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Page last updated at 15:19 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 16:19 UK

Why do Finland's schools get the best results?

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Finland's schools score consistently at the top of world rankings, yet the pupils have the fewest number of class hours in the developed world.

By Tom Burridge
BBC World News America, Helsinki

Last year more than 100 foreign delegations and governments visited Helsinki, hoping to learn the secret of their schools' success.

In 2006, Finland's pupils scored the highest average results in science and reading in the whole of the developed world. In the OECD's exams for 15 year-olds, known as PISA, they also came second in maths, beaten only by teenagers in South Korea.

Education in South Korea
Classroom in South Korea
In South Korea, the school day is long and pupils have a much stricter study regime.

This isn't a one-off: in previous PISA tests Finland also came out top.

The Finnish philosophy with education is that everyone has something to contribute and those who struggle in certain subjects should not be left behind.

A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those who struggle in a particular subject. But the pupils are all kept in the same classroom, regardless of their ability in that particular subject.

Finland's Education Minister, Henna Virkkunen is proud of her country's record but her next goal is to target the brightest pupils.

''The Finnish system supports very much those pupils who have learning difficulties but we have to pay more attention also to those pupils who are very talented. Now we have started a pilot project about how to support those pupils who are very gifted in certain areas.''

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The BBC's Tom Burridge talks to Henna Virkkunen, the Minister of Education and Science in Finland.

Late learners

According to the OECD, Finnish children spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in the developed world.

This reflects another important theme of Finnish education.

Relaxed atmosphere in Finnish school
Children walk around in their socks at Torpparinmäki Comprehensive

Primary and secondary schooling is combined, so the pupils don't have to change schools at age 13. They avoid a potentially disruptive transition from one school to another.

Teacher Marjaana Arovaara-Heikkinen believes keeping the same pupils in her classroom for several years also makes her job a lot easier.

''I'm like growing up with my children, I see the problems they have when they are small. And now after five years, I still see and know what has happened in their youth, what are the best things they can do. I tell them I'm like their school mother.''

Children in Finland only start main school at age seven. The idea is that before then they learn best when they're playing and by the time they finally get to school they are keen to start learning.

Less is more

Education in the United States
US Education Secretary Arne Duncan
"If education is expensive, try ignorance"

Finnish parents obviously claim some credit for the impressive school results. There is a culture of reading with the kids at home and families have regular contact with their children's teachers.

Teaching is a prestigious career in Finland. Teachers are highly valued and teaching standards are high.

The educational system's success in Finland seems to be part cultural. Pupils study in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.

Finland also has low levels of immigration. So when pupils start school the majority have Finnish as their native language, eliminating an obstacle that other societies often face.

The system's success is built on the idea of less can be more. There is an emphasis on relaxed schools, free from political prescriptions. This combination, they believe, means that no child is left behind.



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