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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 21:51 GMT
Education key to economic survival
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter in Helsinki

Finland has often been hailed as having one of the most successful education systems. But what drives its high level of achievement? And what makes it different?

Tuula Haatainen
Tuula Haatainen wants a system of "fair play"

Education Minister, Tuula Haatainen, puts the question into a stark economic context.

How can a small, affluent country such as Finland maintain a high-wage, high-skill economy? It can't compete with the low-cost economies of Asia, so it must, as a matter of economic survival, invest heavily in education and training.

"In Finland, we believe we have to invest in education, in research and in higher education.

"Education can pioneer new areas for jobs. We always need new skills for the labour force - so it means that we have to keep investing."

This policy received an endorsement last month from an annual report from the World Economic Forum, which identified Finland as the world's most competitive economy, citing its "culture of innovation".

Ms Haatainen, a minister in a centre-left coalition government, says that this economic imperative is best served by having a broad-based, open-access education system.

And in particular, she says the country's educational success can be attributed to the "unified" school system, which sees children staying at the same school between the ages of seven and 16, rather than having primary and secondary schools.

Common path

"We don't divide at an early stage between students who do well and those that don't manage so well in schools," she says, speaking at Finland's education ministry in Helskini.

Pre-school begins at age 6
Comprehensive school: age 7 to 16
Upper secondary school or vocational school: 16 to 19
Pupils in Finland, age 7 to 14, spend fewest hours in school
Higher education places for 65% young people
Second-highest public spending on higher education
Source: OECD

"Studies show that it is dangerous to divide too early into different educational paths.

"We believe that if we invest in all children for nine years and give them the same education then we will reach the best results."

From the perspective of parents in the United Kingdom, this removes the recurrent questions about selection and the scramble for school places at the age of 11, when children change from primary to secondary.

In Finland, this divide comes at the age of 16, when pupils will decide whether to go to academic upper secondary schools or into vocational education - with very few youngsters entirely dropping out of education or training.

The emphasis on investing in education has created a system where as much as possible is delivered to students without charge.

School meals are free to all pupils, there are no university fees and students can stay in the upper secondary stage (loosely equivalent to sixth forms) for up to four years.

'Fair play'

There is a philosophy of inclusion underlying this system, she says - arguing that widening participation in education is the most effective way of finding the most talented students.

Arabia School, Helsinki
Pupils in Finland stay in the same school until they are 16

"It's like ice hockey. We let all the girls and boys play, not only the best ones. With this fair play, we can give everyone the same chance to practise their skills - and this also gives us the way to find the best ones."

Finland's education system, when compared to the UK, is also different in the later age at which pupils enter schools.

While pupils in the UK enter formal schooling at five, in Finland children enter school at seven - and then only for half days. They also have longer holidays than in the UK, including a 10-week break in the summer.

This places greater responsibility on families - and Ms Haatainen says that an important ingredient in Finland's high achievement in reading and writing is a strong culture of reading in the home.

Parents nurture a love of reading among children and this is supported by a network of public libraries, says the minister.

In the last international education league tables, produced by the OECD, Finland's 15 year olds were judged to have the highest standards of literacy in the world.

Ms Haatainen also says that the country has made a conscious effort to have highly-qualified teachers throughout the school system.

Re-skilling workers

Compared to the UK, Finland has a higher unemployment rate - currently about 8% - and an aim of the education policy is to improve adult education.

Finland cannot compete on wages with low-cost economies

"We have lots of people who do not have any education beyond basic education and they have been in the labour force for a long time.

"And we have a special programme for these people to give them chances to come back to vocational training, such as ICT [information and communication technology], so that they can manage in the changing labour market."

Language learning is also a key to this effort to compete - and the success is apparent in the hugely impressive standards of English to be heard throughout Helsinki, whether it's from shop staff or people talking to overseas visitors.

In a relatively short of space of time, Finland has transformed itself from an agricultural country to a high-tech economy, associated more with mobile phone company Nokia than with timber-felling.

And the fast-forward button has been education.

Finland tops global school table
07 Dec 04 |  Education

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