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