Educators around the world laud the Finnish school system and there is constant discussion in Australia about how we should try to follow Finland’s example. However there is scant depth of knowledge about how the Finnish school system actually works. Recently I spent two months in Finland on an Endeavour Executive Fellowship, undertaking research into schools and university teacher education programs. You might be interested in details of what I discovered.
Freedom and trust
The basic right to education is enshrined in the Finnish constitution. Public authorities must secure equal opportunities for every resident in Finland to receive education and be able to develop themselves, irrespective of their financial standing. Legislation provides for compulsory schooling and the right to free pre-primary and basic education, which includes daily meals for students and subsidised transport. There is a strong culture of trust where teachers are addressed by their first name, have a lot of freedom in their classrooms, do not have to submit their pupils to benchmark testing, and are highly respected within the community.
University is free
Higher education is also the responsibility of the Ministry and all university tuition is free, including for foreign students. Finland has 14 universities; eight of these offer teacher education programs.
Funding and administration
Education in Finland is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Culture. The Ministry is the third largest in Finland and its share of the state budget is 12% (6.6 million Euro in 2014). The Finnish National Board of Education works with the Ministry to develop educational aims, content and methods for primary, secondary and adult education.
Local administration is the responsibility of the regional municipal authorities, which play a prominent role as education providers. Kindergartens, day-care centres, comprehensive schools, upper secondary schools, vocational and further education centres are all administered by the local municipality. This includes responsibility for teaching staff salaries, employment conditions and professional development.
Every teacher in Finland (apart from kindergarten teachers) has a Master’s degree as a minimum requirement. Teacher training is organised in a unique way in comparison to the Australian situation: the eight universities offering teacher training all have University Teacher Training Schools which belong to the Faculties of Education. Teachers in these schools are actually employees of the university, while the schools themselves still follow the National Curriculum and enjoy the same independence that other schools do. In Finland they are known as Normaalikoulu (Normal schools); also referred to as Training Schools or Practice Schools.
Teacher training and status
There are eleven Finnish Teacher Training schools that not only provide an education for students at comprehensive and upper secondary levels, but they also offer supervision for teaching students undertaking professional experience, act as ‘demonstration schools’ for teaching experiments and educational research, as well as providing and supporting in-service teacher training. The number of students in the Teacher Training Schools totals around 8,000 and every year about 3,000 teaching students complete their teaching practice there.
Teaching is seen as a high status profession in Finland and was described as a ‘favourite occupation’. Historically teachers were seen as ‘Candles of the people’ lighting the way to Finnish independence, and this is still a very strong cultural and societal view. It is therefore competitive to enter teacher education programs requiring a high standard of entry to university – based on a matriculation score as well as an entrance exam and an interview. Points are awarded for each of these three entry requirements. If an applicant fails the university entrance exam they must wait a whole year before applying again.
3 plus 2 year model of teacher education – Bachelor and Masters degrees
Successful applicants enter the initial three year Bachelor of Education program, equivalent to 180 credit points. The degree structure includes a 5 credit course in Quantitative research methods and a 5 credit course in Qualitative research methods, and 10 credit points for a Bachelor’s thesis.
Entry to the Master of Education degree is automatic on successful completion of the Bachelor degree, if a student is continuing at the same university. Entry at Masters level to another university may require additional entrance requirements, in which case Grade Point Average would be a consideration.
The two year Masters degree is equivalent to 120 credits, and includes courses such as Education for Sustainable Future and Education in Diverse Cultures as well as 10 credits on Research-based teaching; 10 more on research methodology; 10 credits on designing a Masters thesis, and finally a Masters thesis equivalent to 30 credit points.
While the qualifications to become a basic classroom teacher (Grades 1 – 9) or a secondary teacher (Grades 10-12) require a minimum of 5 years (3 plus 2), it is unusual that the minimum qualification to become a kindergarten or pre-school teacher only requires a 3 year bachelor degree in Finland. Kindergarten teacher salaries are therefore less than other teachers’ salaries. However, since children do not start Grade 1 until age 7, the kindergarten/pre-school centres are important providers of education and day care – with some providing 24 hour care.
The salient feature of the 3 plus 2 model of teacher education in Finland is the research-based approach in both the Bachelor and Masters degrees, reinforced by the research intensive Teacher Training Schools which are funded and supported by the universities. Teachers are taught to think critically and must produce a research thesis both in the 3rd year of their bachelor degree and the final year of their Masters degree. The research-based approach is modelled in the Teacher Training schools where mentor teachers are also university employees and the interaction between the institutions is integral to the approach, providing PD for teachers and access to the universities’ teaching and research activities.
At Savonlinna campus of the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) where I was located during the Endeavour Fellowship, the teacher training school was on the same site and interaction between university and school was constant and immediate. The principal held a PhD and was involved in a research project on 21st Century skills with researchers from UEF, based on evaluating the introduction of iPads to all students from Grades 1 – 9 in the school. Students on Professional Experience at the school were also involved in the research. The Director of Educational and Cultural Development for the Municipality of Savonlinna who was directly responsible for 24 schools and 900 staff in the region also held a PhD and found time to stay involved in research and write articles with researchers from UEF.
Finally, it is interesting to note that despite the high status of teaching in Finland, teacher salaries in general are significantly less in comparison to Australia:
- Finland teacher salaries on average: 32,400 Euro ($45,600)p.a.
- South Australia: $61,500 up to $89,000 p.a. (Tiers 1 – 9)
- In other Australian states and territories classroom teachers earn about the same as in South Australia
So we can see there are more differences than similarities in the Finnish system compared to Australian school systems. How realistic would it be for us to emulate or adopt any of the Finnish approaches to education in Australia? Tell me what you think.
Dr Tom Stehlik is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include adult learning, student engagement, school governance and communities of practice. He has had a long association with Steiner Education as a parent, educator, researcher, consultant and board member of a Waldorf School. In July 2014 Dr Stehlik took up an Endeavour Executive Fellowship to study teacher education and schooling in Finland.