Thursday, 15 October 2015

Education in Finland Should be a Lesson for Britain’s School System

In Finland, primary school children can readily expect more than an hour’s designated time for ‘play’ a day. In England, it has recently been announced that not only is play being cut in some areas[1] but primary school children can soon expect examinations from the age of 4.  Countries are bound to have their differences, though that this difference involves children and could be damaging, is something we need to consider.

Whilst Finnish education systems come typically in the top ten in the world (ranked sixth, for example, for maths and science education by the age of 15),  the experience of British children in education, especially primary school, typically falls well below – both in attainment and enjoyment.  Recent figures from The Children Society’s Annual Good Childhood Report shows Britain as 14th out of 15 in countries surveyed for happiness in primary school. If so many of our children aren’t happy, perhaps it’s time to learn from a country which actively promotes happiness in its education. From Finland’s successes we can see our shortfalls.

 In Finland, a key way positivity is forged in education is  through play. Primary education begins when children are six years old and initially the days last for as little as four hours; with much of this time designated to play, especially in the earlier years.  You may instinctively read this and think – but how can this be instructive? Isn’t it just a waste of time? Here in the UK, we appear to see things through an ‘adult’ time structure, a binary of ‘work’ and ‘play’ we even impose on education. ‘Play’ is typically cast as the potential reward for doing the necessary ‘work’. Like in British education ‘Goldentime’, an opportunity for free play, is   often doled-out to children at the end of the week as a ‘reward’ for academic performance.

I am firmly of the view that in Britain we need to focus less on ‘performance’ in primary schools, and more upon potentials.  The pre-occupation with grades and subscribing to set curriculums can limit children’s ability to build their own identities.  Even the word ‘performance’ implies that there is something artificial and empty to the process. Children ‘act’ out a kind of scripted education far too often, whilst the approach in Finland offers some rather alternate lessons...

Play is important. In Finland, play is valued because it is not artificial or an ‘act’, but real human interaction – something I believe to be beneficial.  The activity of free play is upheld, with children encouraged to take this time to enjoy the outdoors and crucially, their own abilities. Play can build interpersonal skills and provides opportunity to foster interaction, apparently lacking in the UK as The Good Childhood Report indicated significant  struggles with healthy relationships and self-image.  Yet rather than play and personal development being of focus, the UK’s education system has fallen under increasing scrutiny as promoting a system of ‘exam factories’ –drawing criticism from Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow education minister. He also raised the issue, alongside the Confederation of British Industry, that more attention is needed towards promoting children’s character, resilience and communication skills. Play is one way to put this forward.  

Communication over examination. Communication is evidently valued in Finland– in fact, children are given their exam results verbally; though even these ‘examinations’ are rare and there is no compulsory National examination until the end of secondary school .  This could be seen avoiding the character-crushing concept of reducing a child’s time in school to a circled grade on a piece of paper. In Britain, comparatively,  our children are some of the most examined in the world, and this pressure extends to teachers too – with  more than half in a recent interview saying they want to leave the profession in the next two years and 65% blaming what is referred to as a ‘culture of testing’  for causing harm to children. Teachers and children alike are tied down by an obligation to a system of examination and often, the National Curriculum. It seems Britain communicates the message to its children – we want to be high on the league tables, so make your mark count.  If schools were to focus more on potentials and promoting the happiness of their students, this could foster an environment where children are more open to discussing their progress as well as struggles; and certainly beating the current process of dismissing by mark schemes.

Freedom to be an individual matters. In its pre-occupation with league tables, rote learning and assessment objectives, it appears that British education fears freedom. It is easy to see freedom and ‘free time’  as a threat, time that we don’t think is ‘constructive’ – we send a message that ‘school’ is ‘school’ and ‘freedom’ is something else entirely. In contrast, Finnish education facilities rather than regulates children, in their own methods to feel free. For example, rather than being forced into a hierarchy (i.e. Britain’s promotion of ‘gifted and talented’ children), children in Finnish schools who are more-able are encouraged to help those leaning at a slower rate. Different methods of learning are championed , with more emphasis is placed upon their extracurricular learning (Thus ‘learning’ rather than ‘testing’). Reading is encouraged – but crucially, for pleasure – so children are encouraged to enjoy education. Up to eleven periods per week consist of classes in actively creative subjects, such as art, music, cooking and textiles too.   It is this encouraged positivity, pleasure and pursuit of the imagination, rather than exam-boarded administration, which British primary school education thirsts for.