Finnish schools are failing to ensure equal opportunities for Finnish children, according to a new report from Jouni Välijärvi, who heads up the Education research unit at Jyväskylä University.
The as-yet unpublished Oma Linja report is based partly on PISA scores. It paints a grim picture of Finland’s school system, with some 10,000 schoolchildren in each school year at risk of being left without a place in further education or training.
The reason for that is simple: Finland’s schools are failing to teach them reading, writing and arithmetic, and they lack study skills.
"By international standards the situation is relatively good," said Välijärvi. "Our strength is still that the differences between pupils are smaller than elsewhere. But the gap is not nearly as big as it has been in the past."
Finnish PISA results started to decline in 2006. According to Välijärvi’s report more and more Finnish children are leaving schools without meeting minimum literacy standards.
"Words and letters are understood, but reading an ordinary newspaper, understanding its content and message is challenging to many," observed Välijärvi.
The decline in reading ability in the 2000s is visible among the most able students as well as the stragglers. Boys are at most risk, and they have always been weaker readers than girls.
"One reason is that boys’ reading and interest in reading in their free time has clearly dropped since the start of the 2000s," notes Välijärvi. "That has a direct link to their reading ability."
In maths the number of weak students doubled between 2003 and 2012.
"Mathematics skills are currently around half a year behind where they were in 2006," explains Välijärvi. "If you look at the best and worst deciles, the difference in ability within the age group is between 5-7 years."
Regional and social differences are also stark. Among other things parents’ educational background affects children’s’ performance across all subjects. According to Välijärvi it looks as though Finland’s basic schooling system is not capable of bridging the gaps.
Boys in eastern and northern Finland are most at risk of falling behind, as their performance compared to girls and to national averages has collapsed.
"Especially eastern Finland boys’ maths ability has been stronger before, and they’ve been strong in further studies too," said Välijärvi. "If their skills let them down, their opportunities for further study are considerably narrower."
On average, children with an immigrant background are also behind their classmates. In academic performance, first generation migrants are on average 2.5-3 years behind ethnically Finnish children of the same age. Language difficulties are often a significant factor in their problems.
Finland's schools have a new curriculum this academic year, but Välijärvi suggests even more radical changes are needed.
Välijärvi suggests the answer might lie in a more flexible approach from educators. He says that school is in a unique position to influence life-changing choices and decisions on further education or training, and therefore there might be a need for more individual teaching.
He suggests that classes might not be based on age groups, and that the goal might be to achieve a certain minimum level of attainment during basic schooling instead. He also suggests there could be more choice in the curriculum, and that classes could be tailored towards each pupil’s own future plans.
These are revolutionary ideas in a school system established in the 1970s by idealistic social democrats and education ministry officials.
Common understanding needed
"Society has changed, demands for skills have grown," points out Välijärvi. "Nowadays schools’ equality could become more about equality of skills and abilities, not that the curriculum is the same for everyone."
He is calling for a debate on the future of basic education in Finland, including decision-making politicians and officials and teachers. He suggests that a fundamental shift in thinking is required.
"We should find a common understanding, which we found fifty years ago when the current system was founded," suggests Välijärvi, who adds that there’s a risk attached to current savings in vocational education budgets.
"It looks like they are shifting more and more of that outside of schools," said Välijärvi. "That’s poison to those youngsters who are unable to take independent responsibility for their learning."