Posted in The Guardian, 27 April 2015
Policymakers need to be careful of myths about foreign education systems, such as Finland’s, and what has made them successful
arliamentary elections in Finland this month passed without parties making any references to education. In the UK general election, education is at least on the agenda for the two main parties. One of them, Labour, has recently been courting the idea of adopting educational practices like those in Finland to spread new thinking to low-performing schools and poorer communities in England.
British politicians and policymakers should be careful when borrowing education ideas from other countries, be they Singapore, Canada or Finland. What has made an education system work well in one country won’t necessarily work in another. Policymakers should also beware of the myths about these systems and what has made them successful.
The most recent myth is that Finland’s education success is a result of its traditional culture in the 1970s and that its position as a top, world-class education system is in decline because of the adoption of progressive student-centred approaches to teaching and learning since the 1990s. This myth further suggests that the contemporary Finnish school system is a bad source of ideas for England – or anywhere else.
This myth appears in a pamphlet published this month by the rightwing Centre for Policy Studies, based in London. Under the title Real Finnish Lessons, it warns against using Finland’s school system as a benchmark. The author, who is research director at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education, instead advises governments examining reform to return to teacher-centred and knowledge-focused schooling and to employ market-based education reform policies. These suggestions contradict not only what Finland has done during the last quarter of a century but also most educational research findings about new pedagogy and deeper learning from around the world.
While claiming that prominent researchers have got their interpretations of the causes of educational success in Finland utterly wrong, the report overlooks abundant evidence of significant changes to the Finnish system since the early 1970s. Moreover, to focus only on test results as a proof of success, as this report does, is to define successful education too narrowly. The quality of an education system is about more than high academic test scores. In a successful education system, the gap between low- and high-achieving students is narrow, students’ family background is not the sole determinant of achievement, and resources are used efficiently.
The argument for more traditional schooling to raise test scores ignores a growing pool of internationally comparable data and academic research on good pedagogy and school improvement. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the influential Pisa study, makes this clear. In its most recent reports on the 2012 Pisa study, the OECD lists four suggestions for improving overall performance of education systems. It says that school choice and competition are not related to improved performance; autonomy over the curriculum and assessment appears to improve performance; the percentage of students enrolled in private schools is not related to a system’s overall success; and the highest performing education systems are those that combine excellence with equity.
This evidence from across OECD countries indicates that market-based education policies are not the best way to improve a country’s educational performance. Similar conclusions are drawn in research on some states in the US, Chile and Sweden, where market solutions have been experimented with in school reforms.
Why, then, are market-based education policies so persistent in today’s education world? One reason is that, with the expanding pool of data and studies funded by various interest groups, it is easy to cherry-pick evidence that supports any chosen policy direction. By selecting information carefully, any education analyst can claim his or her findings as “evidence-based” and justify favourable ideas.
One thing is true. No country should aim to replicate the educational models of others. Finland is no exception. What governments need to get right is the big picture for the educational landscape of their nation. The road to a better education for all our children is not to return to the past but to build schools where curiosity, engagement and talent can be discovered and nurtured. That calls for integrating research-informed international lessons into local needs and capacities.