Pasi Sahlberg – King’s College Annual Education Lecture 2013

Pasi Sahlberg – King’s College Annual Education Lecture 2013


Sahlberg started by outlining how he thinks Finland have got to a stage where they rank consistently highly in the PISA tables, a worldwide study by the OECD of the scholastic performance of 15 year-olds internationally.

Finland, he says, aims to provide a great school for each and every child. Private schools were dismantled in 1972, and children simply go to their nearest school.  There is no competition between schools, no league tables, no inspectorate and no standardised testing.

And says Sahlberg, the year-on-year, decade-on-decade improvements that Finland has seen in its educational results have not happened in a vacuum.  Put simply, educational attainment can’t improve for everyone if there are inequalities in society. This says Sahlberg, isn’t making excuses. Societal inequality needs to be tackled to improve educational outcomes; one does not come without the other. He cited the political empowerment of women as being one measure of the equality of a society. In Finland 47% of their parliament are women, here in the UK it’s 22.5%.

So why aren’t all countries improving their educational outcomes? Well says Sahlberg, that’s something called the Global Education Reform Movement. This GERM he says behaves like a virus, infects the system and is spreading quickly.

What does GERM look like?

  • Competition. Lots of it. A belief that choice is a good thing!
  • Standardisation. A certainty that higher, better standards will mean that things automatically improve.
  • Test based accountability. League tables that set schools against each other and hold individual teachers to account.
  • Choice. The idea that more choice will lead to even more competition and hence to improved standards.

This GERM, joked Sahlberg, is spreading as educational consultants are put out of work in their own countries and take the virus abroad.  Sadly the English speaking part of the world has been badly hit.

Finland has remained immune to GERM, and that’s because their approach to education is entirely the opposite.  Instead of competition, they encourage collaboration. Instead of standardised testing they encourage creativity and individualisation. Instead of test-based accountability they give their teachers trust-based independence, and instead of choice, they offer societal equity.

There were three key policies, says Sahlberg, that enabled Finland’s educational transition.

The first was a determination to enhance equity which started with the dismantling of private schools in 1972. To achieve quality of education you need great equity!

Secondly, early intervention is key. Much better says Sahlberg, to invest early on in a child’s school life, as it’s cheaper than trying to fix problems later. In Finland 33% of students are recognised as having special educational needs in the early years of their education, with this number dropping off later because of the early interventions put in place.

Finally, teacher professionalism and valuing teachers is the final part of the educational puzzle. In Finland teachers are educated to Masters Level and, says Sahlberg, it’s recognised that you need to practise something a lot to be really good at it. He reckons it takes 10,000 hours, or between seven and ten years to really hone your craft as a teacher, so it’s really important to hang on to teachers and not burn them out after a few years.

Sahlberg finished by saying he would summarise his advice to other countries wishing to emulate Finland’s success, like this:

  • More collaboration and no competition
  • More prevention and less repair
  • Less testing and more trust
  • More evidence based and less experimentation with children
  • The children must play! In Finland children start school at 7




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2 Responses to Pasi Sahlberg – King’s College Annual Education Lecture 2013

