Tony Parkin gets the lowdown on Finland's PISA success – and pedagogy really does trump technology
Pasi SalhbergPasi Salhberg: sharing keys to Finland's successA focus on equity in education, not on achievement , is the key policy driver that has taken Finland to the heights of the OECD PISA tables. And, ironically, in the land of Nokia and innovation, the use of classroom technology may not have been of particular value in helping the shift to equity.

This was the key message from Dr Pasi Salhberg as he delivered "Finnish Lessons" to a largely receptive audience at the Houses of Parliament. As Nick Clegg MP and others seek to address the weaknesses in social mobility in education, and the zeitgeist shifts towards equity, could the key to the problem require a fundamental shift in educational thinking in England, towards a more Finnish approach?

Committee Room 14 was packed to hear from Dr Pasi Sahlberg, director general of CIMO (Centre for International Mobility and Co-operation – in the Ministry of Education) in Helsinki. He was there to help identify lessons that the English education system might be able to draw from Finland, which does so well in PISA results.

Finland began its route to education success by abolishing its inspectorate

Prominent in the front row of the public gallery was Sir Michael Wilshaw, in a dapper charcoal-grey pinstripe suit. A cynical hack might have speculated that the chief inspector’s face was darker than his suit as he left the event prior to the discussion that followed the presentation. And current pillars of education policy will find some of the messages from Finland hard to swallow. After all, it improved its system by abolishing its own schools inspectorate.

The session opened with a touch of irony, as Dr Sahlberg described the year spent in London 20 years ago at King’s College to garner lessons from the much-admired English education system to take back to Finland. He enjoyed and valued what he learned, particularly the maths and science teaching. So he was keen to position these exchanges as two-way, to share the learning – not Finland telling England what needed to be done. And he made it clear that transplants of systems across countries, without contextual consideration, rarely succeeded. This message became increasingly relevant as his story unfolded.

Three important contextual concepts need to be firmly established from the outset, said Dr Sahlberg:

  • First, simplistic explanations about Finnish history and culture and a reverence for education should be treated with suspicion. In the 1970s, when the changes leading to the current system started, Finnish education was not strong, and Finland was among the also-rans according to many educational indicators. The major improvements have only been achieved over the past 20 years.
  • Second, they did not embark on a strategy to become a top-performing country in education. Rather, they addressed the challenges of an inadequate system to make it more equitable.
  • Third, Finland also performs well on a far wider range of societal indicators, for example happiness, economic success and innovation. This should be borne in mind when focusing on the education success, which should not be seen in isolation.

This echoed a similar talk in 2008 from the then Finnish Minister of Education who admitted, with a disarming frankness not typically seen in English secretaries of state, that until Finland came top of the PISA tables for the second time politicians hadn’t stopped to analyse the factors behind the success. Requests from other countries to explain what was working to their education delegations prompted them to do the analysis. And though she acknowledged the role of classroom technology, that did not appear to be a key factor determining success.

Dr Sahlberg's revealed that Finland's path was light-years away from the one taken by politicians in England with the decades focused on improving the managerial, standardised approach of 'Barberism'. There was clearly some discomfort for current advocates of these strategies sitting in the room.

Three drivers for Finland's success

The key Finnish driver after 1970 was to create a school system that was equitable, and in which all pupils should and could receive an equally good education. Schools were funded in recognition of the challenges they faced, and the needs of their communities, rather than on performance and output metrics. A second driver of "less is more" created a less-pressurised system, and deliberately reduced the cramming of the curriculum and the school day. The third was enhanced professionalism, with increased autonomy and self-direction.

Pasi Salhberg at WestminsterPasi Salhberg at Westminster: how to create new traditionsIn Finland children are seen as individuals on a personalised learning journey. Formal schooling starts when they are 7, as play is seen as crucial to early development. It takes 10,000 hours to become good at something, so children need time to have 10,000 hours of play! School days are shorter, and there's a much more relaxed approach to homework to encourage them to develop outside the formal curriculum.

