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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 21:45 GMT
Why should we care?
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Why should anyone in the United Kingdom care about how another country runs its schools and universities?

Finnish classroom
Finnish pupils have the least school hours of any industrialised country

It can be complicated enough trying to make sense of the rapidly diverging systems in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, without having to look any further afield.

But education systems, like economies, are now in a global market, with a well-educated workforce now considered a vital component in a nation's success.

And this has seen a sharply rising level of interest in how other countries run their education systems - with countries such as Finland showing a particular model that has proved highly successful.

Increasingly education ministries have been peering over their neighbours' walls to borrow ideas and to use other countries' experiences as test-beds for their own policy.

For example, there has been plenty of soul-searching in England over expanding universities - whether we should have more places and how these should be funded.

But this is no longer just a domestic decision - as the meaningful comparisons are with international rivals.

University challenge

In England, the debate is whether 50% is too high a target for the proportion of young people going to university - but in a high-skill economy such as Finland, about 65% of young people enter university.

English lessons
In Finland, compulsory language lessons begin at an early age

But it's not a simple comparison - because paying for such a system is very expensive, with Finland spending almost twice as much public money as the United Kingdom on higher education, as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP).

Finland also has a much more inefficient system - as only about 50% of age groups stay on to graduate.

And that's not to mention that Finland still has polytechnics, which were abolished more than a decade ago in the UK.

The Finnish education system, according to the three-yearly OECD rankings, is Europe's best at literacy, maths and science.

And anyone who has followed the twists and turns in recent education policy in England and elsewhere in the United Kingdom will see some familiar ideas in the Finnish system.

All secondary schools in England are to become specialist schools - and in Finland, upper secondary schools already have this specialist status, where they have particular expertise in a subject area.

Radical experiment

The secondary school curriculum overhaul proposed by Mike Tomlinson suggests that pupils should progress at their own pace, rather than always by year group.

Helsinki, Finland
Finland has been ranked as the world's most competitive economy

This sounds radical from an English perspective, but this flexible, non-year-group system is already operating in upper secondary schools in Finland.

And the broader-based diploma, suggested by Mr Tomlinson, which would absorb the traditional A-level, borrows much from the baccalaureate systems long established in a number of European countries.

International comparisons can also produce findings that might challenge expectations.

Finland is in the upper reaches of educational and economic performance tables - but there is one OECD education table in which it comes last in the industrialised world.

And that is for the number of hours spent in school by pupils between the ages of seven and 14.

Does this mean that the less time pupils spend in school the better they perform? And what does it say about the English system that puts pupils through so many more hours each year?

It also raises questions about when pupils should begin school. Finland has a starting age of seven - and pupils rapidly catch up with their English counterparts who might have been working away in nursery and reception classes for two years before.

Another difficult question raised by such comparisons is how much does the school system affect outcome - and how much of achievement is driven by harder to define factors, such as family support and cultural background?

In Finland most young people will go to university - and when they become parents, many of their children will have learned to read and write at home before they even reach school.

How can this be compared to children in inner London authorities where fewer than two out of five 16 year olds will have reached the basic benchmark of five good GCSEs?

And when the contrasts are this sharp, how much of a difference can schools be expected to achieve?

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