Finnish Educational System

About half of my fellow Fulbrighters here in Finland are K-12 teachers back in the US.

These teachers are part of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program and they have a wide range of interests and experiences.  The orientation provided overviews of the Finnish K-12 and university systems – overall the Finnish education system is consistently ranked among the highest in the world.  The comparisons between the US and Finnish educational systems are too complicated to cover in one post – but I will try to identify a few highlights based on the orientation and my own observations.  The Finnish government provides free education to its citizens – so most schools in Finland would be considered ‘public’.  The public education system is administered at the national and community level and there appears to be a relatively standard curriculum for pre-primary (starts at age 6) and basic education (ages 7-15; 9 years of compulsory education – free school meals are also provided) with respect to overall learning objectives.  98% of all students attend public schools for the basic education.  In our equivalent to elementary school it’s not uncommon for teachers to stay with a class for several years – and there is broad integration of special needs students into regular classrooms.  As a student progresses to the equivalent of our middle and high schools they will encounter more specialized courses and teachers with subject matter expertise (e.g., foreign languages, science, math).

Students that complete basic education then go on to complete their upper secondary education (usually takes 3 years to complete).  There are two tracks: general upper secondary education or vocational education and training.  Students can move from one track to the other.  At the end of general upper secondary school, students take the Finnish matriculation examination. Those who pass the examination are eligible to apply for further studies.

There are two general types of public universities in Finland: universities and universities of applied sciences.  Some of these schools (e.g., Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences) are considered private because they are under a foundation or another entity (vs. the local municipality).  Even though it is classified as private it still offers free tuition.  The universities of applied sciences do not offer doctoral degrees.

One thing we’ve quickly noted is that at least in the major cities like Helsinki and Kuopio there are no school buses.  Children of all ages are readily seen riding public transportation to get to school without any adult supervision.  Teachers are widely unionized and professional satisfaction seems high and burnout rates low.  The classrooms are informal – everyone including at the university level is addressed on a first name basis.  There is less reliance on test scores (other than the national matriculation exam) and the goal is to allow all students to become successful.  There is little reliance on student feedback – and all of the teachers have explained there are efforts to minimize grade inflation – grades equivalent to C’s are widely used.  Many programs, including K-12 teacher programs, are very competitive (more so than medical school).

The last day of the formal school year for graduating ‘seniors’ in their lukio (“high school”) is celebrated with penkkarit.  This event occurs before the matriculation exam and is celebrated by wearing masquerade type outfits.  They also perform skits, interrupt classes, etc to celebrate.  The day we visited the Sibelius Upper Secondary School their third-year students were celebrating penkkarit by wearing togas.