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The truth about Finland’s education miracle

15 June 2013

1:10 PM

15 June 2013

1:10 PM

Does Finland have the best schools system in the world? There are many who think so, pointing to its place atop the PISA league tables and explaining this success by the supposed lack of Swedish-style competition. So why is Britain copying Sweden, runs the argument, with these private ‘free schools’ when it would do better to look at the less competitive Finnish model?

Finland has become a pin-up for the anti-school choice movement, which strikes me as odd. I’m a Swede, working in London for the Centre for Market Reform of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and I’ve recently written a book about school choice. For what it’s worth, here’s my take on Finland.

First, while Finland scores well on PISA, this particular league table is designed to test everyday rather than curriculum-based knowledge. This means that it lacks key concepts of importance for further studies in mathematically intensive subjects, such as engineering, computer science, and economics. This is an obvious defect: such subjects are likely to be crucial for developed countries’ future economic well-being.


The Finnish fan club rarely talks about its mathematics performance in TIMSS, an international survey focusing more on curriculum-based knowledge – which plummeted over the last decade. Finnish eighth-graders today perform slightly lower than seventh-graders did in 1999, lagging the top-scoring nations by a considerable margin. Not so miraculous after all. It’s perhaps not surprising that over 200 Finnish academics in 2005 warned about complacency as a result of the PISA success. Others questioned whether it represents a victory at all since important knowledge had been sacrificed along the way.

So Finland might not be so great after all, partly because its centralised curriculum has ignored certain concepts that are not tested in PISA. But where the country goes right is in the degree of choice and competition already at work in the system. While it’s true that Finland doesn’t have many free schools overall, its state system has still been competitive. In Helsinki, 37% of compulsory-age school pupils attend free schools. Most Finnish councils also have at least one Swedish-language school, to which all pupils have access. The choice is there.

Furthermore, in Finnish sixth form, which is not compulsory, choice is extensive. One in eight pupils attend free schools; in Helsinki, it’s one in three. Crucially, admission to all schools is determined by, firstly, pupils’ choices and, secondly, their grades in compulsory school – without any concern for where pupils live. This makes all sixth form schools in Finland more similar to grammar schools than comprehensive schools. Research suggests that this system improves achievement in lower grades, because pupils work harder to gain admission to top schools and programmes. In other words, the extremely competitive system that exists in sixth form also increases achievement in compulsory education.

So there you have it: Finland does school competition, which partly explains its success in PISA. Studies show unequivocally that school choice lifts countries on both PISA and TIMSS league tables. It increases the fairness of outcomes. It decreases costs. The corollary is clear: Finland would do even better if it were to instil more choice in its education system – in sharp contrast to choice critics’ arguments.

While Finland’s centralised approach to the curriculum helps its PISA ratings, but not necessarily its performance on other metrics, this success is still in no small part due to school choice and competition. The lesson for Britain is simple: choice works. The more we have, the better.

Gabriel H. Sahlgren is Director of Research at The Centre for Market Reform of Education, based at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and author of the book “Incentivising excellence: school choice and education quality”.

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  • Uba Babs

    I think the standard of education of an area will be made known through their turned out materials,that is the the kind of students they produce for the entire public,

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  • Uba Babs

    I think the focus of purpose in the idea and concentration on basics are part of the success story which brought them to an enviable status.(

  • Raf Feys

    University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347 Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen

    Signs of declining results 15 y

    The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably.The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average.

    ‘Since 1996, educational effectiveness has been understood in Finland to include not only subject specific knowledge and skills but also the more general competences which are not the exclusive domain of any single subject but develop through good teaching along a student’s educational career. Many of these, including the object of the present assessment, learning to learn, have been named in the education policy documents of the European Union as key competences which each member state should provide their citizens as part of general education (EU 2006).

    In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.

    The results of the Vantaa study could be compared against the results of a similar assessment implemented in 2004. As the decline in students’ cognitive competence and in their learning related attitudes was especially strong in the two Vantaa studies, with only 6 years apart, a decision was made to direct the national assessment of spring 2012 to the same schools which had participated in a respective study in 2001.

