The roots of our current education system date back to the 1960s when it became clear that the country needed better-educated citizens if it wanted to catch up to its western neighbors in prosperity. The twin imperative for education reform was thus both social and economic. The welfare state ideal required that people have equal opportunities and access to basic services, such as education, health and employment. Economic imperative shifted the focus from industrial skills to knowledge-based skills already seen as a condition for sustained economic progress in Finland.
It is necessary to note that Finland never intended to be a world leader in education. That wouldn’t have been an inspiring and engaging vision the country needed to reform its inequitable and traditional educational system to drive necessary economic and social changes. The goal was to secure equal educational opportunities for all Finnish children until the end of compulsory schooling at the age of 16, to expand access to secondary and higher education after compulsory school, and to introduce new curricula that aim at development of the whole child and overall well-being of each individual. The key drivers of that whole-system change were equity and equality of educational opportunities, not raising standards or closing (academic) achievement gaps.
To implement this reform in the 1970s, the Finnish educators realized that only a highly educated teaching force would be able to cope with all the challenges that the new school would bring. The key decision was to make teaching a high-status profession by mandating that all teachers earn master’s degrees and do so in substantial programs integrating content, theory, and practice. Primary school teacher education thereby became part of academic education, and students were expected to master scientific knowledge and research methodology as in any other field of higher education. Soon teachers began to gain respect. And the popularity of teaching, especially in primary schools, quickly increased. Two decades into this reform, teaching had become the most favored profession among Finnish high school graduates. If teaching had not become such a desired career among Finnish youth, the history of Finnish education would be written very differently.