Notes from the Education Seminars #4: Policy transfer, or an opportunity for reflection on ourselves?

Senior Researcher at the RSA, Louise Thomas, blogs about gaining new perspectives on England’s schooling system through comparing it with the Finnish one.

The education debate in the UK seems mired in sets of assumptions about accountability, teachers, curriculum, notions like ‘excellence’, ‘dumbing down’, ‘prizes for all’ and so on. Our opinions of our own education and that of our children, coupled with the peculiar English prejudice towards academic excellence, means that our thinking is often clouded by prejudice. I, for one, have found reflection on the Finnish system a tonic, allowing me to think outside of the particularity of the English system.

The question of whether education policy can be transferred successfully between nations with very different social and political structures is a particularly pertinent one to the UK at the current time. This seminar was therefore timely and asking all of the right questions; providing a critique of the construction of Nordic models of education used by UK politicians to justify reforms at home. Mary Hilson has critiqued this construction in some depth in her blog [link ‘her blog’ to

However, doubtful as we may be over whether policies transferred from one society to another will have the same beneficial outcomes, reflecting on another system is an important tool to enable us to understand our own better, and to imagine possible alternatives.

I’d like to share some of the elements of Finnish education (drawn from the discussions on the day, as well as Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons (2011)) that might illuminate how we might think differently about our own system, and perhaps begin to develop our own ideas about what an improved English education system might look like…not because we need to imitate another system. But because the contrast between the direction of travel for the UK and the assumptions that underpin attempts to ‘raise standards’ are contradicted by much of what happens in Finland, indicating that some of the things that we take for granted as necessary, although perhaps not desirable, might be questioned anew.

Assumption: high stakes external testing of children is necessary to maintain standards

•    In Finland there is no high stakes testing of children before the final certificate, or league tables for schools, yet standards (as measured by PISA rankings) are higher than in the UK

Assumption: Diversity of types of schools and competition between them is the best way to drive up standards

•    In Finland there is fully comprehensive provision for the first 9 years of schooling with very little variation between school performance. Ideas of good and bad schools are not relevant.

Assumption: starting formal schooling early is the best way to give children a head start in their education

•    Formal schooling in Finland does not begin until age 7, and all children have access to high quality, free at the point of access early years provision

Assumption: teachers should primarily be expert in a specific subject area and learn their ‘classroom craft’ in schools

•    Finnish teachers are trained as expert pedagogues and educational researchers to Master’s level in universities. Teacher education takes 5 years.

Assumption: children have different capabilities, and will perform at very different levels at age 11, and these levels can be given a number. A small minority with special educational needs are always going to perform less well than others.

•    All Finnish children are expected to be able perform at the same high level, with additional help provided to any child who is not keeping up. More than half of Finnish children have received some form of special educational needs provision by the time they leave school.

Louise Thomas
Senior Researcher at the RSA

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