Finland at the top of the class again? Finnish people will be sceptical: How can this country fare so well in spite of a deep economic recession and rising unemployment figures?

Finland has just got a new government that has to introduce an austerity program, which must cut funding for education, whatever the coalition parties have declared during the election campaign. So, we are bracing ourselves for a heated debate about the value of education.

My country is used to getting praise for education. Year after year, we have scored highly, competing with Korea, Singapore and Japan. Last time we slipped in some categories and the reaction here was almost one of relief: Finns are very self-critical and like to think of ourselves as underdogs. Look at the Nokia saga; it could not last forever…

At international conferences and board meetings, I have got used to answering the question: What are the reasons behind Finland’s outstanding learning results? I have developed some standard answers, starting with the shameless joke: Because I was minister of education in the eighties!

I offer three more serious points:

1. Education and learning must be a respected and admired part of your culture. Finland built and secured its national identity in the 19th century through investing in education for all and when independence was achieved, the base was there to develop further.

2. “Leave no child behind” was a slogan adopted in Finnish schools long before it became popular in the US. Pupils with learning difficulties are patiently brought up to the average level of their classmates by teachers and assistants who give them the extra attention and support they need to catch up.

3. You need high quality teachers with compassion. Only 11% of applicants to the teaching profession are accepted, which means that the most motivated are selected. Here again, respect for the vocation of teaching ensures that talented students choose the profession.

Of course these aren’t the only factors behind our educational successes. Our Scandinavian friends like to point out that a Finnish school class is more homogeneous than say, a German or a Swedish one. Emigration to Finland is small and I guess that means the socio-economic background of Finnish pupils enable parents to support their kids better than newcomers without sufficient skills in either of our two national languages.

One recent report suggested that the Finnish classroom is more authoritarian than that of other nations. Experimentation and participation may be new and fashionable but they can be detrimental for the teaching and learning process.

I won’t go into the substance of the curriculum, but I will briefly mention three subjects currently under discussion. The first is science and mathematics for girls. At 15, Finnish boys have more knowledge in these areas than the girls, but the difference is not large and efforts are being made to bridge that gap by offering positive role models for girls. The second is the diminishing role of history; there is a feeling that you need to know more than the history of the 20th Century. The third debate concerns language training: Why not start immersion and teaching much earlier?

Another aspect which is the subject of lively debate in neighbouring Sweden is school discipline. You can read grim Swedish reports about attacks on teachers, destruction of school premises, and low attendance in classes. Finnish schools may not suffer from such extreme conditions, but the issue has been debated. In an article in Svenska Dagbladet last year, I suggested zero tolerance when classroom discipline is challenged. Whatever the reasons for individual bad behaviour, such offences disturb, or even destroy the positive learning space for other students. Unfortunately, such behaviour may increase in the future and more school psychotherapists will be needed for kids who come from broken homes etc.

The darker side of violence in the Finnish school is illustrated by school shootings with dozens of victims. The pattern from the United States is well-known, but Finnish cases have been few and have led to a stronger emphasis on early intervention and preventive care. Hopefully the resources available will be sufficient in times of austerity.

The Finnish school system is highly decentralized. When the comprehensive school reform was implemented in the 1970s, it was built on national learning goals and a coherent curriculum. The national curriculum is still there and it is renewed and refreshed at regular intervals. But in the meantime, the municipalities have had more of a say in how the curriculum is implemented. Which schools offer what language? At what level does language training start?

Local politicians can decide which resources are allocated, which school buildings should be renovated. But norms concerning the number of teacher positions and general school standards cannot easily be circumvented. When some municipalities have tried to fix their education budget by laying off teachers for a limited period, they have met stiff resistance from the teachers´ union (with its high membership).

Hundreds of groups have visited Finland in the last decade, all trying to find out the secret behind the educational success. Some went home with a surprising explanation: We offer our pupils lunch at school. Surprising for them, not for us. This is the most natural thing in Finland and is certainly a good thing health-vise for the kids. The hot debate is not for or against serving hot meals; no, it is about spaghetti or lasagna, meat balls or vegetarian alternatives.

Finland will struggle to meet expectations — our own and those of the international community. It will not be easy if the recession continues. When I was invited to Puerto Rico to reveal the Finnish secret, a TV-reporter asked me to summarise in one sentence my advice to the local authorities, I answered: It takes about 150 years of enduring respect for learning and the teaching profession. He was not overly happy with the answer.

The Human Capital Report 2015 is available here.  

Explore the report by using the heatmap below:

Author: Pär Stenbäck was minister of Education and of Foreign Affairs of Finland between 1979 and 1983. He has also been the Secretary General of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers, and is now board member of several Finnish and international boards, including council member of United World College Movement (UWC).

Image: Schoolchildren listen to a teacher during a class in a primary school in Marseille, September 2, 2014. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier