Keynote speech on the Finnish education system at the HLF Young Achievers’ Awards on 15 December 2014

Delivered by Ambassador Pirjo Suomela-Chowdhury

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, all young people present here today,

Thank you for inviting me to this very important event. It is a great honour for me to be associated with your organization. The aims of Hallmarks of Labour Foundation are ones that should be promoted in every country all over the world – encouraging young people to contribute to their society, and to bring out the best in themselves and in others.

To promote those aims, I believe education to be the single most important element in any society. I am therefore delighted that I was asked to say a few words about the education system in Finland. In the limited time that we have, I will try to draw attention to some of the most basic and defining elements of that system:

Firstly, the most fundamental element: Equality of opportunity. In Finland good quality schools are available for all, in every corner of the country. It does not matter where you go to school. What matters is that you have the motivation, and make the effort to achieve good results in your studies. Your results will be just as appreciated, and will count as much in applying for further studies, whether they are from a small relatively unknown school in northern Finland, or somewhere else. Primary and lower secondary education are free of charge including instruction, school materials, school meals, health care, dental care, commuting, special needs education and remedial teaching.

Secondly, a strong appreciation of the notion of education. This is of course not only unique to Finland – but something that is very important there. On one hand, it means the appreciation and valuing of learning and developing yourself as a goal in itself. On the other, it means that education is seen as a way to progress in life and to realize your full potential and career goals.  Apparently, there is also a readiness to work hard for a relatively moderate gain in financial terms. In Finland, studying for several years at university for a Master’s Degree rarely makes you rich – but it does open up a lot of horizons for a very fulfilling career.

Another very important element: highly-qualified, capable and motivated teachers. Teacher training in Finland is taken very seriously. Teachers are required to have a Master’s degree, including pedagogical studies and teaching practice. Teaching profession is very popular in Finland. There is serious competition amongst the best of students to enter teacher training programmes. That means that universities can select the most motivated and talented applicants. Teachers are respected professionals who have strong autonomy in their work.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Only after listing these three elements – equality of opportunity, appreciation of education, and the quality of teachers – would I start looking at other issues, as success factors of the education system in Finland.  But of course, there are many important ones. I will mention some of them:

  • The education model is based on the empowerment of schools. While legislation and a core curriculum come from national level, and local authorities have the responsibility to implement those, schools have a lot of freedom in how they provide instruction, and what its contents are.
  • A student-centered approach: It is actually efficient – good learning results are achieved with short school days, and a relatively small amount of homework. Students spend much less time in the classroom than in many other countries. Each student’s learning and welfare are also supported and tailored to individual needs as much as possible. Students in upper grades are offered guidance in choosing their educational paths.
  • I also want to mention something very typically Finnish: free school meals. All pupils in primary and secondary school in Finland are served daily a warm school meal. Taking care of nutritional needs is important for learning, and for general welfare, including hopefully also taking up healthy eating habits in a longer term.
  • Flexibility of the educational path: No dead ends. No need to make binding choices too early. The possibility, for instance, to continue from vocational education to university – not only from upper secondary school, which is the most common route.
  • Staying in school: More than 90% of students take up general or vocational upper secondary studies immediately after basic education. It is very uncommon to leave school at 16 when the legal requirement ends.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A few words on the important issue of vocational education: In past years, interest in vocational education and training has been steadily growing in Finland. At present, some 45% of students at 16 continue into vocational education. For the labour market and national economy, this is an important point, as they need young people with many kinds of educational background and skills, not only university graduates.

Polytechnics in Finland are also an important part of that picture. They form part of the higher education system, but are more practically oriented than universities. The aim is to train professionals in a way that is responsive to labour market needs, and to conduct research and development that supports instruction and promotes regional development.

And finally, I would like to say something about life-long learning: More than half of the adult population in Finland participates in adult education. Study opportunities are available at all educational levels. It is possible, at any age, for instance, to go back to upper secondary school. There are also flexible ways for adults to maintain vocational skills, or to qualify for a completely new occupation. And there are less formal avenues: every Autumn in Finland, adults of all ages queue to locally organized evening classes to learn anything from handicrafts to languages to ancient history. Mostly, they do this simply because they find learning an enjoyable hobby. Over the years, I have taken many of those classes myself.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To try to sum up: The good results in education in Finland are produced by a system that is based on equal opportunity, flexibility, highly professional teaching staff, and an appreciation of learning. It is not magic tricks, or individual techniques that produce the results. But when the results are produced, that is magic J. Wherever I go, I like to emphasize the importance of education. I believe it is perhaps the single most important factor in the success and fulfillment of an individual, and a nation.

I realize that the elements I have listed here today are not necessarily all unique to Finland – and also that good results can be produced by different kinds of systems. Obviously, I also know that the Finnish system – while very good – is not perfect. No system can ever be.

Nevertheless, it is always good to share experiences and learn from each other. I hope that what I have had to say today, has given you some useful food for thought.

I thank you for your kind attention.

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