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Can Finnish education offer an alternative to high-stakes testing, narrowing curricula and teacher shortages?

What is good leadership?

Educational leadership from politicians to principals and teachers have an impact on the quality of education. School improvement involves teamwork and leadership from top down as well as from the bottom up. Leaders need to have empathy, perspective and the ability to see the underlying factors influencing education. The success of students is not only teachers’ responsibility, but the whole system needs to support and promote quality education.

Effective leadership empowers and involves all stakeholders to work towards shared vision and goals. A leader is more than a manager. Good leaders make teachers feel as valued professionals and team members. Great leader motivates teachers to commit to their chosen career and continuously develop their profession. Leaders need to have empathy, perspective and the ability to see the underlying factors influencing education.

Teachers and accountability

Often teachers are blamed for the problems in education, when the situation should be looked at from a wider perspective. Low salaries, high stakes testing and increasing workload are all affecting education negatively. Teachers impact the future of individuals and whole nations. But are teachers supported to do their job? Why would anyone want to become a teacher and choose to make it their career for a life-time? Are teachers’ work valued and compensated accordingly? What if educational leadership and system are not promoting good teaching? Are teacher shortages and inequalities in education leadership problems? Are leaders, educational policies and systems failing teachers and learners?

More children go to school than before, but learning and literacy have not improved as well as they should have done. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2016), there is a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers; 69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030. However, to be able to provide quality education for all, it is not just about the quantity of teachers, but the quality of teaching. Lack of qualified and experienced teachers affect learning outcomes negatively. Policy makers need to understand the challenges in the recruitment of teachers and work towards attracting as well as attaining more qualified candidates into teaching.

Countries with low teacher salaries tend to have more teacher shortages, a higher teacher turnover rate, and more uncertified and novice teachers than those ones that pay their teachers better. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2015) research show that teachers are highly motivated by the intrinsic benefits of teaching – working with children and making a contribution to society – while studies that survey large pools of graduates about their career choices show that the relative salaries of graduate occupations play a role in their choices: had teachers’ salaries been higher, more potential teachers would have considered a career in teaching.

Also a system that values standardisation over progress and holistic education is damaging to learning. Standardized tests based on narrow performance measures can encourage to ‘play the system,’ negatively impacting education. According to Unesco (2017) accountability is about interpreting evidence, identifying problems and working out how to solve them to be able to achieve equitable, quality education for all. It is vital to collect data on learning outcomes to shed light on factors that drive inequality in education. But drawing precise conclusions requires time, resources and skills that few countries have, and drawing the wrong conclusions can be all too easy. All countries should produce national education monitoring reports explaining their progress against their commitments – currently only about half do so and most of them not regularly. 

Assessment and big data can provide valuable insight on learning outcomes, but there are also negative side-effects of high-stakes testing. Is the data being analyzed and used to improve teaching and learning or are more tests introduced with the attempt to improve test results? Leaders might be relying too much on big data and mainly aiming to gain good results in tests. Thus, education becomes more about preparing children and teaching towards tests. Schools might only concentrate on the academic subjects, which will be measured, at the expense of non academic subjects. Also, if only test results matter, it can lead to investing more on children, who score well in tests. In this case children, who struggle with learning, might not receive as much teacher’s help and assistance as needed. How can leaders avoid schools falling into mainly teaching for the tests? If we can not abolish testing completely, how can it be changed to meet the needs of effective and equitable education rather than damaging it?

Finnish education – Excellence and Equity

Education in Finland is different to many countries, which have standardized tests, long hours at school, plenty of homework and private tutoring. Finnish education is not just about academic subjects and test results, but 21st century competences and equal opportunities for all children. Schools’ purpose is not just to create future workforce, but to create the foundation for lifelong learning, which is important for any individual to be able to build and maintain a good life. Childhood, play and playful learning are highly valued. Children should not have to grow up quickly and become good at taking tests and memorizing facts. It is more important that they learn how to learn, experiment and become motivated life-long learners.

