No exams, no tuition, no streaming, minimal homework and lots of play. Yet Finland consistently produces top students in mathematics, science and literacy. How does the country do it?
Published on Sep 29, 2013
By Sandra Davie Senior Education Correspondent
Like Singapore, Finland, which has a population of 5.4 million, is an education superstar.
Its students consistently do as well as top-performing Singapore pupils in international maths and science tests.
But a recent study trip by The Sunday Times sponsored by Lien Foundation found that Finnish students take a completely different route to academic excellence.
Before going to Primary 1 at age seven, all that Finnish children in pre-schools seem to do is play.
And once in school, they do not undergo formal assessments or examinations until they are 18, when they sit for a matriculation examination to enter university.
There is also little homework for primary and lower secondary students, and no nationwide standardised testing.
And tuition? That is a concept foreign to most Finnish parents.
Teachers say the equivalent of Singapore's gifted education scheme or Normal or Express streams would be illegal in Finland because its education policy calls for all children to be given the same opportunities.
The only "streaming" allowed occurs at age 16, when students, after being graded by teachers, get to choose whether to take the vocational or academic route.
And yet, the Finns have consistently performed in the top tier since the first Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey was conducted in 2000.
This study compares 15-year- olds in different countries in reading, mathematics and science.
So how does Finland do it without the intense pressure and competition that are so much a part of Singapore's system?
Finnish educators list a combination of factors, from the strong reading culture - Finnish people borrow more books from libraries than anyone else in the world - to highly educated and well-trained teachers.
Many also attribute the success of the Finnish education system to the strong foundation in learning laid in pre-school, where the focus is on cultivating intellectual curiosity and a love of learning in the young.
The emphasis is on learning through collaboration, not competition.
"All children are given equal opportunities. We put equity ahead of producing top students," says Dr Pasi Sahlberg, who wrote the much-talked-about book, Finnish Lessons, which details how the country improved its mediocre academic results and produced top-performing students.
The 53-year-old director-general of CIMO (National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) at the Finnish Ministry of Education explains how Finns aim to have good schools for all students, echoing the Singapore Education Ministry's (MOE) recent slogan that "every school is a good school".
Dr Sahlberg says Finnish parents really do believe that all Finnish schools are equal. That would explain the puzzled looks given by Finnish parents when The Sunday Times asked how they select a school for their children. The answer: They pick the one closest to home.
Dr Sahlberg points out that the Pisa results show that the gap between high and low achievers in Finland is the smallest in the world.
The main aim of its policymakers since the 1980s has been to ensure that every child should be given the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background or income.
In Finland, education is free from pre-school to university level. Government spending on education makes up 6.8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).
All Finnish schools offer free meals, free health care, free psychological counselling and free individualised student guidance.
The country's education system did not start out this way. Back in the 1960s, less than 10 per cent of students continued their education until the age of 18. There was nationwide standardised testing for children at age 11. Children who scored in the top 25 per cent went to private schools that charged high fees.
But starting in the mid-1970s, education reforms were introduced. Private schools were scrapped and all schools became publicly funded. Pre-school teachers attended a three-year degree course, while those heading to teach in primary and secondary schools studied for five years up to master's level.
Streaming of students to put them on either the vocational or academic tracks was pushed to a later stage, at age 16.
Class sizes were kept to an average of 25 students. Teachers were allowed to design their own lessons. Instead of examinations, teachers assessed students using tests they designed themselves. Grades in report cards were based not just on test scores, but also on projects and class participation.
Periodically, the Education Ministry would track a few sample groups of children across a range of schools to make sure the system was working.
There was opposition to the reforms at first, with some groups calling for a return to examinations and streaming.
But the results of the first Pisa studies in 2000 and the second in 2003 changed people's minds. Finnish children were among the top performers in mathematics, science and literacy.
Soon, educators from around the world were flocking to Finland, hoping to learn the secret to its success.
"Once, people used to come to Finland to learn about Nokia. Now, they come here to learn about our school system," says Dr Sahlberg, who receives numerous invitations from around the world to give talks and attend education conferences.
Dr Sahlberg, who has been appointed visiting professor by Harvard University, says: "When the first Pisa study came out, most Finns didn't believe it. But we came out tops again in the second survey. The best thing that Pisa did was that it silenced those who wanted to go back to having private schools and national examinations."
But he is quick to correct any misconceptions among visiting educators that the system, from pre-school to university, is laid-back. He notes that although examinations and streaming do not exist in the lower levels, students have to sit examinations at age 18.
At 16, more than 90 per cent of students choose to further their education through either "general" or "vocational" upper secondary schools.
Vocational students usually head to polytechnics or enter the job market. Those in the academic general stream have to sit a national examination to get a place in university.
Universities also set their own entrance tests to select students for specific courses.
However, there are those who believe the Finnish system is not suitable for all countries, including Singapore.
While Finland's population is similar in size to Singapore's, it is largely homogeneous, with people speaking the same language, Finnish.
Also, Finland has a generous social welfare system where education and health care are free. But Finnish taxes are among the highest in the world at 44 per cent of GDP, reported Reuters. The income tax rate ranges from 6.5 per cent to 31.75 per cent. On top of that, Finns pay municipal tax ranging from 16.25 per cent to 22 per cent.
Dr Sahlberg says Singapore is admired for the way it teaches mathematics and science, and for its recruitment and training of teachers.
But one thing that Singapore should consider doing away with is the Primary School Leaving Examination, he says, echoing the views expressed by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond in a recent interview with The Sunday Times.
"Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to have a high-stakes examination for 12-year-olds," says Dr Sahlberg. "So I wonder why Singaporeans are arguing over scores or bands. Shouldn't the debate be about whether the exams are appropriate for children at such a young age?"
He is aware of the anxiety felt by Singapore educators over the widening gap in school performance between children from disadvantaged homes and those from privileged backgrounds.
Stressing that many elements of the Finnish school system are interwoven with the country's social welfare policies, he says: "As the OECD (Pisa) report stated, the highest-performing education systems are those that are able to combine quality with equity.
"And if there is something that Finland can show others, it is what equity and equal opportunity in education look like. And it is possible to achieve excellence along with equity."
"Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to have a high-stakes examination for 12-year-olds.
So I wonder why Singaporeans are arguing over scores or bands. Shouldn't the debate be about whether the exams are appropriate for children at such a young age?"
Dr Pasi Sahlberg, director-general of the National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at the Finnish Ministry of Education.