  1. Raf Feys says:

    Finnisch miracle: fata morgana?
    Finnish students’ achievement (15 y) declined significantly: study of University Helsinki
    University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen
    Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001
    S.: The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably: under the mean of the scale used in the questions. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
    Since 1996, educational effectiveness has been understood in Finland to include not only subject specific knowledge and skills but also the more general competences which are not the exclusive domain of any single subject but develop through good teaching along a student’s educational career. Many of these, including the object of the present assessment, learning to learn, have been named in the education policy documents of the European Union as key competences which each member state should provide their citizens as part of general education (EU 2006).
    In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.
    The results of the Vantaa study could be compared against the results of a similar assessment implemented in 2004. As the decline in students’ cognitive competence and in their learning related attitudes was especially strong in the two Vantaa studies, with only 6 years apart, a decision was made to direct the national assessment of spring 2012 to the same schools which had participated in a respective study in 2001.
    The goal of the assessment was to find out whether the decline in results, observed in the Helsinki region, were the same for the whole country. The assessment also offered a possibility to look at the readiness of schools to implement a computer-based assessment, and how this has changed during the 11 years between the two assessments. After all, the 2001 assessment was the first in Finland where large scale student assessment data was collected in schools using the Internet.
    The main focus of the assessment was on students’ competence and their learning-related attitudes at the end of the comprehensive school education, but the assessment also relates to educational equity: to regional, between-school, and between- class differences and to the relation of students’ gender and home background to their competence and attitudes.
    The assessment reached about 7 800 ninth grade students in 82 schools in 65 municipalities. Of the students, 49% were girls and 51% boys. The share of students in Swedish speaking schools was 3.4%. As in 2001, the assessment was implemented in about half of the schools using a printed test booklet and in the other half via the Internet. The results of the 2001 and 2012 assessments were uniformed through IRT modelling to secure the comparability of the results. Hence, the results can be interpreted to represent the full Finnish ninth grade population.
    Girls performed better than boys in all three fields of competence measured in the assessment: reasoning, mathematical thinking, and reading comprehension. The difference was especially noticeable in reading comprehension even if in this task girls’ attainment had declined more than boys’ attainment. Differences between the AVI-districts were small. The impact of students’ home-background was, instead, obvious: the higher the education of the parents, the better the student performed in the assessment tasks. There was no difference in the impact of mother’s education on boys’ and girls’ attainment. The between-school-differences were very small (explaining under 2% of the variance) while the between-class differences were relatively large (9 % – 20 %).
    The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
    The mean level of attitudes detrimental to learning has risen but the rise is more modest. Girls’ attainment has declined more than boys’ in three of the five tasks. There was no gender difference in the change of students’ attitudes, however. Between-school differences were un-changed but differences between classes and between individual students had grown. The change in attitudes—unlike the change in attainment—was related to students’ home background: The decline in learning-supporting attitudes and the growth in attitudes detrimental to school work were weaker the better educated the mother. Home background was not related to the change in students’ attainment, however. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.
    The results of the assessment point to a deeper, on-going cultural change which seems to affect the young generation especially hard. Formal education seems to be losing its former power and the accepting of the societal expectations which the school represents seems to be related more strongly than before to students’ home background. The school has to compete with students’ self-elected pastime activities, the social media, and the boundless world of information and entertainment open to all through the Internet. The school is to a growing number of youngpeople just one, often critically reviewed, developmental environment among many.
    The change is not a surprise, however. A similar decline in student attainment has been registered in the other Nordic countries already earlier. It is time to concede that the signals of change have been discernible already for a while and to open up a national discussion regarding the state and future of the Finnish comprehensive school that rose to international acclaim due to our students’success in the PISA studies.

  2. Raf Feys says:

    There are a few dissenting voices in Finland, though. ‘Unfortunately something very tangible was left out of both articles: the lack of a feel-good factor in Finnish schools among the 11, 13 and 15-year-olds. In fact, according to PISA, Finnish youth have one of the lowest scores of any EU country when it comes to liking school a lot. And as a side note, 15-year-olds rarely have dinner with their families. In other words, although Finnish schools score high in various subject-related results, they score low in the emotional side of the student. I think that this is also worthy of attention. At what price do we keep stressing a student’s test scores as if they are a humanoid with a computer chip? Should the education authorities begin to see the child as a human being and not as a test-taking machine? What is unfortunate in all this is the child who seems to be going it alone in Finnish society, with poor wellbeing scores in family relationships too. And these low wellbeing scores are certainly nothing to brag about, which is one reason why they are hardly ever mentioned or discussed within our society. Immigrants need to take note of these facts if they wish their child to be well developed not just intellectually and but also emotionally and mentally too.’ – See more at:

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