Newsweek, PISA and Finnish schools

Newsweek ranks Finland as the best country in the world based on assessment of education, health, quality of life, economic dynamism and political environment, and this is all the rage in Finnish news. There's a lot of hot air around.

I'm a bit surprised by the outcome, considering that Finland's score in health isn't so great - if not abysmal, either. Finland is only 17th among the group of 100 countries. Still, in total score, Finland beats Switzerland, although the Swiss outperform in 3 out of 5 categories, and in health by a large margin (elsewhere, differences are minor).

The Newsweek study seems to put an awful lot of weight on education here. Anyway, good result for Finland. The PISA result, which is such a dominant factor, in turn of course results from the priorities set in determining PISA results: it's not important that you have some good students and the system make the jewels shine; it's important that the weakest students get some useful education.

There's no piece of news without a good conspiracy story: some say that the sudden urge to get Finland on top of a comparison like this is actually because the international capitalists need to find an American boss to replace Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo in Nokia leadership, and something has to be done so that his family won't scare off when hearing about an idea of moving to Finland.


So, the good result seems to come mostly from the schools. This reminds me of the story that BBC made in the spring: Why do Finland's schools get the best results?

As the BBC text mentions, the good thing about Finnish schools today (*) is that teachers really are quite well trained. They are also genuinely interested in helping the kids to learn (mind you, they're not doing it for big money). And the pre-school/kindergarten system isn't too bad, either, although actual school starts later for Finnish kids than e.g. in Britain. What amazes me with the British public discourse is that people dismiss qualification requirements for childcare professionals with sentences like "we don't need university degrees for people who change nappies". That's nonsense. The job and mission of a kindergarten teacher is far more than just changing nappies or pushing food to the mouths. It's much more about encouraging the children to learn. I suspect that the attitudes to school teachers may be similar.

The BBC story manages to put in a major inaccuracy, though. It says: Primary and secondary schooling is combined, so the pupils don't have to change schools at age 13. They avoid a potentially disruptive transition from one school to another. This is generally untrue. Most kids in Finland actually do have to change school at the time when they move to 7th grade at the age of around 13. There are a few "unified" schools that have all the grades 1-9 under the same roof, but they are a rare exception. And even there, the kids move from a one-teacher-for-class system to having a different teacher for each subject. In grades 1-6, only the foreign languages and sports (and sometimes music and art) lessons are by designated teachers for these subjects. After grade 7, this changes completely. Thus, what the BBC story implies here is not really true.

Finally, what of course matters for Finnish schools, and for the integrity of the Finnish society in general, is that the immigration has been on such levels that newcomers have mostly been able to adapt, and no parallel societies have been created in the style of many European cities (examples can be taken from Bradford, Paris, Malmö or others, where you have places where a fireman cannot go to put out a fire without having a police escort, and a police escort cannot go alone with just a policeman or two, you need a plan and reserves and riot equipment and stuff.)


(*) Today the situation of teachers' training is good, but it wasn't so when I was in elementary school in 1970's. Our teacher was an electrician by profession, and his major academic achievement was the rank of a captain in artillery during WWII. And I can tell you that he had a good idea of how to order us to a line and perform close order drill things like Right, FACE! and Close ranks, MARCH! ("Tahdissa, MARS!"). But teach things, except the correct V angle of your feet when standing in attention? Nope. That was left to myself.

Thankfully, today's teachers seem to be far more competent, trained and sensible, as I've witnessed when dealing with my own children's teachers.

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