Comparing Finnish and British Education: Does Diversity Matter?

Ilari Lovio from the Finnish Institute blogs about education and diversity, raising some questions that will also be tackled in forthcoming seminars.

Finnish education has recently gained substantial attention and interest among politics, policy makers, and the general public in countries such as the United Kingdom and USA. This interest is largely due to Finland’s success in the OECD’s PISA studies, where Finnish students have achieved top ranking results. Consequently, the questions frequently repeated during the last couple of years have been: How is it possible that this small northern nation came to be an educational superpower in just a few decades? And further: Is it possible for other countries to copy the magic recipe?


The educationalists have responded to the first question by pointing out few characteristics about Finnish education. First of all, the quality of teacher education gets always mentioned, as well as responsibility and prestige being the words associated with being a teacher in Finland. Secondly, the equality of the Finnish school system is usually brought up, as Finland offers free schools with free lunches to all pupils, and has concentrated on narrowing down differences between schools in order to make education as equal as possible. Private schools that charge tuition fees or are funded by private sector simply do not exist. Thirdly, the experts often point out, that in Finland students are evaluated much less and the emphasis is directed to cooperation, instead of competition.

The answer to the second question, instead, remains more contested. Despite the enthusiastic interest in Finnish education among policy makers around the world, many also remain skeptical whether the model could be copied and implemented in other societies, such as the UK. Some commentators have suggested that the distinctive characteristics of Nordic countries, especially the relative homogeneity of populations, might make the transfer of principles, policies and practices impossible. Are the countries, their populations and cultures just too different?

When it comes to cultural and ethnic diversity, it is undeniable that Finland and the UK differ. In Finland, foreign-born population makes up around 5% of the demography, whereas in the UK the corresponding number is around 11,5%. Finland was a country of emigration – not immigration – until the 1980’s, and even though, the same partly applies to the UK, due to tight connections to its former colonies, the UK has received immigrants for centuries, affecting the ethnic composition of its population tremendously. Consequently, whereas the UK has had significant ethnic minorities for several generations, in Finland researchers and policy makers are only now starting to systematically investigate the needs and prospects of the second-generation youth.

Therefore, as the Finnish educationalists travel abroad to talk about Finnish schools, they should of course simultaneously keep their ears open for learning something from others. In the UK, it could very much be the experiences and best practices related to education and ethnic or religious minorities.

The vast differences in the diversity of populations in Finland and UK, is a fact. However, it can be – and has been – questioned whether this has much to do with the success of education systems, or with the possibilities to transfer policy ideas from one country to another. In Finland, the number of foreign-born residents doubled during the last decade, but the country still performs well in education, at least in the light of latest PISA studies. Drawing from this and other results, experts have stated that it is the underlying principles of educational policy that rule more than the size or the ethnic makeup of a population.

In fact, last autumn, the Guardian went as far as praising Finland’s education system for setting now the example in educating immigrant children as well. Guardian pointed out how much resources Finnish schools direct to teaching immigrant children the Finnish language, as well as having state funding for Somali pupils to also develop their native language. At the same, the Guardian stated, in the UK, needs of non-English-speaking young immigrants are no longer adequately recognized on the level of policy and funding.

Also the first studies on second generation youth in the Finnish education system give reason for some cautious optimism. Elina Kilpi-Jakonen’s study shows that the equality of the Finnish educational system, and the late selection between upper secondary school and vocational school is advantageous for immigrant children. However, a concern is, that the difficulties adult immigrants encounter in the Finnish labour market – a problem Finland needs to address urgently – threaten to influence immigrant families to the extent that it might hamper the school success of the youngsters.

Either way, despite all the positive attention Finnish education has drawn, the Finnish cannot afford to be lulled into self-satisfaction. Having a longer history in ethnic diversity in the UK, it is for sure that Finnish educationalists should look into the experiences of the British. And in the end, it is enhancing dialogue what is important – and definitely more important than defining who should learn from whom.


Ilari Lovio
The Finnish Institute in London

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The differences and similarities of Finnish and British education systems, and issues related to teacher education and transferring policies will be tackled in a series of events during the spring 2012. The events are organized by the Finnish Institute in London, the Embassy of Finland in London, and their various partners. For more information, see: http://finnish-institute.org.uk/en/society/articles/37/365

27 thoughts on “Comparing Finnish and British Education: Does Diversity Matter?

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    Surely the lesson for the Finns is to look at countries where immigrants perform well. The key is in skill selection. Otherwise, if you are looking simply at countries outside of Europe go for East Asian groups.

    The lessons of the rapidly growing human bio-diversity field are that you can't anticipate groups to have identical distributions of results. Accordingly, immigration policy needs to be highly selective.

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