Their treatment as individuals is helped by schools outlawing streaming and setting of pupils – there were some gasps of surprise at this point. There are no special needs classifications, but around 30 per cent of children receive extra support to help them meet specific challenges and circumstances. This support continues for as long as they need it. More irony here, as earlier the same week there had been challenge in the UK media when it was suggested that perhaps 20 per cent of English children need extra support!

Recognising that equity alone did not guarantee quality, other drivers had to be put in place to encourage improvement in Finnish schools. Private schools were abolished, and to ensure a level playing field it was made illegal to charge for any tuition leading to a qualification. Leadership and professionalism development at all levels has received steady investment since the 1970s.

Evident weaknesses in intra and inter-school variation were targeted. Assessment and evaluation were not achieved by rigorous and critical external inspection, but by promoting a culture of internal support and professionalism. The schools inspectorate was abolished. Rather than competing, schools were encouraged and supported to develop equality of provision through collaboration and the sharing of successful practice. You could sense the excitement among teachers and educators in the audience at this point – and that increased.

Finnish LessonsIt's all in the book, 'Finnish Lessons'Teachers in Finland teach on average an hour less per day than English counterparts, and two hours less than teachers in the US. However, they face high professional expectations, and they have greater responsibilities for curriculum planning and delivery as well as for delivering professional development and pastoral care. The focus on leadership, autonomy, professionalism and respect means that being a teacher is now a much sought after occupation again in Finland, with competition for teacher-training places fiercer than for many other professions.

Forty years of this approach means that there is now little variation in quality between schools in Finland, and little need for parents to struggle to get their children into a favoured few. As equity developed, so Finland’s place in the international league tables has risen steadily to reach the current heights.

At this point Pasi contrasted the Finnish approach with the Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM as he called it!) which he saw as "infecting" many other countries, including England. This is characterised by symptoms of increased competition, a focus on standardised testing, "school choice", and test-based accountability. It has great appeal to politicians, but he pointed out that everywhere it has been adopted education systems have gone into decline. (Echoes here of  Professor John Seddon's scathing analysis of Michael Barber and his "deliverology" approach, "doing the wrong thing righter".)

Pasi Sahlberg is not the first to speak of the power and importance of equity, but perhaps the timing means that he has a better chance of capturing the zeitgeist. Maybe people will look again with interest at the ideas of Professor John Seddon, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, or Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, who have all been highlighting the need for a fundamental shift of thinking.

The key messages from Finland

He left us with five key lessons from Finland. We need:

  • Greater collaboration and less competition;
  • More personalisation and less standardisation;
  • More trust-based accountability and less test-based accountability;
  • Greater emphasis on pedagogy and less on technology;
  • Heightened professionalism and less bureaucracy.

At first sight this could appear to be bad news for those involved in promoting and supporting education technology. But as one of many education technologists who has tried to make a similar point for many years, I actually found much to welcome.

Trying to keep the focus on pedagogy, not technology, has been a mantra for many educationists. We should not have had a national whiteboard initiative but a strategic assessment of whole-class teaching and the technologies that help – including interactive whiteboards. Many of us cringe while reading of the next iPad project where the technology is clearly put in front of the pedagogy or the assessment of need. Oh for more of the pedagogy-led technology innovation of schools like the ESSA Academy!

Perhaps we should look into Pasi Sahlberg’s message for the deeper values to espouse. Personalisation has been central and key to the development of the Finnish success. If VLEs (virtual learning environments) in UK schools were no longer used as repositories and the place where documents go to die, and were used as engines of personalising learning, as they were meant to be, then we would be using technology to build on these Finnish lessons and, perhaps, one day even beat them in the PISA tables. But before that can happen we face the equity battle, and the overthrow of the deliverologists.

More information

Professor Pasi Sahlberg's website   
Finnish Lessons”, by Pasi Sahlbert  
The OECD’s Better Life Index for Education   
Nick Clegg speech on Social Mobility  
Roy Hattersley's New Statesman review of "The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Professor John Seddon addressing California Faculty Association
"Yes, we are all in this together", New Statesman
"Finnish Lessons" took place at at the Houses of Parliament on May 17, 2012

Tony ParkinTony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (The Schools Network) and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'. He can be contacted at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter via @tonyparkin

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