    Girls performed better

    The goal of the assessment was to find out whether the decline in results, observed in the Helsinki region, were the same for the whole country. The assessment also offered a possibility to look at the readiness of schools to implement a computer-based assessment, and how this has changed during the 11 years between the two assessments. After all, the 2001 assessment was the first in Finland where large scale student assessment data was collected in schools using the Internet.
    The main focus of the assessment was on students’ competence and their learning-related attitudes at the end of the comprehensive school education, but the assessment also relates to educational equity: to regional, between-school, and between- class differences and to the relation of students’ gender and home background to their competence and attitudes.
    The assessment reached about 7800 ninth grade students in 82 schools in 65 municipalities. Of the students, 49% were girls and 51% boys. The share of students in Swedish speaking schools was 3.4%. As in 2001, the assessment was implemented in about half of the schools using a printed test booklet and in the other half via the Internet. The results of the 2001 and 2012 assessments were uniformed through IRT modelling to secure the comparability of the results. Hence, the results can be interpreted to represent the full Finnish ninth grade population.

    Girls performed better than boys in all three fields of competence measured in the assessment: reasoning, mathematical thinking, and reading comprehension. The difference was especially noticeable in reading comprehension even if in this task girls’ attainment had declined more than boys’ attainment. Differences between the AVI-districts were small.

    Decline of attainment

    The impact of students’ home-background was, instead, obvious: the higher the education of the parents, the better the student performed in the assessment tasks. There was no difference in the impact of mother’s education on boys’ and girls’ attainment. The between-school-differences were very small (explaining under 2% of the variance) while the between-class differences were relatively large (9 % – 20 %). The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001. The mean level of attitudes detrimental to learning has risen but the rise is more modest.

    Girls’ attainment has declined more than boys’ in three of the five tasks. There was no gender difference in the change of students’ attitudes, however. Between-school differences were un-changed but differences between classes and between individual students had grown. The change in attitudes—unlike the change in attainment—was related to students’ home background: The decline in learning-supporting attitudes and the growth in attitudes detrimental to school work were weaker the better educated the mother. Home background was not related to the change in students’ attainment, however. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.
    Deeper cultural change

    The results of the assessment point to a deeper, on-going cultural change which seems to affect the young generation especially hard. Formal education seems to be losing its former power and the accepting of the societal expectations which the school represents seems to be related more strongly than before to students’ home background.

    The school has to compete with students’ self-elected pastime activities, the social media, and the boundless world of information and entertainment open to all through the Internet. The school is to a growing number of young people just one, often critically reviewed, developmental environment among many. The change is not a surprise, however. A similar decline in student attainment has been registered in the other Nordic countries already earlier.
    It is time to concede that the signals of change have been discernible already for a while and to open up a national discussion regarding the state and future of the Finnish comprehensive school that rose to international acclaim due to our students’ success in the PISA studies.’

    Source: University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347 Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen

  • Paul Hampson

    “Crucially, admission to all schools is determined by, firstly, pupils’ choices and, secondly, their grades in compulsory school – without any concern for where pupils live. This makes all sixth form schools in Finland more similar to grammar schools” except that grammar shcools take this decision before the child has had a chance to actually earn it through work and also the grammar shcool system is solely based on examination skills not including course work marks.
    Also Finland has not fee paying schools so at 16 there is a much leveller playing field.

  • Jarno

    After reading this, I couldn’t help but to answer though I doubt the original author even reads these comments.
    (TIMSS scores referred on this post can all be found from

    1) How did Sweden score in TIMSS tests?
    Comparing TIMSS results for 4th & 8th graders between Finns and Swedes 2011:
    Finns outrank Swedes in all the categories. It’s true that Finns have gone down in points compared to -99 mathematics test by 6 points.Still outranking Sweden.

    Finland being in top 10 in all categories and being outranked mostly by Asian countries.(Russia and Israel too in 8th grade Math tests). Sweden not reaching top 10 in any categories.

    2) Articles you provided for Finnish academics are from 2005. They are valid and show a concern for the science education in Finland. But the articles are still a bit old and lot can happen in 8 years. If you look at 2011 TIMSS scores there is a base for concern though. In Mathematics Finns have gone down by 6 points but on the other side gone up in Science by 17points. Comparison on 8th graders between -99 and -11.

    Looking at the TIMSS scores don’t feel that there is any need for shame, on the contrary!

    I haven’t seen test results on how Finns score in higher education, in high schools and universities. So I will not comment on that. But I have to agree that focusing on a particular subjects early on helps in later life to excel more in those subjects.
    But the question is: If you focus purely on one subject and later on discover you do not want to do only that..what then? Is academic achievement the only goal for schools?

    About me:
    I’m a Finn and do not work in any teaching position. Just someone who came across this article. And felt like it was an attempt to undermine my dear nation and our achievements. We are not perfect but who is?

    For the author: Instead of trying to undermine others achievements why not trying to better your own?
    And the question still stands, why look to Sweden instead of Finland if even both PISA and TIMSS both show Finland outranking Sweden. Also, “revealing the truth about Finnish education miracle” is hardly a fitting title for this article. Did you reveal any truths? Did you uncover something new?
    How come you didn’t write about Swedish(or other countries) rankings in either PISA or TIMSS tests or tests for higher educational levels?

    I could go on, but I think I made my point.

    With best regards,

  • Robert Taggart

    Edjukayshun – never did like it – less still Akadeemeeya !

  • Timo Harakka-

    I have no idea where Mr Sahlgren gets his numbers.Certainly 37 % of compulsory-age students do NOT attend “free schools” (as in private, not run by local councils) in Helsinki; neither do one in eight who stay at “sixth form” (upper secondary school) or one in three in Helsinki.
    There are 2700 comprehensive schools and 380 upper secondary schools in Finland; only 85 are private. Of 640 000 pupils and students in Finland, only some 20 000 (or three per cent) study at private schools.
    The most laughable “truth” concerns Swedish-speaking schools. Certainly NOT do “most Finnish councils” have “at least one Swedish-language school”; the opposite is true. There are 320 councils in Finland, and at least 250 of them do not have one Swedish-language compulsory school.
    I am not defending the Finnish system. But in order to state “the truth” about Finnish education, you need to get your facts right.

    • Annie Blakeslee

      Hi Timo, I’d be curious to know where you got your statistics from. I’m trying to write a paper on private education in Finland, and I’m having trouble finding any data. If you know of a source in English, would you be willing to share? Thanks!

  • Tuukka Inkinen

    Ah! The smallest violin in the world played by a swede 😉

  • swatnan

    So, if the Finns have such a brilliant education system, how is it that they aren’t ruling the World. Always take these research findings with a pinch of salt. What is ok for the Finns is not necessarily ok for the British.

  • thanksdellingpole

    It’s so nice to see an all Caucasian school, too bad one has to go private to get that nower days.

  • Bob339

    The basic problem is bad parenting. in Finland some semblance of parenting skill remains. In Britain – where 40% of children have no father – such skills have fallen off.

    Poor teaching by lefties comes second. Odd how their orthodoxy always results in an easier life for them but poorer results from students. ( Though this last is concealed behind simplified dumbed down exams and loony marking systems).

    Next comes the the ridiculous racial mix in the average classroom with Asian kids who have poor English dragging things even further down.

    We have to take things in hand on all fronts or…Good Night Marie.

    • Eddie

      Yes. I once asked a very experienced teacher what ONE Thing he would change (if he had a magic wand) to improve schools. His reply: ‘to make sure that as many children as possible grow up in stable two-parent families.’
      Many kids have no fathers or men at all at home; then they go to school where a quarter of primary schools have no male teachers at all; then to secondary schools where 70% of teachers are female (hardly any male English teachers these days). Add to that a feminised. discussion-based, touchy-feely curriculum and methodology, and it’s no wonder many boys fail.
      Quality of teaching is a bit of a red herring actually. Teacher just need to be competent and teach the curriculum; it only has a 10% effect according to research. Other things are far more important.

  • lewism

    2011 TIMSS Maths table;
    Finland 8th with 545pts (3rd in Europe)
    England 9th with 542 pts
    Sweden 26th with 504 pts blitzing past Kazakhstan in 27th place.
    As a British father of two living in Finland I do think that the ‘finnish model’ is often a little overhyped and there are many things that need to be improved. But shouldn’t we have independant research to lead us to the best education solutions rather than listen to salesmen?

    • Eddie

      Yes, but this is what educationalists are like: they latch on to some dumb theory in their constant search for the cure to the diseases they themselves have been spreading for decades.
      Fashionable theories with no basis in fact or evidence include ‘assessment for learning’ and VAK learning styles; right/left brain teaching; and the nonsense theory of multiple intelligences – all of which come from the USA, home of low school standards and overpaid self-righteous politically correct educationalists like Howard Gardner.

  • hjp23

    Ms Sahlgren makes clear her point of view, because she wrote a book on it, and now needs to sell it. Her article does nothing more than repeat her already biased opinion. She offers nothing new, nothing particularly enlightening. She points out the same select “findings” she wrote about, and tries to pass them off as something new. Boring. And distasteful.

