This article was first published in The Sunday Times on 06/11/2011
With Irish secondary-school students still performing poorly in maths and science compared with their peers in other developed nations, it is time to look at the success of the acknowledged “market leader”: Finland.
Finnish students have consistently ranked highly in maths and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). This test, devised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is a widely accepted ranking system for comparing the abilities of 15-year-old students in developed nations in various subjects.
In 2009, for example, Finnish secondary-school students were ranked second worldwide in science by Pisa, and sixth in maths. In the same year, Irish students were ranked 20th in science and a dismal 32nd in maths. In 2006, the Finns were ranked first in science, while the Irish were 20th. So the pattern is well established.
Ireland and Finland have roughly the same population; the Finns having 5.3m people compared with 4.5m in the republic. Both are on the edge of Europe, and both are techno-literate and entrepreneurial societies.
In Ireland, the availability of young people with good science and maths skills is crucial if we are to develop the much-hyped knowledge economy. Thus the poor standards in these subjects are a concern to the Irish government, but so far all initiatives to raise standards in maths and science have failed.
The Finnish educational success story begins with teaching, a sought-after profession. Teachers are highly respected, and on the best and brightest graduates, the top 10%, can gain entry to teacher-training colleges.
Teachers spend a lot less time in the classroom than in other countries and more time outside the classroom with colleagues devising strategies to help students with particular needs. The teacher is trusted, and given plenty of freedom. A big effort is made to maximise the educational attainment of every child, and those who are struggling are given the attention and help they need.
Finland has many emigrant children, particularly in urban centres, and particular resources are expended on helping them. These children benefit from “positive discrimination” and special resources, such as tuition from experts in multi-cultural learning. It is estimated that about 30% of students in Finland receive some form of special help.
Exams and tests are largely ignored in the primary school years, and there is little pressure put on children to learn. Instead, the emphasis is on play and socialising, the view being that children will learn when they are ready. Even in the depths of winter, children spend a lot of school time playing outside. They also do not have to face hours of homework; in fact, after-school work is minimal.
Finnish students are also not required to attend school until they are seven, and there is a free pre-school year, which is made use of by 97% of the parents of six-year-olds.
The school system is almost entirely publicly funded. There are few private schools, parents do not have to put their children’s names down for “good schools” years in advance, and there are no school-ranking league tables. The gap between the weakest and strongest students is narrower in Finland than anywhere else in the world.
By the fifth year of primary, Finnish students are studying all three main science subjects: biology, chemistry and physics. So by the time that they enter secondary school, these students have three years of science tuition under their belts.
Although the Finns consistently perform brilliantly in the Pisa tests, they have no interest in the rankings. The reason is that, philosophically, the Finns have no time for standardised tests; for comparing students, schools, or nations. The focus is on teaching children how to learn, not how to pass a test. It is a child-centred approach to teaching, a system that does not put emphasis on achieving exam results, but on maximising each child’s potential.
The brilliance of the Finnish system is that it takes pressure off students, teachers and parents, and facilitates a relaxed, creative learning environment, free from the frenzy of competition and over-hyped expectations.