Finland’s Revolutionary Reforms Highlight How Far Behind Britain Is Lagging In Offering a Relevant 21st Century Education
Despite years of uniformly being named as the leading European country in terms of literacy, numeracy, quality of teaching and schooling standards, Finland hasn’t been content to smugly rest on its laurels. The country has once again decided to revolutionise policy, philosophy and pedagogy in order to instigate wholesale educational reforms that reflect the types of challenges faced by school leavers in a metamorphic global society. Early independent assessments of their transformative topic based ‘phenomenon’ learning already indicate higher levels of pupil attainment, engagement and happiness. On the other hand, if Finland is top of the class, it feels like Britain’s antediluvian system would see them getting a firm cane to the backside before being pushed into the corner to wear the dunce cap.
What Finland has implemented is the direct inverse of Michael Gove’s draconian reforms, particularly to the English curriculum and examination style. Whilst Gove wished to push state schools into pedagogical and curricular mortuaries, built on his own arrogant assumption that universalising his own educational experience would lead to positive intellectual reform, other countries and governing bodies have actually noticed that the world has progressed beyond a 1950s Eton sixth form common room, and have developed structures that are not just naked attempts to recapitulate the class system.
What Finland has done is to appreciate that knowledge, understanding, faculties and subjects, teaching and learning, are all dynamic concepts in a constant state of flux. They have recognised that the skills set for coping with higher education and employment has evolved, as well as having the foresight to see what students really need to understand about the world in order to cope and function within it. Project based work in which students learn to function as part of a team, a topic-driven curriculum in which students not only learn age old educational skills like counting, writing and analysis and interpretation, but also gain knowledge of how the world they will live in works, exist in stark contrast to the retrograde and degenerative educational ‘improvements’ made under the Conservative government.
At the risk of ensuring my permanent unemployment, my own subject area is perfect evidence of the regressive qualifications and subject matter still doing the rounds in Britain. I have lost count of the amount of times that parents have either gleefully or depressively informed me that they studied the same texts at school that their children were studying, and before anyone rushes to blame this on unimaginative teachers – the two most commonly used examining bodies (AQA and EdExcel) provide tiny lists of prescribed authors and texts from which to pick from. Some of the texts retain universal themes that remain relevant today, such as the fallout of economic turmoil in ‘Of Mice and Men’ or class division in ‘An Inspector Calls’, but do any of the texts they study truly recognise peculiarly twenty first century struggles? Combatting ecological uncertainty? Understanding extremism and fanaticism? Integration with multicultural communities? The impact of globalisation and a free-market economy? Consideration of gender politics and sexuality? The concept of national identity? At least at GCSE level, the answer is a resounding no.
A man like Gove would undoubtedly argue that an appreciation of the literary canon has to be developed and that an understanding of history would better contextualise the present. However, there is a strong case for arguing that students have to understand the basic rudiments of their own cultural contexts before they begin to explore the historical influences that have helped to shape them. There is also an extremely narrow concept of what constitutes a ‘text’ within the British system. Whereas a subject like the International Baccalaureate’s ‘Language and Literature’ recognises film, radio, blogs, magazines, billboards, vines, and podcasts (amongst others) as communicative mediums that are branches of English and literature, most UK students will only see Lord of the Flies, Our Day Out, and an apologetic handful of autobiographical extracts from Ellen McArthur or Bear Grylls.
How exactly is this preparing students for a future in the online industry, or the multitude of job sectors that require short-form writing and a working knowledge of word-processing and publishing programmes? The answer is, it is not. Quite how we expect students to speak and interact with the language of the modern world without engaging them with contemporary forms of literature and communication is a mystery, as is how we expect them to be able to decode texts written in Middle English before they have a grasp of their own cultural lexicon.
All of this is indicative of a country that at national level is petrified of change within the education system and stuck in a cycle of elitist policy making. The limited pool of Old Etonians who are involved in modifying governmental policy have usually never stepped inside a classroom as a teacher, and are therefore influenced only by their own impressionistic formative experiences. They don’t talk to teachers, or headteachers, or students, or perhaps most importantly, industry leaders about what students genuinely need. They don’t understand the demands on teachers’ time, or the need for students to receive an education that is of holistic benefit, in fact they are out of touch with almost every experience that isn’t encompassed by those that they have had themselves.
When juxtaposed with the Finnish system, the British notion of progress and modernity looks like an overweight dad wearing his son’s streetwear to disguise his ageing– same old stuff at the core with a bunch of fancy drapes hanging from it in a masquerade that benefits (and convinces) precisely nobody. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. This is represented in abortive attempts to politicise and morally educate students that have been devalued by the idiocy of making the subjects non-assessed within a system where the inherent value, and ultimate measure of success, is being able to score a C or higher in order to complete the video game-like levels of transition between school, sixth form/college and university.
It is evident in the xenophobic and cack-handed changes to try and anglicise the national curriculum which saw the concept of Britishness boiled down to a Dickensian workhouse, a Shakespearean soliloquy and a line of war poetry. As well as being monumentally ignorant to the many cosmopolitan threads within the British tapestry, such decisions also perpetuate the imperialistic attitude of Britain as best, denigrating the value in the histories and intellectual accomplishments of other countries and the role they have played in shaping the modern world (and modern Britain). The arts, sciences and literature are not competitions, nor should they be mediums for political point scoring or agenda pushing.
Currently, all of the innovation within teaching in the UK either comes from the teachers themselves or educational outliers such as Paul Ginnis, who rather than trying to navigate the fields of twisted thorns that represent politics and policy making, decided to share their brilliance with fellow teachers. There are progressive attitudes within classrooms, within schools, even within LEAs, there are people who are shaking up the system within the constricted parameters provided for them. There are teachers for whom excellent grades mean nothing without the knowledge that their students are ready for life outside the artificial environment of education. However, true change will not be possible until the manacles of OFSTED, and government-pressured exam boards, are unshackled from students, schools and teachers.
So, I wait with hope that the emissaries sent to decipher the alchemy behind Finnish academic excellence come back and tell whoever is ballsing up being the minister of education to start looking forward instead of backwards. I hope that they see that the Finnish system attempts to abolish the antiquated reality of education as a self-contained entity that bears little resemblance to the real world. I hope that they realise that progressive education is about constantly reassessing pedagogical and curricular paradigms so that (to quote Alan Partridge quoting Tony Hares) progress and reform are a case of evolution not revolution. Most of all, I hope that they see that there are more ways of measuring potential, talent, ability and intellect, than sticking a sixteen year old in a silent hall room with a pen and a couple of sheets of paper.