    • Blorgh

      So we’re all expected to have read her book? I, for one, appreciate the executive summary. 😉

  • Dirby

    You lost me at “I’m a Swede”.

  • Daniel Maris

    Would you expect someone who directs research at The Centre for Market Reform of Education to conclude otherwise? See I passed that test – spot the bias.

  • David B

    I cannot help but like the irony of the left, who hate league tables, using league tables to support their point!

    • Daniel Maris

      It’s not irony is it? – they are saying if you think league tables are important, then look at this one with Finland at the top.

      • David B

        But surely all league tables are valid. Therefore why call for them to be abolished

        • Daniel Maris

          Er – no. All league tables are not “valid”. The argument of the Left against league tables is (a) they don’t measure added value and (b) they don’t address the needs of individual children. For instance, it might be in the interests of an individual child that they study English and achieve a D but it might not be in the interests of the school (in terms of league tables) that the child do that.

          League tables in sport make sense but league tables in an education system where you are trying to achieve best outcomes for maybe 12 million children are not obviously the best way forward.

          • David B

            But you must have an independent, consistent method to assess results. League tables may have problem but they are better than nothing

            • Eddie

              Indeed. In Wales they scrapped league tables (the Assembly runs health and education). Result? Wales slipped even further behind England in standard – something very shocking as the Welsh school system used to be so very good (every school and exam board in England used to be run by the Welsh!).
              But then, the Welsh Assembly does not believe in choice for individuals – which is why the Welsh (unlike the English) have no right to see which hospital departments and surgeons are the best and worst.
              That’s socialism, folks.

              • David B

                We have the same problem in Northern Ireland with an Education minister who wants to remove parental choice and punishes good schools by restricting admissions

                The principle appears to be that every child should get an equally poor education and parents are to be excluded form the system as much as possible.

                Socialism at its finest indeed! They know best and make sure you know it.

                • Eddie

                  Yes, I wish the health and education in Wales were controlled by England.
                  And now they want to give the jobsworth jumblies in the Welsh Assmebly tax-raising powers! (OMG!)
                  They’ve already utterly trashed business here by not replacing the development agency covering Wales with a specific Welsh one after devolution: end result, business went elsewhere. But the bureaucrats just don’t care – if the economy sinks, they’ll still have their careers and expense accounts; it really does not affect them.
                  Perhaps that’s why the Welsh Assembly has all the business skills of a puddle and all the entrepreneurial drive of a gate post?
                  They actually actively harm business here with their hot air and deliberation – their constant EU-style drive to impose costs onto business and to waffle on endless about equality, diversity, women’s issue, Welsh language issues, whilst pushing through policies which close businesses and lose everyone their jobs (I suppose that’s equality of a sort, when everyone is equally unemployed, irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, gormlessness level etc).
                  Very depressing – especially as Wales used to lead the UK in education and schools (look at the names of many leading academics and head teachers, and previous heads of exam boards).
                  The excellent grammar school system here was once a way to improve oneself with a first class education – look at Richard Burton, for one famous beneficiary of that system. We were the envy of England, which did not enable the poorest to go to do so well or got to university in such numbers (Welsh scholarship kids were off to university in the 40s; England had to wait until the 60s to get such a percentage)
                  All gone now. So very sad.

                • David B

                  I regret to say, but we appear to have politicians who are scared of intelligence and appear to consider it to be something to be discouraged. A bit like the school bully really.

                • Eddie

                  Yes, but the big issue is that politicians need votes, so we have a system of bribery in place: parents want little johnny/jade/sanjay to get A stars in everything, to pass everything, to never fail – and that is the system we have.
                  In 1984 when I did O levels, which were done by the brainiest 30% only, at least a quarter of entrants failed – it was built into the ‘marking down’ normalised system; now we have a criteria based system, which means if a child meets the criteria, they pass. So 98.7% pass A levels (from a much weaker cohort than sat them 30 years ago – because most youngsters do them now; only 20% did in the 80s) and a situation where so many kids get 10 GCSE A star grades – and you can even get an A in English without ever having read a book all the way through, and an A in French, Spanish etc by having a pidgin level of knowledge (which reminds me of the first year of my French classes at school).
                  But people want dumbing down because it makes their precious wickle thickie kiddies seem intelligent, and politicians and teachers have just done parents’ bidding here.
                  But, I know, how about a system where the academic can do academic qualifications and the non-academic can do basic academics qualifications and vocational training. We could call these qualifications O levels and CSEs maybe. That was the system scraped in 1988 by a Conservative government which disgracefully closed more grammar schools than the previous Labour one.

