Following Finland – in Pursuit of Balanced Education

Spain’s parents went on strike this weekend and refused to allow their children to complete their homework.  Their concern was over the excessive and unregulated amounts of work being given to students.  However, this post isn’t about Spain’s education system, but Finland’s.  The country was quickly picked out by the BBC as a country which consistently ranks high on OECD tables.  Despite this, they teach students for fewer hours and rarely issue homework. 

How do they do it and what does their system mean for the teaching profession?

Note first of all that Finland sometimes tops the world rankings but not always.  The annual tendency is for Singapore, South Korea or Japan to sit in first place.  I’ve taught in a Japanese high school and when my day ended, my students headed off to their cram school until late in the evening.  They always looked tired, to the point that we allowed them to fall asleep in lessons.  Alarmingly, Japanese teen suicide rates shoot up when the new school year begins.

Finnish students are unlikely to get the chance to fall asleep.  Their days are shorter than in the United Kingdom and summer holidays much longer.  The culture is one of continuous improvement of the education system which is outside of the whims of any current government.  Looking good so far and what’s to follow is even better.

Teachers in Finland have a high degree of professional autonomy.  School principals, parents and the government trust them to do their job well. 

What does this mean for Finnish teachers and can we link it to our country? 

Firstly, being valued by line managers has a proven positive correlation to professional performance.  If school leaders in our country want to see teachers performing at their highest level, they should praise them first for their hard work and then see results improve. 

Saku Tuominen, a leading educational consultant in Finland describes the British regime of testing, targets and league tables as “the tail wagging the dog.” In Finland, the approach is towards learning and outcomes for individual students, not league tables.   If British students and teachers were given the same freedom to learn, this would mean a massively improved work life balance for both. 

Research shows that productivity decreases hugely after thirty-five to forty hours of work a week.  This is due to stress and fatigue.  Figure also that some of that working time in excess of thirty-five hours will be spent correcting mistakes made due tiredness.  It’s no surprise therefore that working longer hours is practically taboo in many parts of Scandinavia.

In short, education leaders in Britain could do far worse than to look at a massive shift in approach to how we value and treat our young people and our teachers.  If the choice is between a seventy-hour week for teachers and students or a trust based common sense approach with childhood at the heart of it, then how easy is the decision?

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