level of education or income. Although a growing inequality between families is a cause of increasing concern in Finland, the education system has been able to maintain its role.

“The school system can do its bit in preventing inequality, but the responsibility for well-being and welfare needs to be assumed more broadly.”   

Pietarinen points out that society's support is crucial for the development of schools and for related research.   

“Our success story is rooted in the fact that Finnish society has always had an encouraging attitude towards education.”

Master’s level teacher education

Thanks to this positive societal attitude, the teaching profession is a sought-after career in Finland. Compared to many other countries, the profession is held in high regard in Finland. Only one in ten applicants gets admitted to class teacher education at Finnish universities.  

“This means that those admitted are a well-selected, skilled and motivated group,” Pietarinen says.

Continuing to the Master’s level, Finnish teacher education is strongly characterised by a research-based approach, and teachers rely on research in the development of their activities after leaving university.

“In Finland, schools are not compared against one another; instead, the activities and development of schools are addressed through research.”   

In fact, more and more research is being put into practice in schools. However, there is still room for improvement when it comes to the impact of research.

“Our teachers are very autonomous. Their activities are governed by the national curriculum, but within that curriculum, they can freely experiment with new things and do what they think is best for their school.”   

According to Pietarinen, Finnish teachers are increasingly skilled at planning and implementing study modules in a learner-centred manner.   

“Being a teacher also involves in-depth professional reflection. Teachers need to be aware of the foundations of their teaching and to constantly evaluate them – and they need to think about pedagogical solutions that promote learning.”  

Student teachers practice in the university’s own teacher training schools, where their professional development is supported by guidance and peer learning. The teacher training schools constitute a diverse learning environment comprising primary school, lower secondary school and upper secondary school. Teaching practice and final theses are also completed in other schools in the region.

An equal school

Thanks to this reliance on research, the Finnish school system has taken a more sustainable approach to development.  

“Teachers are increasingly aware of new school-related research findings. In other words, research-based information is available to them when considering how to develop their school activities.”  

Nowadays, school leadership is also seen as a development task involving collaborative decision-making rather than top-down management led by the school principal.  

“Teachers know their pupils and their families well. Finland is moving in the direction of increasingly tailored and interactive teaching, and pupils are encouraged to assess and assume responsibility for their own learning.”  

Teachers comprehensively monitor the well-being of their pupils and, according to Pietarinen, they are getting better and better at identifying educational areas where their pupils need support. The objective is also to link learning to the everyday lives of young people.  

“Research shows that Finnish pupils view their teachers positively, and the interaction relationship is close and warm.”  

Teachers’ appreciative attitudes towards their pupils also seems to promote interaction and a feeling of belonging among pupils which, in turn, has been observed to create a good school climate for meaningful learning.  

“Recent research shows that the warmness of Finnish teachers is one of the key factors behind the country’s success in PISA. A professional teacher will have good interaction skills and be open to developing those skills in a goal-oriented manner.”

The warmer the teacher’s attitude, the better the motivation and well-being of his or her pupils.

UEF Bulletin 2018