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”.