  • David Webb

    No multiculturalism in Finland!

    • Eddie

      No, there isn’t; they must be very un-enriched then…
      Can we export it, I wonder, to help our balance of trade figures?

  • Pekka Nykänen

    To Gabriel:

    Finnish proverb: “Happamia, sanoi kettu pihlajanmarjoista”

    In English: “Rowans are sour, told the Fox”

  • aspblom

    Why did this article SOUND like it was written by a Swede?

    • Eddie

      Bet-TUR NIP it in the bud then eh?

  • CharlietheChump

    Time to privatise all UK schools, let them make a profit, budget follows the pupil, drop schools contracted to Education Dept if they fail.
    End the socialist stranglehold in education.
    Next, Universities.

    • Andy

      We should privatise schools and universities. Destroy the power of the teaching unions and you raise standards in education.

    • technoreaper

      This will end in massive disaster. Good luck with that.

  • JabbaTheCat

    A safe rule of thumb would be, if the teaching unions don’t like it, it’s probably good for the children…

  • Eddie

    No and no. Fugg Finland! I am sick and tired of comprehensive-school-loving, anti-selection, pc leftie educationalists worshipping the Finnish school system – because it is a bland, mediocre system which makes sure a great many pupils and bland, middling, uninspired, lacking imagination and individuality, and all more or less as equally dull as each other. It’s a veritable socialist’s dream though.
    Fact is, selection is best in schooling – with separate schools or within schools. Mixed ability teaching is silly, illogical and does not work. We need to be pragmatic here.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Use the language manipulation of the enemy – streaming not selection. Streaming to personalise the development of all pupils in ways best suited to their needs, etc. The ghastly Miller contradicted herself several times over this on This Week but was not picked up on it. She asserted the need for education to be “tailored” to individual needs whilst at the same time toot-toot-tooting on the equality trumpet that demonises “selection” and crams everyone into the same mediocre pigeon hole and rigged results. Horrible woman and they never once mentioned her Labour party affiliations during her attack on Gove.

      • Eddie

        Ah yes, you are right! Streaming is selection. Just within a school rather than between schools.
        Worth pointing out that all comprehensive schools are, in fact, surreptitiously selective too – the selection is by post code which is thus enabling the better off to access the better comps. So poor bright kids end up at the sink comp, when under the old grammar school system, they could have got into to the best school in the area – those poor kids (many of them black) are denied a top education – which is perhaps why black MPs support Gove.
        As a holder of a PGCE, and a qualified teacher, I can tell you that the buzz word of now is ‘differentiation’ – which is like personalisation. Every single lesson plan has a box where you have to right what you the teacher have done to address differentiation – catering for the differing needs of all pupils (usually focusing on ethnic on learning difficulties issues in a pc way).
        They say that ‘differentiation’ means to cater to the different learning styles of every single child (Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic: a nonsensical simplistic VAK theory), all of whom are classed as intelligent (and absurdly 5% of kids at every school are classed as ‘gifted and talented’ – that’s ‘best practice’ at every UK school).
        The much-loved nonsense theory of multiple intelligences is promoted as fact, despite having no evidence to back it up: being brainy is only one sort of intelligence, you see; if your child runs fast, they are also intelligent (kinaesthetic intelligence), and if they can bang a bongo they have musical intelligence etc.
        Ergo, officially, according to those wunnerful educationalist bod, there is not a single thick child in the UK. Nope – they are all intelligent! Every one. No thickies here, Mrs Queer!
        All our kiddies are intelligent! And 20% wear their special needs badges with pride too (well, gets yer help in exams, innit…)
        My advice: never ever listen to a word any educationalist ever says. They are all buullshiiters and unfit for purpose, perhaps could be used in sports days across the land for javelin target practice perhaps…

        • ButcombeMan

          plan has a box where you have to right what you the teacher have done to address differentiation


          • Eddie

            It’s called high-speed typing and making a typo on a Sunday afternoon, sonny.
            My advice: pay close attention to the stuff what I wrote, innit, in order to learn what is wrong with the modern British school system? Then you’ll see what’s right about what I write, my little frantic pedantic Butcum babe!

    • Jarno

      True, we should find a better way to recognize smart students who could excel in their own field and give them a chance to rise up.

    • technoreaper

      I agree.