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The success of Finnish schools: Lessons from a high-performing system

Jonathan Doherty, Senior Lecturer at Leeds Trinity University

I have recently returned from Tampere University in Finland as part of an Erasmus project called Academic Adventures, and in this blog post I want to share some reflections from that week about one of the highest-performing education systems in the world.

Finland, a country covering 338,455km2 with a population of only 5.5 million and a GDP in 2018 of €234 billion, has one of the most respected and successful educational systems in the world. The Finnish success story in education is historically quite a recent one: until the 1960s the level of educational attainment was low, with one in 10 adult Finns completing more than nine years of basic education. Finland’s international standing was then comparable with Malaysia and Peru, and it lagged behind its other Scandinavian neighbours (Sahlberg, 2010). PISA rankings have seen it top or near-top in science, reading and mathematics each year since 2001 (apart from the slight drop in 2015) (OECD, 2018). That said, according to PISA, Finland still outperforms the UK in maths (13th versus 27th), science (5th versus 15th) and reading (4th versus 22nd).

Is there a magic formula for the Finns’ continued success on the world stage? Clearly there are many contributory factors. There is the Finnish culture. The fact that teaching is a trusted and high-status profession, where master’s-level graduates enter the classroom with strong pedagogical knowledge. Their early childhood system provides an excellent base with an emphasis on social and emotional development, and there is a definite focus on lifelong learning. (At this point readers should feel free to make comparisons with the school system in England, as it once again undergoes a new inspection framework and further curriculum changes.) All these factors are important and evidenced by writers such as Pasi Sahlberg (2010). However, here I will single-out one factor: equality (or, in the Finnish language, han).

Finland has the lowest wage inequality of any EU country. Education is a fundamental right for all its citizens, and this principle is embedded in all phases of the education system. It is a truly inclusive system: everyone has the same opportunities for education, regardless of age, ethnicity, ability or financial situation. Everyone has the right to basic education free of charge. There is a public guarantee for equal opportunities in accordance with ability and special needs (SEN), and the opportunity for personal development (Finnish National Agency for Education, 2018). It provides health and social services to families that include year-long parental leave, subsidised childcare and universal preschool.

Many believe that special education in Finland is a significant factor in explaining its achievement results, as pupils are increasingly integrated into mainstream classrooms. There is a particular focus on meeting the learning needs of SEN pupils (Burg, 2018). The Finnish system does not subscribe to the results versus equity debate. Streaming and early selection were abandoned 30 years ago. There is no place for a competitive system that leaves less-academic pupils behind. The focus in education is on learning, not testing. There are no national tests for pupils in basic education. It is now moving towards a project-based curriculum and more iterative assessment systems that involve pupils negotiating with teachers how to improve on their previous best performance (Hughes, 2019). Teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects on the basis of the objectives in the curriculum. The inspectorate or Finnish equivalent of Ofsted closed its doors in the 1990s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. How refreshing that teachers’ voices are heard and valued.

Education policy in Finland has been developed gradually to allow time and space for teachers and children (NCEE, 2016). It is underpinned by equality. There is little competition among schools; instead there is softer accountability. The country rejects the Global Education Reform Movement (Hargreaves, Earl, Moore, & Manning, 2001) – that is, the globalisation of education that has brought with it standardised testing and increased teacher accountability in the second half of the 2000s, and which is now such a hallmark of so many industrialised countries, including our own. We know that one cannot import a system wholesale and expect it to be successful in another country, but there are definite lessons to be learned about equity and inclusion for our systems in the UK.



Burg, C. (2018). Finnish education in the 21st century: Paradoxes and visions. Inquiry in education, 10(1).

Finnish National Agency for Education. (2018). Education in Finland.

Hargreaves, A., Earl, L., Moore, S., & Manning, S. (2001). Learning to change: Teaching beyond subjects and standards. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Hughes, D. W. (2019). Future proof your school. St. Albans: Critical Publishing.

National Center on Education and the Economy [NCEE]. (2016). Empowered educators: Finland: Constructing teacher quality. Stanford University: The National Center on Education and the Economy.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] (2018). Education at a glance: Education indicators. Finland.

Sahlberg, S. (2010). The secret to Finland’s success: Educating teachers. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Research brief, September 2010.