Scotland must Finnish that myth


Just after the independence referendum was a momentous time to be in that exhausted Chamber of the Scottish Parliament. It marked the first debate not focussed on the constitution for as long as we could remember. And education was finally the centre of attention.

The attainment gap in Scottish state schools is something that the main parties in Scotland care about a lot. Oft-quoted statistics portraying state schools practically next to each other as performing at opposite ends of the attainment spectrum provide the impetus. 

It is true - Scotland's 'educational apartheid’ has been described as a ‘national disgrace’. Now Scotland’s First Minister is behind a dangerously vague and impossible Education Bill (pdf) that proposes to outlaw inequality if it receives cross-party support in Holyrood this year.

So closing this ‘gulf' in performance, to most Scottish politicians, is a worthy goal. And perhaps this remains part of the appeal of the Finnish education system. Its schools are among the most uniform in the world. 

Certainly in 2001, when Finland came to be regarded as an education superpower, its results in the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA) made it the most desirable model in the world. 

Of the 41 nations that took part that year, Finland was impressively topping the tables in science, mathematics and reading and competing with the notoriously well-performing Asian nations. Ever since then we have been making the most myopic movements in education reform in order to emulate their achievements.

Indeed, Scotland’s controversial Curriculum for Excellence was largely inspired by the Finnish model. Created in 2004 and implemented in 2010, CfE has been one of these unimaginative, inside-the-box changes in the Scottish schooling sphere. 

To counteract the case made that more school choice and competition between schools is the answer to spreading quality and innovation, the Finnish argument is still made. The correlation between the reforms in Finland and the time of its exemplary PISA results has led to the common conclusion that the reforms caused the success.

In this very debate following the referendum, Kezia Dugdale, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, once more spoke of her visit to Finland and lessons we should still be learning from the country’s example.

Remarkably, until now, nobody has actually scratched beneath the surface of this spiel. The Centre for Policy Studies has just published Real Finnish Lessons (pdf) by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren of CMRE. It is the first paper of its kind to take a reasoned and thorough look at the Finnish schooling sensation. 

The first point of note is that performance began declining since those reforms were enacted. 

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What the new analysis tell us is that Finland’s rise accelerated primarily during the old system when the traditionalist, rote-learning pedagogy was at its core. 

While results increased by approximately the equivalent of 23 TIMSS points between 1965 and 1980, they rose a further 32 points in the 1980s. They also increased a further 34 points in the 1990s, but started to level off in the latter part of the decade, and ultimately started to decline in the mid-2000s.

Considering the age of the pupils when they were tested, the strongest gains took place when pupils mostly attended school before the old system was entirely abolished.

Other data, too, supports the general trajectory of rise and decline in international surveys. 

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Here we see that performance improved while male youngsters attended primary—and lower—secondary school before the old system was entirely abolished and began falling when they became exposed to the new one. 

Real Finnish Lessons convincingly shows how Finland’s outcomes are better explained by a detailed examination of its political, social and cultural underpinnings by looking beyond the fashionable explanations in the international media. It concludes that those popular policy-related reasons for its rise to prominence do not stand up to scrutiny and if anything coincide with its slippage.

The current Scottish Government continues to prioritise eliminating inequality while advocating the Finnish school-style characteristics. But it is clear, now, as we still send our education ministers to Finland each year, that we have been following a flawed interpretation of their system. 

In a competitive system schools adopt the methods that work—not fashionable educationalist fads—and the misinterpretation of Finnish data would be much less likely to happen. Choice would see the schools that work spread whatever the orthodoxy of the day says. Unlike in a government-controlled system where well-meaning Progressive ministers can effectively overturn everything without parental consent.

So with increasing evidence in our favour, it is time to consider that steps towards choice, competition and innovation are key.