Of course the Finns have got it right.

David Zeffie, Assistant Principal, The Gateway Academy

This blog is the first in the series exploring the educational successes of top performing countries, as measured by the PISA performance indicators.

Early childhood education and care supports the development, learning and wellbeing of a child

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) combines education, teaching and care in a systematic and goal-oriented manner. The goal of ECEC is to promote children’s development, health and wellbeing as well as to improve children’s opportunities for learning.

Local authorities, i.e. municipalities, are responsible for providing ECEC for children under school age. A client fee is charged for early childhood education and care. The fee is determined on the basis of the family’s income and size and the time that the child spends in ECEC.

The National Curriculum Guidelines on Early Childhood Education and Care in Finland, approved by the Finnish National Agency for Education, guide the planning and implementation of the contents of ECEC and function as the basis for drawing up the local ECEC curricula.

Comprehensive school education is free of charge. Comprehensive schools are maintained by the local authorities (municipalities) and other education providers. Less than two per cent of comprehensive school pupils go to a private or state school.

At the end of the comprehensive school, each young person must apply for post-comprehensive school education. Compulsory education ends when the person reaches the age of 18 or when they complete an upper secondary qualification (a general upper secondary qualification or a vocational qualification.

Choosing general or vocational upper secondary education after comprehensive school education

After comprehensive school, students continue to the upper secondary level and choose between general and vocational education.

General upper secondary education (lukio in Finnish) provides, as its name suggests, general education. It does not qualify students for any particular occupation. At the end of general upper secondary school, students take a national school-leaving examination known as the Finnish matriculation examination. Those who pass the examination are eligible to apply for further studies at universities, universities of applied sciences and vocational institutions. General upper secondary education usually takes three years to complete.

Vocational qualifications include upper secondary qualifications, further qualifications and specialist qualifications. Vocational upper secondary qualifications provide the basic skills required in the field. Further and specialist vocational qualifications enable people to develop their skills at different stages of their career. The scope of vocational upper secondary qualifications is usually 180 ECVET points, further qualifications 150 points and specialist qualifications 180 points.

At the beginning of vocational education and training, the student and the institution draw up a personal competence development plan for the student, outlining the content, schedule and methods of study. Vocational education and training can also be delivered in workplaces through an apprenticeship agreement or a training agreement. Prior learning acquired in various ways can be recognised as part of the studies. Both young people and adults can apply for vocational education and training.

Graduates are eligible to apply for further studies at universities or universities of applied sciences.

What do the PISA performance indicators tell us?

In the PISA test 2018, Finnish students performed well above the OECD average in reading, mathematics, and science knowledge. Finnish students scored 520 points in reading, 507 points in mathematics, and 522 in science. (UK students scored 504, 502 and 505 respectively). The successful performance of Finnish students seems to be attributable to a web of interrelated factors having to do with comprehensive pedagogy, students' own interests and leisure activities, the structure of the education system, teacher education, school practices and, in the end, Finnish culture (more of which later).

Why is the education system working so well?

Since the 1980s, Finnish school leaders have focused on making these basics a priority:

  • Education should be an instrument to balance out social inequality

  • All students receive free school meals

  • Ease of access to health care

  • Psychological counseling

  • Individualised guidance

Beginning with the individual in a collective environment of equality seems to be Finland’s way.

Accountability for teachers

In most other countries, with under-perfomance, a lot of the blame goes to the teachers. But in Finland, the bar is set so high for teachers, that there is often no reason to have a rigorous “grading” system for teachers. Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education and writer of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? said the following about teachers’ accountability:

"There's no word for accountability in Finnish… Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."


Sisu is a term which dates back hundreds of years and is described as being integral to understanding of Finnish culture. Sisu is extraordinary determination in the face of extreme adversity, and courage that is presented typically in situations where success is unlikely. It expresses itself in taking action against the odds, and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity; in other words, deciding on a course of action, and then adhering to it. It is a term for going beyond one's mental or physical capacity, and is a central part of the country's culture and collective discourse. The English equivalent might be ‘gutsy’ or ‘grit’ but there is little cultural legacy of either of these terms which defines the national character. Being an unlucky loser with a great display of guts and grit is not a substitute for success. This is not so in Finland. Sisu, whilst lacking in empirical psychological research, is nevertheless a defining characteristic which underpins the values held by most Finns. To try and try again despite any obstacles is ingrained.

So have the Finns still got it right?

  1. Students in Finland often have the same teacher for up to six years of their education. During this time, the teacher can take on the role of a mentor or even a family member. During those years, mutual trust and bonding are built so that both parties know and respect each other. Different needs and learning styles vary on an individual basis. Finnish teachers can account for this because they’ve figured out the student’s own idiosyncratic needs. They can accurately chart and care for their progress and help them reach their goals. There is no passing along to the next teacher because there isn’t one. Poorly performing teachers are dealt with directly by the Principal and on an individual basis.

  2. Early years are focused on play, rather than academic learning.

  3. Stick with our strategy of using digital tools in the classroom. Using technology as an empowering tool rather than an overpowering aspect of daily life. We have begun this journey.

  4. Reduce the expectation of homework in Years 1-6. During these first years of school in Finland, homework is minimal. Remember, there is no equivalent of end of Key Stage tests.This leaves more time for after-school play, hobbies and developing soft skills outside of the classroom. This contributes to the student’s level of life satisfaction. Finland has topped the World Happiness Report compiled by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Read here to find out how and why:

  5. Recruitment. It is an expectation that Finnish teachers have the equivalent of a Master’s degree. This may not be practical in current post-graduate teaching courses, but Finnish schools recruit only the best and brightest teachers.

  6. Judgement. No schools in Finland are judged and rated. There is implicit trust. We have a long way to go until this can be the case in England. However, moving away from a judgmental dialogue requiring a percentage of ‘Good’ etc teaching to be recorded and looking at skills, strengths and areas of development is clearly a better environment to work in.

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