Education in Finland – what’s the secret?

Over the years, Finland has become a sort of educational Nirvana, at least in non-Asian countries, and its reputation has been built largely on its outstanding performance in PISA.

In her recent book, Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan describes her year-long, ‘fact-finding’ trip to the highest-performing PISA countries. In truth the book is a record of one teacher’s impressions of various education systems based on her conversations with a small number of teachers, so its ‘findings’ have to be treated with caution.

Anyway, the author’s  first stop was Finland and here is what she has to say about that country’s educational system:

The late start

Children start formal schooling in the year they turn seven. However, in the previous year they will have attended a kindergarten and before that many will have attended a state-subsidised pre-school.

Finnish pre-schools and kindergartens have the following characteristics: (i) high staff-child ratio; (ii) highly qualified staff (bachelor’s degree); (iii) a curriculum with significant academic content, albeit taught largely through play.

So, it is not quite true to say that Finnish children start school late. Even if it was true, international evidence suggests that the precise time at which a child starts school has little or no impact on their academic achievement by the time they are about 15. There are some social and emotional benefits, however, of a late start.

Comprehensive education

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Finland moved to a comprehensive education system. While private schools still exist, they are non-fee paying and are usually associated with particular religious groups. Finnish schools have traditionally been places where expectations of all students are high. When students struggle, extra supports are provided, including the design of a personalized catch-up plan agreed with the student and his/her parents. This all helps to create a very equitable system but there is some concern that the highest-performing students are not being challenged as much as they perhaps could be.


All schools have a multidisciplinary wellbeing team comprised of a psychologist, a counsellor and a social worker. This team meets regularly with teachers to discuss particular class groups. Emphasis is placed on those students who, in the view of the teacher, need some sort of intervention. In other words, the emotional wellbeing of the child is looked after by trained experts, not teachers.


Teaching, and education generally, is highly-valued in Finland (although not as highly as the hype often suggests) and entry to teacher-training courses is highly competitive. There are no Ofsted-like school inspections and no teacher evaluations. However, during the transition to the comprehensive system in the early 1970s, there was a highly centralised system of testing and evaluation until the new approach was bedded-in.


Teaching in Finland has traditionally been conventional in character and most lessons are based on the classic review-teach-practice formula. There is a large reliance on textbooks which means that although schools have considerable autonomy, there is actually very little school-to-school variation in what is taught.

Going to College

The comprehensive system continues up to the age of 15/16 at which point the pupils will go to either a vocational high school or an academic high school. Admission to universities or universities of applied sciences is done on the basis of high school GPA, a school-leaving exam (the Abitur) and a university entrance exam.

Current Trends

Finland’s average PISA score peaked in 2006 (553) but has declined consistently since then. In 2015 its average score was 523. Whether this decline is due to austerity, demographic changes (e.g. immigration), structural changes (e.g. amalgamation of small schools), changes in teachers’ commitment (e.g. reduction in take-up of CPD opportunities) or pedagogical drift is not clear at present.

Prediction (mine)

Academic standards in Finland will continue to decline, and probably at an increasing rate, as it drifts towards therapeutic and skills-based education.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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