English lesson in a Finnish school

An educational dystopia

Finland’s myth obscures the depressing reality of progressive education

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Teaching has been a liberal-left profession for many years. Irrespective of which sector you work in, there is, in many staff rooms, a strongly expressed dislike of discipline, rules and formal examinations. One only needs to look at the dreary motions tabled for the April National Education Union conference to see the familiar calls for abolishing Ofsted, league tables, GCSEs and any other formal testing. 

To an outsider this would be surprising given that without any one of these, running a school would, quite quickly, be almost impossible. And they would be right: we only have to look at the confusion that secondary schools have been plunged into following the scrapping of GCSE and A level examinations this year to see that, blunt tools though they are, end-of-year assessments are more consistent and objective methods for evaluating attainment than anything teachers can come up with themselves. 

But experience and common sense don’t stop the many educational idealists from dreaming of a land that allows children to be truly “creative”, unfettered by old-fashioned subject disciplines with their utilitarian exams, unchecked by pernicious, untrusting inspections, free of all those “damaging” reports that seek to put a grade on ability and, so the logic goes, killing it in its tracks. No doubt those union activists dream of a place where learning is, whenever possible, collaborative, where classwork is “phenomenon-based” (yes, really), where school days are short, rules are agreed by collective bargaining, accountability abolished, and homework banned.

Of course, unconventional schools which depart from the standard, top-down, instructionist approach to teaching and learning, are not new. Think of Summerhill, that eccentric manifestation of AS Neil’s utopianism, or other specialist (usually fee-paying, schools) such as Bedales and St Christopher in the UK, or Brooklyn Free School (with its “mission of education for social justice”), each encapsulating values different from the mainstream; or listen to Charlotte Church talking about her desire to found a school in which children (for her, “the last group on earth to be liberated”) are freed from the repression of walls and ceilings, favouring instead lessons outdoors. Given that this school is in Wales one suspects a short school day. 

Demand to learn their secret success was so high that many started charging just to walk through their doors

But you don’t have to go to these outer-margins of sanity to find a well-founded dislike of conventional schooling. The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, refers to the National Curriculum, as “joyless” simply because it is “information-heavy and traditionalist”; Peter Hyman, former advisor to Tony Blair, and now agitating for new ways of testing, wants to move pupils away from the “anguish” of written examinations. 

For those who seek such radical change the promised land that encapsulates all that they aspire to achieve is Finland. In the world of education it is this country that has become a symbol of radical change, somewhere which, despite its tiny population, has broken the frequently caricatured, factory-school model that, ever since Dickens wrote about it in Hard Times, has apparently done so much to enslave the oppressed little people of Charlotte Church’s imagination. 

Type “Finland” and “schools” into a search engine and you will read endless headlines, most of them favourable, such as “What Americans keep ignoring about Finland’s school success”, “Top of the class: Labour seeks to emulate Finland’s school system”, “No grammar schools, lots of play: the secrets of Europe’s top education system”, “What Finland can teach the world about education”. How is it that this country in the frozen north has come to deserve such a critical encomium?

It all started in 2001 when the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) published its first report and put Finland at the top of its league table. These reports, published every three years, collect data from 79 countries which have assessed the reading, maths and science skills of their 15 year olds. The timing was perfect: right at the start of that brave, new century here was an outlier, a relatively overlooked country with a school system that was outperforming super-rigid, Gradgrindian countries in the Far East. If a school system can become famous and glamorous then it happened to Finland. 

The victims of such an abnegation of adult responsibility are always the children

Demand to learn their secret success was so high that many started charging just to walk through their doors. But since 2013 Finland has moved from A* to C- in the PISA league, and in the last PISA report of 2018, the country has slipped back in every category, and nowhere more so than in the reading gap between boys and girls which is greater now in Finland than in any other PISA country.

Jonathan Simons, former head of education’s strategy unit under Gordon Brown and now a director at Public First, believes this fall from grace was always more about “signal not noise”. For Simons, the Finns and their adherents sell a story that many want to believe in: namely, “that high status, lack of accountability, good early years and mixed subjects all lead to nirvana. And because it’s Scandinavian and fluffy, and not neoliberal, no one bothers to investigate any further”.

The high priest of this myth-making is Pasi Sahlberg, whose new book, In Teachers We Trust, perpetuates the idea that any national educational policy is, essentially, flawed, a symptom of the broken trust that characterises most school systems in the developed world, and which inhibits all teachers’ and students’ from reaching their potential. 

Sahlberg writes: “in transforming schools we should learn to rely less on policy-driven reforms and more on successful ideas that have worked in various cultural settings, and powerful networks that are spreading them without the mandate of the authorities.” What he does not engage with is just how untranslatable Finland’s model is to school systems which are bigger, more complex and ethnically and socially diverse. 

Proponents of the Sahlberg view often claim that they wish to put greater freedom in the hands of teachers. But the end result of removing objective measures and accountability is, inevitably, a drop in standards. 

Who decides the criteria for how “successful’ an idea is? You only have to look to Scotland, which introduced its Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in 2010. Heavily influenced by the Finnish model, the CfE sought to promote child-centred learning and to put “experiences” at the heart of each child’s education. In 2009 Scotland’s teenagers were way ahead of their English peers in Maths and Science, but by 2018 they had fallen considerably behind. 

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, describes this move away from structured knowledge as “educationally disastrous”. When theory goes wrong in schools the impact on children’s futures is real and long-lasting.

The opponents of the conventional school model argue that as society moves away from unmerited and inherited respect for authority, and towards a more dispersed and decentralised source of knowledge and expertise, schools should do the same. Well-intentioned though many of them may be, the victims of such an abnegation of adult responsibility are always the children. In seeking to empower the young today they weaken their adult futures. 

In The Crisis in Education, Hannah Arendt wrote that “conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something — the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new.” These words remain as true today as they were when published in 1954.

At the heart of the enduring appeal of the Finnish model is a challenge to conservation and preservation. Progressive education has been promoted as something innately subversive, but only insofar as challenging the monolithic state and all the inflexible, accrued, dead weight with which it is now routinely associated. The pandemic has revived the calls for schools to be fundamentally changed, to teach skills, not stuff (as if the two can ever be separated), to embrace technology, to give autonomy to schools, and then to teachers, and then to students, over what they learn and how they are assessed. For some, this is localism and modern; to others it is anarchism and regressive. 

The bravest voices in schools will be those who seek to preserve rather than demand disruption

The reality is that it, and any school reforms which seek to remove the central importance of the teacher and the primacy of knowledge from the taught curriculum, denies children a fundamental human right that will have lifelong consequences. It is where progressivism can go so badly wrong. “The problem of education,” Arendt wrote, “lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.”

Never have authority and tradition been so under siege as they are today: we see them crumbling under every call to rename buildings, pull down statues, redact shared histories, cancel classic texts, all in order to reject “accepted narratives”. To oppose these loud, insistent, voices immediately casts opponents as the enemies of freedom, and of progress who are on the wrong side of history.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the bravest voices in schools will be those who seek to preserve, rather than those who demand further disruption. After such an atomisation of society there is a need to pull together into a common and collective shared history, and purpose, and that is nowhere more needed than in schools. 

Relativism leads us into a stateless dystopia. Finland should remain on the horizon, a northern light, perhaps, which has lit up, momentarily, the often gloomy skies of global, pedagogical debate. Tempting though it is to misinterpret these flashes of brilliance as something of wonder, signs of a higher power and of deliverance, their existence is more prosaic, and transient. We should, at last, be able to move beyond our adulation, and accept that the lessons we had to learn are, finally, finished. 

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