Gabriel Heller

The truth about Finland’s education miracle

Does Finland have the best schools system in the world? There are many who think so, pointing to its place atop the PISA league tables and explaining this success by the supposed lack of Swedish-style competition. So why is Britain copying Sweden, runs the argument, with these private ‘free schools’ when it would do better to look at the less competitive Finnish model?

Finland has become a pin-up for the anti-school choice movement, which strikes me as odd. I’m a Swede, working in London for the Centre for Market Reform of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and I’ve recently written a book about school choice. For what it’s worth, here’s my take on Finland.

First, while Finland scores well on PISA, this particular league table is designed to test everyday rather than curriculum-based knowledge. This means that it lacks key concepts of importance for further studies in mathematically intensive subjects, such as engineering, computer science, and economics. This is an obvious defect: such subjects are likely to be crucial for developed countries’ future economic well-being.

The Finnish fan club rarely talks about its mathematics performance in TIMSS, an international survey focusing more on curriculum-based knowledge – which plummeted over the last decade. Finnish eighth-graders today perform slightly lower than seventh-graders did in 1999, lagging the top-scoring nations by a considerable margin. Not so miraculous after all. It’s perhaps not surprising that over 200 Finnish academics in 2005 warned about complacency as a result of the PISA success. Others questioned whether it represents a victory at all since important knowledge had been sacrificed along the way.

So Finland might not be so great after all, partly because its centralised curriculum has ignored certain concepts that are not tested in PISA. But where the country goes right is in the degree of choice and competition already at work in the system.

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