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Should Australian schools look to Finland? April 7, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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From Benjamin Jones

In 1988 Prime Minister Bob Hawke opened the National Science and Technology Centre (now called Questacon) as part of the Bicentennial celebrations. Expecting a positive media story for the government, he was instead confronted by 200 protesters angry at budget cuts to science and education. Hawke conceded that the government needed to do more to ensure Australia becomes a ‘clever country’.

The ‘clever country’ has been embraced by subsequent leaders and in some ways, Australia has achieved this goal or at least is heading in the right direction. The proportion of Australians aged 25-64 years who hold a non-school qualification has increased from 46 percent in 1990 to 59 percent in 2006. Those with a bachelor degree or higher more than doubled from 10 to 24 percent over the same period.

Australia’s educational advancements have not been equitable with the primary winners being the non-Indigenous residents of major cities. While 56.9 percent of Australians in major cities hold a non-school qualification, this drops to 45 in outer regional areas and just 35.6 in very remote areas. This more than halves for Indigenous Australians at 14.5 percent. Even in major cities, the inequality is substantial with 37.8 percent of Indigenous Australians holding a non-school qualification compared to 57.1 percent of non-Indigenous people.

Like Australia, Finland also had an average performing education system in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Over a decade-long period, Finland transformed itself and since 2001 is has consistently ranked in the very top tier in all PISA assessments. According to an OECD report, Finland is now a ‘major international leader in education’. The crucial difference between Finland and Australia, however, is that the Finnish system has ‘remarkable consistency across schools’ and there is little variation between students from low and high socio-economic areas.

Educational theorist Pasi Sahlberg’s new work, Finnish Lessons, offers some insights into how Finland turned their education system around and how other nations might do the same. Firstly, Finland looked abroad for the best ideas and was flexible enough to adapt where better methods in other countries were producing better outcomes. Dovetailing this idea, however, is that Finland appropriated foreign ideas into a local setting. Good ideas were adapted and made Finnish.

The second key point is that Finland has a culture that respects teachers. Unlike Australia where some university chancellors want to do away with minimum requirements altogether, Finnish teachers must be high academic achievers and hold a Master’s degree. In return, teachers are well paid and resourced. In a recent TEDx talk, Sahlberg argues that Finland trusts the teaching profession and this trust is the foundational strength of the system. One of the ‘germs’ that is destroying modern schooling is the idea that schools and teachers must be regularly held accountable through standardised testing and inspections. He says the Finnish view is that, ‘accountability is something left when responsibility is taken away’. Teacher autonomy has been crucial in Finland’s success.

One final lesson for Australia is that the Finns do not have a two-tier system. Rather than a large disparity between wealthy private schools and an under-funded public sector, there is a strong cultural commitment to a large public system with high quality education offered to all. Australia, like the United States and many other nations has allowed education to become market-driven. Tertiary education in particular, is seen as a revenue-generating industry rather than a vital public asset. In Finland there is an inspiring, publicly supported, central vision of what good education should look like. This vision is linked to a commitment to social justice and equity for all regardless of wealth, gender or ability. As Sahlberg stressed to John Hattie when interviewed for The Conversation, ‘it’s an inclusive principle’.

In December 2011, the Gonski Review was released. The was the most comprehensive investigation into school funding for 40 years and it highlighted the gross inequalities in the Australian education system. The heart of the review was needs-based funding. In addition to a base level, schools would receive extra funding depending on size, location and students’ needs (factoring in social inequality). While the Gillard government negotiated six year funding deals with NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT and introduced a needs-based system, the incoming Abbott government has only guaranteed four years of funding. It has also rejected the needs-based system as too ‘complex’ prompting a strong reply from the eponymous author, David Gonski. The campaign continues.

There is much Australia can learn from Finland if it wants to also be a world leader in education. It is imperative, however, that we move beyond the empty slogans of ‘clever country’ and ‘education revolution’ and put in place systems that will allow all Australians to have access to high quality education. The challenge is also to change the culture of negativity and present a world class education system as a vital national goal. This is not only a matter of social justice, it also makes economic sense for a small but wealthy nation. The Brookings Institute has researched the vast economic advantages of education. If Australia is to maintain its prosperity into the future, we should look to the Finnish example and ensure our education system is not only high quality but fair.

 

Dr Benjamin T. Jones is an adjunct research fellow in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, and a sessional tutor in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney. He is also a graduate teacher from UWS’s Master of Teaching (Secondary) program.

 

Comments»

1. Margaret Vickers - April 7, 2015

Excellent blog Benjamin – thank you. You are right that the greatest contribution to inequality in Australian schooling is our embrace of a dual public-private funding system in which schools are encouraged to compete with each other – and – as a result, many schools are residualised. Gonski’s reforms would substantially reduce this problem by making school funding needs-based and sector blind. We need to work actively to encourage our politicians to implement Gonski fully.
One more comment – in the USA, there is no government funding for private schools. The proportion of students who attend private schools has remained at 10 percent over the past 40 years. In Australia, we have seen the private school sector expand from 20 percent to 35 percent over this same period, in line with the open-handed approach of governments at all levels.

2. lee whitfort - April 16, 2015

The Finnish population is fairly homogeneous unlike the Australian population. We need to take the best that the Finnish model offers and like the Finns adapt it to our needs. We also need to overcome the poor opinion of teachers/intellectuals which is part of the Australian political psyche. The Gonski reforms were on the right path, unfortunately our current politicians are stupidly short-sighted and don’t consider the welfare of future generations as a responsibility.


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