It’s midday at Lintulaakson school in Espoo, a suburb of Helsinki, and the younger children are munching on snacks before their after-school activities commence. In one of the classrooms upstairs, a group of twelve-year-olds are crafting clothes on sewing machines after having carefully cut out their patterns. Meanwhile, outside, children are playing on an enormous playground that boasts football pitches, basketball courts, and climbing frames. As they play, one boy casually calls out "Hey Petteri!" to the principal, Petteri Kuusimäki, asking if they can start school at 10am next year. Kuusimäki laughs and playfully responds to the children, using their first names.
The Finnish education system is well-renowned and respected around the world. Finnish students consistently score highly in the top tiers of the international PISA league tables. During a tour of Lintulaakson school, Kuusimäki describes a utopia of education: a place where educators are well-trained, highly respected, and trusted, and where the well-being of children is of utmost importance. Finland does not have Ofsted-style inspections, and does not stream students by their abilities or have national exams until the age of eighteen. The country also does not have school uniforms, school league tables, or fee-paying private schools.
The Labour party recently committed to following Finland’s lead and to not only abolish Ofsted, but to integrate private schools with the state sector. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn justified this policy by citing examples such as Finland where it is not allowed to charge fees for education. Hundreds of delegations of teachers and policymakers from around the world regularly travel to Helsinki to visit Finnish schools, which are funded on the principle of equality of opportunity for all students. International visits are strictly regulated and are paid for; a presentation costs €682 per hour, while a school visit costs €1,240.
Despite this interest in Finland’s educational system, Finnish educators admit that they do not possess all the answers, and solutions that work in one country often don’t translate well to others. Finnish schools have become more diversified over time, and the curriculum has been revised to better accommodate gifted children. Though there have been some recent changes, such as compulsory pre-school for six-year-olds to help readjust to life in school and an increase in the minimum school leaving age to eighteen, the Finnish education system remains largely the same and focuses on delivering quality schooling that is free of charge.
According to Jerrim, even by outlawing school fees, the resources will only be redirected elsewhere, which could result in unintended consequences, such as an increase in property prices near good schools.
In 2013, Pasi Sahlberg, a renowned Finnish educator, paid a visit to Eton College, the UK’s most renowned and elite boarding school. Sahlberg used to be a maths and science teacher in Helsinki and now travels worldwide to spread awareness of Finnish education and provides consultation on education reform.
Sahlberg recalls that walking the corridors of Eton and watching its students was like going back 200 years in time. Sahlberg stated that even if he had the opportunity to enrol his children in Eton, he would say no. With its rich history, peculiar uniforms, and expensive yearly fees of £40,000, Eton is a far cry from Finland’s schools’ modern egalitarianism.
Sahlberg believes that the most important thing to learn in school is to understand that people come from various backgrounds, but they can learn in the same classroom. Comparatively, Eton boys won’t learn that in their school. Like Jerrim, Sahlberg remains sceptical of other countries seeking to copy the Finland model. He feels that Finland’s schools’ success is dependent on the country’s unique history and culture, small population of 5.5 million, and high taxes.
Sahlberg also deems it unrealistic for the Labour Party to promise to abolish private schools. He believes that private education has become too established, and it’s challenging to eliminate it entirely. In his view, it would be preferable for the Labour Party to strengthen the present state sector in England, which has become fragmented through academisation and free schools. Merely banning private schools and proposing that they be made illegal is unrealistic. There are better alternatives to improve the education sector in England.