By Miquel Àngel Comas, Eva Tresserras and Xavier Ureta | Faculty of Education in the UIC
Last December a new PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) Report was presented for 2012. Once again the Finnish system continued to be at the top of the list as a model of success, efficiency and fairness.
Before analysing the decisive factors in the positive results from Finland, it is necessary to contextualise PISA evaluations (see Table 1.) These evaluations are external, and have been carried out every three years since 1997. The purpose of the evaluations is to:
- Facilitate an analysis of educational policies with the aim of improving systems and establishing similarities and differences between them.
- Provide a socio-political interpretation.
- Analyse the level of necessary skills that students have acquired so they can participate fully in society, focusing on key areas such as reading, science and mathematics.
- Measure whether students have the ability to reproduce what they’ve learned; transfer their knowledge and apply it to new academic and non-academic contexts; whether they are capable of analysing, reasoning and communicating ideas efficiently and if they have the ability to continue learning throughout life.
It is important to know how to contextualise and add to the significance of the PISA report. According to Ismael Palacín, Director of the Fundació Jaume Bofill, “external evaluations such as PISA have to be used to obtain information about the system – not to sanction-, and at the same time they must be combined with multilevel evaluations: of the system, the centre, the teacher, and the pupil”. Other external international evaluations include: TALIS, PIACC, PIRLS-TIMSS, etc.
It is important to see the success in Finland as an example to follow, which we can extract indicators and/or guidance from which will help to improve education systems. According to Xavier Melgarejo, an expert in the Finnish education system and in the field of school management, “Finland has become a laboratory for academic excellence trials which we can learn a lot from”.
According to Melgarejo, the main keys to success in the education system in Finland are:
- An inverted management pyramid. Public administration, which has economic and decision-making powers, has a close relationship with the citizen (at both a local and a regional level, etc.) In conjunction with this, and governed by an education law which remains practically unchanged despite governmental changes, local government is responsible for schools and for rendering accounts. Schools are autonomous in terms of choosing the most curriculum that is most suited to the needs of their pupils. According to the above mentioned expert, we are dealing with a “decentralised model and there is no inspection body, people trust the autonomy of the schools”.
- An open and flexible curriculum. States only propose a document containing the minimum amount of information, a very short guide which is decided based on a consensus and common sense, depending on the needs of the country. Schools adapt their academic plans to reality, with validation provided by the nearest Public Administration office. “The body of the curriculum is designed by the central government (10%-15%) and the rest is designed by the local government, along with teachers.
- Being highly demanding at lower levels of education. Having an excellent academic record is an essential pre-requisite for obtaining a place on a Bachelor’s degree in Education programme. The number of places is limited, and the course is highly demanding, especially towards the end. Therefore, success depends on rigorous and constant work during the period students are at university. This awards the degree with a seal of quality, excellence and dedication.
- Selection of teachers and head-teachers. Each academic plan requires a specific profile for both the head-teachers and the teachers. For that reason, the assignation of posts and managerial promotion is based on individuality.
- Open schools. Schools, which are in close contact with their immediate environment, become cultural spaces, which are documentary, musical or artistic in nature, and they are also suited to the needs of the community. Their infrastructure and architectural design are created based on the purpose of each particular space.
In Finnish society, education is the backbone of the country; investing in it leads to an increase in welfare, competitiveness and civic responsibility. Melgarejo continues to repeat that “Finnish people believe that the country’s treasure is its children, and therefore they place them in the hands of the best professionals”. It is a mixture of knowledge and welfare, which ensures “that there is fairness and that citizens are strongly implicated in constructing the country at both an ethical and a social level”.
Fluency in other languages is another large priority in this country. Beliefs about education focus on the triangle between individual-school-society. Along the same lines, in Finnish society it is unquestionable that the family is primarily responsible for educating their children. For example, this is the country with the most books per inhabitant in the world; they are all publically owned, and libraries are open to everyone. Parents and children go along to read “as a family”. Therefore, we are looking at an education system which is solidly based on “common sense”, which prioritises culture, language and the arts from the perspective of effort, responsible autonomy and a creative attitude that is also socially committed.
On the other hand, a report from the World Economic Forum 2012-2013 lists Finland as the third most competitive country in the world. Therefore, its guidelines are aimed at achieving the Europe 2012 Agenda and progression towards Horizon 2020. The latter is the new European research and innovation programme which promotes education and training as the keys to creating strategies for intelligent, sustainable and inclusive growth, highlighting the importance of employment, social cohesion and compatibility, in order to achieve open international cooperation.
It seems clear, then, that this Nordic country is fully aware that education is a source of progress and a true reflection of its society.