Northern exposure: Interview with Pasi Sahlberg

Written by on 9 October 2013 in Interviews

Finland’s educational evangelist warns Scotland not to chase the northern lights, but to find its own way

Ask a person anywhere in the world to name something about Scotland, and you’re likely to at least get a response, even if it’s from the world of tat-shop cliché: kilts, bagpipes, shortbread, whisky – and most people have seen Braveheart. Ask about Finland, as Pasi Sahlberg did to begin his presentation to the Scottish Learning Festival, and the best you can hope for is to be painted a snowy boreal scene, with the northern lights shimmering over a pine forest. In other words, nothing. Finland doesn’t even have Nokia any more. The global perceptions of the two small northern European countries could not be more different.

Finland does, however, have a world-leading education system; one that Scotland, particularly since its schools became the responsibility of Michael Russell, has tried to emulate. Sahlberg, the educator, academic and government adviser on education, has become the evangelist of the system since his book Finnish Lessons was published in 2011. “This is the first time in history that anyone has paid any attention to what we’re doing in education,” he tells Holyrood just before giving the closing keynote address in Glasgow. “Given the scale of what we’re doing in education, we have very rarely in our entire history received the kind of global attention we have now. It’s been kind of confusing for many Finns to be in this situation.”

It’s been confusing for foreign governments as well, many of whom have tried to copy Finland’s success, sometimes with poor information. “In some cases it’s been more harmful for some countries than helpful. What I’ve been trying to do in my career since the book was published was to warn people that you cannot copy or imitate the Finnish model. You cannot even imitate some of the elements that make Finland successful to your own country.” Sahlberg’s message to Scottish educators gathered in Glasgow was this: by all means take inspiration from what Finland has achieved, but don’t assume the mechanics of how it was done can simply be transposed from one society to another. Policymakers should instead focus on breaking the link between socioeconomic background and educational attainment in their own cultural context; improved standards will follow. Speaking after Education Scotland launched its corporate strategy, which refers to a ‘Scottish way’ in educational practice, Sahlberg says: “This is what I’ve been trying to tell people – you have to find your own way.”

Those errors in interpreting Finland’s success can help change the course of education policymaking; for an example of that, you need only cross the border into England. Michael Gove would probably have instituted his reforms to the structure of education regardless of the Finnish example, but Sahlberg says his misconceptions about the country’s teacher training policies have allowed him to be dismissive of its success. “Michael Gove ignores Finland primarily for this reason – he says that Finland has an elitist teacher education policy, and that’s why England can’t look at anything that’s going on in Finland. That’s the wrong way of looking at it.”

Finland wasn’t always the beacon of educational success and equality that it is now. Twenty years ago, it languished at the bottom of comparative rankings and its outcomes were as unequal as the worst-performing systems in the OECD today. That performance prompted a fundamental rethink of the structure and principles behind the Finnish education system at the start of the 1990s. The national curriculum was abolished, as was the school inspectorate, whose functions were transferred to local authorities and schools themselves. The idea of external accountability for performance was banished from Finnish education, and examination was scaled back to the end of secondary. Schools were given the autonomy, and teachers were given the responsibility, to determine the content of lessons.

“Our great curriculum reform was implemented about 20 years ago, in 1993-94, and we had exactly the same questions and the same challenges that many people here have in terms of its implementation – how do you get this great plan implemented?” says Sahlberg. “Over here I hear the same thing. I think what we realised was that if you had at the same time an inspection system that was asking teachers and schools to report exactly what they do, alongside this new way of thinking about the curriculum where schools were given more autonomy and teachers’ professionalism was respected, the two things don’t really fit in the same picture. That’s why we abolished the inspectorate in 1992.”

The parallels with Scotland’s own journey through Curriculum for Excellence are clear, although that journey has been beset by anxieties among teachers and parents over a lack of support and clear communication. That’s nothing new, says Sahlberg. “We had exactly the same questions in the 1990s, because the system that we were planning to implement was completely new, not only in terms of the content and philosophy of education but in terms of how the system was supposed to work. One of the things that we did systematically early on was to try and bring this change into schools and communities through leaders and leadership. We gave school leaders a very central role in this, not only within their schools but in the whole community. The school principal was supposed to be the person to lead this local communication,” he says.

“The other thing that appeared to be very powerful afterwards was that we created a system where schools were encouraged to get together, not only in the same municipality or region but across the country, to find ways to share and communicate about how to tell the story to their parents and their communities. I think this networked type of strategy for how to bring the curriculum into practice helped in many ways. It’s not easy to do. If you only rely on one way of communicating, particularly if it’s a government-led communication, it’s not likely to work. There will always be pockets of people and communities that don’t understand the way the government speaks; that’s why I think that communicating at several levels, particularly through school leaders who should have the best, deepest understanding of what is going on, was very useful.”

Finland’s radical overhaul didn’t immediately produce an increase in overall attainment – instead, over the years results began to equalise, breaking the relationship between socioeconomic background and educational success. Equity came before quality, and Sahlberg insists that overall attainment only began to improve as a result of the investment in equality. “The best strategy according to the OECD and the best performing systems like Canada, Singapore, South Korea and Japan is to invest systematically in improving equity in the education system. At the moment, I think you have perhaps too much focus on the excellence part [in Curriculum for Excellence], and perhaps too little resources and attention given to equity.”

However, Sahlberg warns that making that shift will be even harder in Scotland. “I don’t think that education alone can ever close the gap. It can never deliver complete equity or equality,” he says. “There’s part of me that says no matter how great the national curriculum, it can only do so much. There are always things that the curriculum cannot do.” Finland was, like its Nordic neighbours, already a broadly egalitarian country in social and economic terms – its education system simply had to catch up with the rest of society. “People must remember that Finland as a nation is more equal than Scotland. Nordic countries distribute national wealth in a different way than many others. In contrast, the UK as a whole suffers from broad income inequality, and reforms to schooling alone won’t change that.

“You will probably realise the same thing here, that the focus on excellence is one thing, but having a more concrete and specific plan for enhancing equity and equality through education is another,” says Sahlberg. “That’s something I didn’t see so clearly in this corporate plan. It is very clear about quality, and the curriculum, teachers and leadership and other expectations, but it was not so clear on how you are going to make the Scottish education system more equitable. There’s a lot of room for improvement in equity, because Scotland is very close to the average both in terms of quality and equity as well.

“One of the challenges that you will continue to have is the very large overall inequality. You are very much like England in terms of the gap between those who have and those who have not, and in this kind of society education is always more complicated, particularly where you want to close the gap. It will be highly difficult in a society where the overall inequalities are so strong and visible.”

Comparisons with the Nordic countries will only gather pace as the independence referendum approaches. Those comparisons should be realistic, Sahlberg says. “I would strongly encourage educators here to develop the ‘Scottish Way’ and try to see what is the best for people here. If there is one thing to take from the Nordic model, it will be how the Nordic countries have been able to take the welfare and the taxation system that is equal in terms of how the national wealth is divided.” The world sees Scotland differently from Finland – Scotland may need to see those differences itself in order to achieve the kind of society it wants.

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