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Finland's school system: The new Nokia?

For more than a decade Finland has been lauded as an educational leader because of the country’s stellar performance in the OECD’s PISA assessments. As new results are published on Tuesday, one education expert wants to help the Finnish school system avoid the fate of another fallen national champion—Nokia.

Oppilas tekemässä tehtäviä koulussa.
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Finland’s performance in the PISA scores has been a source of pride for many Finns and has put the spotlight on the country’s unique approach to education. The international media has lauded Finland’s high standard of teaching, lack of standardised tests and high-achieving students.

Teacher, teacher trainer, Director of Finland's Centre for International Mobility (CIMO) and policy advisor Pasi Sahlberg has toured the world explaining the intricacies of Finland’s system. His best-selling book Finnish Lessons has been reprinted several times, and his advice is sought by governments worldwide.

Much of that is down to Finland’s high ranking in PISA tests. The OECD’s methodology has been criticised, and there has been some sniping that Finland enjoys certain advantages because of its homogeneity and unique language. Sahlberg rejects that idea.

Homogeneity 'not a factor'

"I don’t believe that the PISA results in Finland have anything to do with the language or the fact that Finland is more homogenous than others," observes Sahlberg. "Of course Finland has had fewer non-Finnish speakers or children who were born outside of Finland, but that cannot explain the progress in previous PISA studies or the declining results in maths."

Ahead of new results to be published on Tuesday, Helsingin Sanomat reported that Finland had dropped out of the top ten in Maths. Although he refuses to comment on unpublished results, Sahlberg is concerned Finland may have taken its eye off the ball.

"We haven’t seen a systematic leadership or school improvement over the last twelve years, Finland has been much more involved in explaining to others why we are doing well in the PISA than on focusing on what we should do next," says Sahlberg. "It’s a little bit like the story of Nokia from that point of view."

The Nokia comparison is telling. Finland’s telecommunications giant dominated global mobile sales for a decade, but failed to adjust to the smartphone era and was recently forced to sell its handset business to Microsoft.

Avoiding Nokia's fate

Such a fall from grace is a chastening prospect for Finnish educators. Sahlberg emphasises the need to listen to what former Nokia CEO and chair Jorma Ollila describes as ’weak signals’ around the world—spotting what is the next big thing rather than dwelling on past success.

According to Sahlberg, Finnish policy-makers have had access to indications of weakening performance in maths for at least five years.

He suspects that the problem may lie at the bottom end of the educational spectrum. Increasing income differentials and a lack of financial resources in some municipalities are two possible causes, but the immediate effect is clear: there is a widening gap between the best and worst performing schools and students.

"The good performance in Finland has always been because we have very few low-achieving schools, says Sahlberg. "And what is likely to happen in the country is that we will have more of those, both students and schools. And that probably explains part of the lower performance."

Sahlberg does reject one possible explanation: immigration. He says that Finnish parents should not fear diverse schools, and that other solutions can be found to ensure that the Finnish schooling system retains its positive image as a poster child of egalitarian education.

That hope is shared by Finnish children, parents—and politicians.

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