Four hours a day in class - and success

Finnish children start school when they are seven, only spend four hours a day in class and don’t get homework until they are teenagers, yet outstrip New Zealand in international test results.

What’s more, these high results don’t come from just a handful of elite schools, they come from all schools regardless of socioeconomic factors.

University of New South Wales professor of education policy, and Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, is a worldwide authority on education reform currently visiting New Zealand as a guest of the University of Auckland.

He spoke to Newsroom about the lessons Finland learned reforming its education system and the successful and unsuccessful education reforms he has seen during his career.

“If the government is expecting change and results too fast, it may be difficult and harmful for the schools.”

Reform in Finland was driven decades ago by a realisation without natural resources such as oil and gas, the wealth of the country would be dependent on something else, Sahlberg said.

“People realised that educating everybody, all the children well, is the best bet to do what we decided to do. That’s what shaped the idea that we need to not only have good education for some, but we need to have a high-quality education and equal opportunity for everybody.”

“You cannot really turn-around or transform a system in a short period, like three years."

Equity is at the centre of the Finnish education system, with focus on the well-being of students to achieve that equity.

“In our practical conversations we say that the Prime Minister’s children should be equally comfortable to go to school where the tram or taxi drivers children would go.”

For Finland educational change happened slowly. The reform process started after World War II, but implementation kicked in during the 1970s. The results which surprised the world came in 2001. Finland topped the leader board in reading, was third in scientific literacy and fourth in mathematics in the PISA rankings, a system which test students in 72 countries.

Here, reform is underway with far shorter timeframes.

National standards testing has been abolished and there are 11 workstreams in the government’s three-year education work programme. These wide-ranging projects stretch from reviewing NCEA and a 30 year-old governance model for schools to changing vocational education.

Sahlberg warned against rushing implementation of new policies saying schools and communities need to take time to understand change, and resources need to be in place to avoid the risk of having “floating intentions” instead of successful reform.

“I often say to rush education reform is to ruin it.

“You cannot really turn-around or transform a system in a short period, like three years. Three years is simply too short to do any significant thing, but you don’t need 30 years like Finland has because we know now what a successful education system looks like.”

Factors Sahlberg attributes to the success of Finnish system include requiring teachers to hold a master’s degree in education, a system similar to our decile system where schools are funded based on needs, no national assessments until students are in their late teens, embedded health services, comprehensive special education services and a free, nutritious lunch.

It’s often pointed out the successful Finnish education system is based in a society which is less multicultural than other countries, with less inequality.

Sahlberg questions the view that an education system like Finland’s may not translate to countries with multi-cultural populations, or a country with a higher level of inequity.

“What are you thinking of which you couldn’t do because of these differences? If it’s economic disparities, then in that case you should do exactly what Finland has done in the 1960s when we had similar disparities in society.”

"I think lack of equity or inequity is one of the biggest issues in your school system."

A multicultural country which has topped the PISA ranking is Singapore, where the Malay population represents a similar proportion of the total to Māori in New Zealand.

Singapore's approach to education is entirely different to Finland’s.

Students are tested regularly through primary school and are streamed based on ability. Parents who can afford it send their children for extra tuition outside school hours.

Singapore’s system, however, is not working for Malay students. Their achievement rates lag behind Singaporean Chinese and Indian students in much the same way Māori students fall below national rates in New Zealand.

Sahlberg said he doesn’t recommend New Zealand adopt wholesale the model of either Finland or Singapore.

“I think it’s more important to identify the wrong leads. I think that what I have seen in Australia and New Zealand in the last 20 to 30 years is you often have been following wrong leads like those in England or the United States.”

The wrong leads include excessive accountability, voucher systems and market principles embedded in education.

Rather than focusing on achievement he thinks wellbeing should be the first focus. It’s a concept gaining traction in New Zealand and it emerged as a key concern at recent education summits held in Auckland and Christchurch.

He’s positive about the steps New Zealand is taking to reform our education system. Next time he visits he hopes conversations will be different.

“I would like to hear more people saying we took equity and wellbeing as a main priority in our school.

“I would like to hear those things much more than people saying we were able to increase our maths and reading scores. I think lack of equity or inequity is one of the biggest issues in your school system."

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