There are no standardized testing (apart from A-levels in high-school) or school inspectors. External inspection of teaching and testing of students’ learning have been transferred from national authorities to be central aspects of the teaching profession and school leadership. Despite the lack of testing, Finnish students score well in international tests such as Timms, Pirls and PISA. However, the equity in education is valued more than being on top in PISA rankings (OECD, 2015). The differences between schools are very small and also, the differences between the weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the PISA results.

Finland’s education has not always been such a success, but quite the opposite. Around 50 years ago, Finnish politicians made changes in the education to fight poverty and increase equality in the society. Initial teacher training was given a lot of attention and teachers in Finland have Master’s degrees in education. Funding as well as resources were organized to meet the needs of students, schools and municipalities, thus enhancing equal opportunities for all. Long-term investments have paid dividends by giving Finland a high innovation index and allowing a small nation to compete globally. Recently World Economic Forum (2017) ranked Finland as one of the most innovative countries, per capita, in the world.

Good education is not just about money. A holistic approach to education and a system, which supports teachers in their work are essential in enhancing learning. Finland has put together a well respected education system by focusing on effective teaching and learning. The successful system is also one of the most cost effective systems in the world (OECD, 2017). Around 5% of Finland’s gross domestic product (GDP) is spent on education, which is lower than in Norway, Sweden, South Korea, Brazil, and Colombia. This is a bit over $10,000 per student, which is about average for an OECD country.

Teacher salaries are OECD (2017) average in Finland and yet, teaching is still seen as an attractive career choice amongst young Finnish people and teachers most often commit to their profession for a lifetime. Teachers and principals are trusted professionals with a great deal of autonomy deciding how to support learning best in their schools. Teaching targets are set by the national curriculum, but within this framework teaching is highly independent. The broad curriculum allows them to have freedom to implement it in the most suitable way to meet the needs of their local community, school and learners.

The national curriculum is centered on teaching students competences and pays attention to on “how to learn” rather than just “what to learn” (content). Collaboration, critical thinking, life skills and entrepreneurship are considered as essential 21st century skills to be learned at school. Balanced curriculum includes arts, music, physical education, home economics, textile and woodwork, manual skills and other non-academic areas as well as traditional school subjects. Also recess as well as free and healthy school meals have important role in equitable education system. The aim of education is to support the holistic growth and development of children.

Educational leadership and quality education

Great leaders value, respect and invest in teachers. Leadership is based on shared responsibilities and mutual trust rather than authority and control. Education system, including funding and more so, how it is organized and where the money is invested in (accountability measures or teachers), should support teaching and learning to gain good results. It takes an effective system, that empowers teachers to stay in education and continuously develop their profession.

Many teachers choose to walk away from teaching within first years into the profession, but to become a great teacher takes years of practice. To be able to attract and retain more talented, well educated and ambitious young people to become teachers, teaching should be made as a rewarding career choice. Education policies and adequate funding should support teachers to do their demanding and important work in the most effective way. Teachers good working conditions, positive societal status as well as competitive salary help them to commit to their chosen profession for long-term.

Excellence and equity in education takes time, resources and efforts from all stakeholders. The value of teachers and investing in their continuous development to improve education can not be emphasized enough. Also social policies have a big impact on education. Teachers should not be left on their own to fix the effects of poverty on individual and societal level. It is not enough to just have well trained teachers, but the whole system needs to support teachers so that they choose to commit to teaching and improving education long-term. Perhaps the next innovation in education should be focusing and investing in teachers, thus providing equal educational opportunities for all children rather than bringing more control, high-stakes tests and other accountability measures?







Alex Gray, World Economic Forum, 2017.

Global education monitoring report: Accountability in education, Unesco, 2017.

PISA 2015 key findings for Finland, OECD, 2015.

Public spending on education, OECD, 2017.

Teachers, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2016.

Teachers Matter: Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers, OECD report, 2015.

Teachers’ salaries, OECD, 2017.

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