Notes from the Education Seminars #3: Local, National, Transnational

Dr. Mary Hilson, Senior Lecturer in the department of Scandinavian Studies at UCL, blogs about Lessons from the North seminar held at the Finnish Institute in London at the end of March.
The second seminar in the Finnish Institute’s recent mini-series on education, “Lessons from the North”, was a collaboration with the UCL Nordic-Baltic Research Group, as the final seminar in their ESRC-funded seminar series “The Nordic and Baltic Countries in the European Political Imagination”.  Throughout the series we have explored different areas of policy exchange and transfer between the UK and the Nordic-Baltic region, including economic policy, health and welfare, tolerance and diversity, environment and energy. (link to

Our series, and indeed this particular seminar on education, raises the immediate question of how we construct these regions. Finland has been in the limelight recently as far as education policy is concerned (though the Coalition government also refers to the Swedish free schools), but the small countries of northern Europe seem to have had quite a privileged position in UK political discourse over much of the twentieth century. The idea of the Nordic or Scandinavian “middle way” stems from the 1930s but even before then, Danish provisions for adult education – the famous folk high schools – were attracting international attention from the UK and elsewhere. Historic constructions of the Nordic model thus provide an important context for current interest in a Finnish model. Often, though, important national differences are blurred in constructions of the region, and it became clear in the seminar that this is also the case in the UK, when the important point was made that we cannot, in fact, talk about a British education system. Most participants were speaking about English schools, which differ in important ways from their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Indeed, interest in Finnish education is not confined to England: as is well known, there is currently a strong interest in all things Nordic in Scotland, and I see that Pasi Sahlberg will be speaking on Finnish education to the Nordic Horizons group in Edinburgh in May. (link to

The day’s discussions were shaped around three excellent panels.  In the first, on “Education in diverse societies”, Olga Cara presented her research on language and bilingualism in Latvian schools, where Russian-speakers form a large minority but the language has no official status. Yvonne Mørck discussed results from fieldwork undertaken on “class travels” among  the pupils of Danish upper secondary schools. Arto Kallioniemi described challenges and adaptation in the Finnish education system to ethnic diversity as a result of recent immigration. Uvanney Maylor reported on a comparative research project examining different experiences of multi-cultural education in the UK, France, Greece, Poland and Iceland.
The second panel was on “Nordic and British School Models”, and two papers dealt with the Swedish free school model that has attracted the interest of the UK Education Secretary. Stephen Ball discussed the implications of the Swedish free schools for governance and accountability, given that most are provided by private, multi-national companies. Håkan Forsberg considered the implications of the 1992 free school reform in Sweden for patterns of social segregation in schools in the greater Stockholm area.  Sirkku Nikamaa shared some thoughts about assessment and educational access based on her own experiences as an educator (see her post on this blog Kristiina  Kumpulainen presented the Finnish model of a decentralised school system based on municipal autonomy, shaped by the principle of educational equality.
The third panel was titled “Teachers – Academics or Practitioners?” and dealt in particular with the question of teacher training and support. Riikka Koistinen spoke about her experiences working as a teacher in Finland and England. Auli Toom described teacher training in Finland, suggesting that teachers are not academics or practitioners – they are both. Bernadette Youens spoke about teacher training in England, which is extremely diverse but shares many of the principles of the Finnish system.
I attended this seminar as an outsider, with no claim to specialist expertise in education.  But based on the presentations and the subsequent discussions, there seemed to be three main issues:
1.     Can we speak of national models, when all education systems are diverse?
Diversity was one of the major themes of the day, and not just in the first panel. There were many references to the enormous diversity in the English education system, not just in the types of schools but also in the provisions for teacher education and training.  On the other hand, it is also important not to overlook the diversity in other systems, including Finland. In particular, we heard that there are major differences between the Helsinki metropolitan region and other parts of the country, which partly reflect more general differences between the urban areas and the sparsely populated rural districts.  Emphasis was placed on the importance of municipal autonomy within the Finnish system, which might be expected to give rise to some local variations.  Although the issue of bilingualism within the Finnish education system was not discussed in detail, one would also expect this to vary by region, since the Swedish-speaking population is concentrated in the south and west of the country.  Moreover, given the growing role of multi-national business in the provision of educational infrastructure (not just schools but also textbooks, electronic learning resources etc.), which Stephen Ball discussed in his paper, it may also be worth considering how relevant national models of education policy are relevant, and will continue to be so.  Sharing ideas across national boundaries may be more a question of contacts and exchange at sub-national levels. 
2.     How do policy transfers happen?
Scholars from various disciplines have paid a lot of attention recently to the transfer and exchange of ideas across national boundaries, pointing out that this rarely happens in a smooth linear fashion. Instead, ideas and policies are adapted and re-interpreted to suit different national contexts; and politicians may sometimes use another national example rhetorically to construct a rather fanciful utopia or dystopia that bears little resemblance to reality.  Moreover, policy transfer is never an a-to-b transfer, but always the product of a meeting and exchange between the exporter and the importer.  This seems to happen at two levels: on the one hand, a whole system can serve as a utopia, cited for rhetorical purposes; on the other, practitioners can learn from each other by sharing very practical, detailed, everyday experiences and ideas.  It might be unrealistic to suggest that England could import the “Finnish model” wholesale (even if that does indeed exist), but clearly both sides can profit from the transnational exchange and sharing of ideas that might be sparked by this broader interest.
The idea for this particular seminar initially emerged in the very specific context of English interest in the Finnish system.  But the different papers illustrated a much broader context than this: Latvian interest in Canadian bilingualism for example; examples of schools responding to ethnic diversity in France, Greece and Poland.  
3.     The challenges for education are transnational
Some of the problems discussed during the seminar were nationally specific: e.g. the challenges of integrating Russian- and Latvian-speaking groups in the Latvian case; the recent instability in the English system as a result of the change of government.  Several speakers emphasised how path dependencies matter, for example as the English system has to adapt to the legacy of the attempt to find a compromise on the religious issue in the 1870 and 1902 Education Acts. The extent to which Finland and the other Nordic countries have ever been socially homogeneous societies can be debated, in my view, but at least perceptions of homogeneity and national consensus have been rather powerful.
On the other hand, it is perhaps not surprising to find that the challenges faced by education are similar everywhere.  To summarise some that were discussed during the seminar, these include:
        How education systems can help to reinforce or undermine deeply entrenched patterns of social inequality and segregation, including differences of class, ethnicity, gender etc.
        How schools make the most of difference and avoid imposing conformity on their pupils, while at the same time also promoting equality.
        How the autonomy of teachers is best promoted, while making sure at the same time they are accountable and also properly supported by their peers.
        How schools adapt to the opportunities offered by new technologies.
Nobody much likes league tables. Schemes for assessment and testing in English schools were criticised for stigmatising pupils, reinforcing segregation and inequality, and undermining more creative approaches to learning. Moreover, it was suggested that most parents pay little attention to league tables when choosing schools, instead relying on knowledge gained through informal networks (and inevitably this tends to favour middle-class families who have better access to these types of network).  But I must comment on a little paradox here: the Finnish education system often seems to be lauded for its eschewal of testing and the ranking of pupils and schools, while at the same time, the current interest in Finland stems largely from the country’s success in just such a league table, namely the international PISA rankings.
It may be an obvious conclusion, but no system is perfect and we all clearly have much to learn from each other.
Many thanks to the Finnish Institute for hosting this event, and to all the speakers and participants for their contributions to a very interesting and stimulating discussion.
Dr. Mary Hilson
Senior lecturer at the department of Scandinavian Studies, UCL

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