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12 September 2016

What the world’s best educators think about grammar schools

Finnish teachers have little interest in separating children or testing them. 

By Julia Rampen

Finland is the most literate nation in the world, according to researchers at Central Connecticut State University. It consistently leads European countries in world education rankings. So you’d think the UK Government, mulling new grammar schools in England, might want to hear from its educators.

And here’s why they should listen – Finnish educators genuinely think this policy is bonkers.

Jaakko Salo is a special adviser to the OAJ, the Finnish trade union for education. He said of the proposal to introduce grammar schools: “This is pretty much the opposite of our approach here in Finland.”

According to Salo, studies show that top students tend to thrive wherever they are. He explained: “The difference is with the poorly performing students. If they work only with other students who perform poorly, they perform even more poorly.”

Professor Gunilla Holm, the director of the programme Education for Tomorrow at the University of Helsinki, concurred.

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She said: “I don’t think you would see the research to support grammar schools. The research shows it is only students who are extremely, extremely gifted that actually benefit. Otherwise, heterogeneous classes are best for everyone.”

Finnish educators’ different approach doesn’t stop there. Hours are short (kids may take themselves off to play in the forest, but childcare is also cheap). More mind-boggling for Westminster policymakers, students are not tested at all, unless they decide to take the academic path in their final years of education. In fact, when Finland was named the best in the world for education, it was something of a surprise.

Kristiina Kumpulainen, Professor of Education at the University of Helsinki, said: “There have been no discussions of standardise the testing climate. We still trust our teachers. 

“When the first result from PISA [the OECD’s world rankings] came out, Finnish people didn’t believe that these results were true. We thought there must be a mistake. Then the next results came out and we decided to investigate. “

Not only are there no tests, but in the earliest years of education, Finnish children are encouraged to “learn through play”. Teachers believe free playing is a good indicator of how children are developing, and place a lot of importance on social interaction. But this isn’t letting kids run wild – other play is subtly structured. For example, a teacher may encourage a child to play with Lego, and make up a story about it. The child may then record their story through writing on a computer. 

In England, Westminster’s focus on “hard” subjects like English and Maths has seen the number of arts teachers tumble by 11 per cent in five years. But in Finland, a recent overhaul of the curriculum included a drive to add more creative subjects. 

Advocates of grammar schools hark back to the sixties, when some working-class kids shot to the top thanks to an elite education (many others languished in secondary moderns). It is an attempt to match the existing privileges enjoyed by the richest section of society, rather than to challenge them.

But in Finland, there is no such nostalgia, nor acceptance of inequality. A small number of private schools exist, and they are free. The state focuses on maintaining consistently good schools, with high-achieving teachers and small class sizes. 

Education is viewed as the key to this young country’s survival in the 21st century. That means not only offering regular teacher training, but thinking beyond targets and league tables, to consider what is in the collective interest. And rather than turning children into academic workhorses, Finns have concluded it would be better if they learnt to think outside the box. 

“We know we are a small nation,” said Kumpulainen. “We don’t have a huge workforce, so we need to be very creative with technology. We need to cultivate creative minds.”


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