Finland’s education system enjoys a lot of buzz lately. It is considered one of the best education systems in the world. It routinely outperforms the United States in reading, science, and mathematics. And it has been a top performer since the first Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) triennial international survey back in 2000.
But ask someone what’s so great about Finland’s schools, and you’ll typically be supplied with a factoid or three. They have shorter school days. They don’t do standardized tests. They all must be smart because the Finnish language is a nightmare.
While these facts are true — except for that last one — they miss Finland’s well-raked forests for its trees. Finland’s education system works because its entire structure has been around several core principles. First and foremost, equal access to education is a constitutional right. Another important principle is that one should be allowed to choose their educative path, which should never lead to a dead end.
Here’s how Finland’s education system works to meet those principles.
Early childhood education
Finland’s early education is designed around concepts of learning through play.
Imagine you’re a Finnish parent (or you are one, in which case, hyvää päivää). You’ve received state-sponsored maternity leave, a maternity grant, and even a wee-baby care box that doubles as a bed, so you can enjoy those first precious months in one of best countries to raise children. Now, you’re starting to think about your child’s education.
Don’t worry, you have time. Finnish children aren’t required to go to school until age 6, when pre-primary education begins. You are free to spend those early years playing, teaching, and bonding with your little one. If you want to start your child’s education earlier, the Finnish system offers an expansive early childhood education and care (ECEC) program, too.
The program adopts a “learning through play” model to promote “balanced growth,” according to the Finnish National Agency for Education’s website. Although guided by the National Core Curriculum for ECEC, your local municipality handles ECEC services and has broad autonomy, allowing resident administrators to make the calls regarding budget, class size, and educational aims.
There will be a fee, but one that is heavily subsidized. Parents foot roughly 14 percent of the total bill, but the burden placed on individual households is based on income and number of children. The program is evidently popular, as Finland’s enrollment rate for children ages 3 to 5 stands at nearly 80 percent.
Basic education (plus a free meal)
When your child turns 7, it’ll be time for basic education. Finland doesn’t divide its basic education into elementary and junior highs. Instead, it offers single-structure education for nine years, 190 days per year. As with ECEC, policymakers leave plenty of room for local school administrators and teachers to revise and revamp the curriculum to meet the needs of their unique student body.
“The ideology is to steer through information, support and funding,” writes Finnish National Agency for Education (which sets core curricula requirements). Their stated goal for basic education is “to support pupils’ growth toward humanity and ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life.” This latitude includes what tests to give, how to evaluate student progress and needs, and even the ability to set daily and weekly timetables.
Such autonomy may sound scary to some parents. What if your child spends all day learning phenomenological regressions of the Konami Code? (Though that would be fascinating). Finland’s parents, however, don’t have such concerns as teaching is a highly respected and professional field in Finland.
Most teachers hold a master’s degree, and basic-ed teachers are required to hold them. Eighty percent of basic-ed teachers also participate in continuing professional development. This level of learning and continuous development ensures Finland’s educators are steeped in the science of teaching — ironically, drawing inspiration from the American pedagogy of yesteryear.