自2000年開始，芬蘭的孩子在閱讀、數學及科學等國際競賽的表現，維持穩定的領先地位。有超過60%的年輕人接受高等教育，而且一般大學和理工學院人數相當。即使是考試、績效責任，以及市場法則等全球運動的領頭羊，McKinsey管理顧問公司也不得不承認，芬蘭是最頂尖的。而根據世界經濟論壇(the World Economic Forum)的分析，芬蘭的經濟競爭力之所以位居世界第3，這都得歸功於她強有力的教育，得以將其嚴苛的勞力市場法規和高賦稅比率等弱點一一克服。
最近，現年53歲的前芬蘭數學教師，芬蘭最後一任的學校督學，也是國際知名的教育學者，目前任職於教育部國際中心的Pasi Sahlberg應邀訪問英國。他表示，在芬蘭國會1990年代決議要全權信任教師，不需要督導他們的工作之前，身為芬蘭學校督學的他，也只不過視察過一所學校。如今，他已成為芬蘭教育的全球代言人。他的著作”Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?(借鏡芬蘭:世界可從芬蘭教改學到什麼?”)，已被翻譯成包括中文、俄文和阿拉伯文在內的15種語言，每天他會接受來自全球各地的邀請，舉辦2至3場演講或座談。
就在我與Sahlberg會面的前兩天，英國教育部秘書長Micheal Gove才剛宣布，要改造現行的”中等教育一般資格認證(General Certificate of Secondary Education, GCSE)”，恢復3小時的考試制度，讓英國重回昔日的輝煌傳統。Sahlberg從未見過Gove，不過如果他見到Gove，他會說什麼呢?”我會說，秘書長先生，我很害怕，因為證據已經非常清楚了。如果您依賴規定、考試，以及對學校實施外部控制，那是不可能會改善(教育現狀)的。GCSE計畫是倒行逆施的做法。”而對於Gove熱切仿效瑞典的大學院校和免費學校的做法，Sahlberg同樣也不屑一顧。他說:”現在，在瑞典的每個人都知道免費學校是個錯誤。不只品質沒有提升，而且也不公平。如果這就是Gove先生所想的，那就是他將會得到的。”
芬蘭並非一直都是教育界的巨星。早在1970年代之前，只有不到10%的人在18歲後繼續升學。學校的品質很差，跟英國1950年代差不多。當孩子11歲的時候，如果父母親付得起學費，他可透過考試進入私立的文法學校(grammar schools)。Sahlberg的雙親都是教師，他在芬蘭南部的一所鄉下小學讀書，他就是那個年代的最後見證者。就在Sahlberg結束學生生涯的1970年代，芬蘭深深地受到英國影響，開始設立了完全學校(peruskoulu)，混合能力教學，改革教師培育制度，廢除厚達700頁的國家課程，以及中央教育權力下放給地方。而正當芬蘭持續落實教育普及化的理想時，英國卻在1980年代開始淡化完全學校的體制，保守黨引進了家長選擇權(parental choice)，並且提供私立學校資金挹注。就跟瑞典的免費學校一樣，英國也有著冠冕堂皇的說法，商業領袖和政黨右翼份子抨擊完全學校壓抑了資優生，以及損害了國家的經濟發展。
然而，就在本世紀初，當國際學生評量計畫(the Programme for International Student Assessment, Pisa)的結果出爐後，這些批評者全都噤聲不語了。突然間，數以百計的從政者和教育工作者絡繹不絕地前往芬蘭，想一窺芬蘭成功的奧秘。芬蘭教育幾乎跟他的國際企業Nokia一樣成了國際品牌。Sahlberg表示，”PISA的結果遏止了擁護教育私有化和考試制度(national tests)的論述，…許多人認為，PISA拯救了芬蘭的教育體系。”
Sahlberg不願意將芬蘭經濟上的成就歸因於教育的功勞，他表示，”有些人有不同的看法，他們就認為芬蘭的教育之所以成功，是因為經濟的成功。”對於芬蘭人而言，平等(equity)才是教育最偉大的成就，亦即芬蘭學生最高和最低表現的差距，是世界上最小的。而之所以沒有人會去談論所謂的失敗的學校，是因為絕大多數的學校都差不多，沒有多大的差別。Sahlberg堅決地表示，”PISA並不是我們所要做的。排名不是用來評量學校體系的好方法。我們從來就沒有設定目標，要成為最好的教育體系，我們只不過是提供每個人良好的教育而已。在追求卓越(race to the top)之前，必須講求平等。”有人認為，學生的成就要端視於教育當局的控制，但Sahlberg對此提出批評，他認為政客若希望提升孩子，以擺脫貧窮，就(不應該只囿於教育領域，而)應該連同其他公共領域的政策都一起加以檢視。
我個人覺得Sahlberg是個怪異而又缺乏自信的教育大使，我想他應該會同意我的看法。他雖然宣揚所謂的芬蘭奇蹟(the Finnish miracle)，卻又不相信那些證實芬蘭成功的數據。現在讓他擔心的是，芬蘭教育是否會因此而驕矜自滿。他說:”如果你問芬蘭人，2030年的芬蘭教育會怎樣，他們會說就跟現在一樣。……我們一點也不會去討論這些事。”
Imagine a country where children do nothing but play until they start compulsory schooling at age seven. Then, without exception, they attend comprehensives until the age of 16. Charging school fees is illegal, and so is sorting pupils into ability groups by streaming or setting. There are no inspectors, no exams until the age of 18, no school league tables, no private tuition industry, no school uniforms. Children address teachers by their first names. Even 15-year-olds do no more than 30 minutes’ homework a night.
The national curriculum is confined to broad outlines. All teachers take five-year degree courses (there are no fast tracks) and, if they intend to work in primary schools, are thoroughly immersed in educational theory. They teach only four lessons daily, and their professional autonomy is sacrosanct. So attractive (some might say cushy) is a teacher’s life that there are 10 applicants for every place on a primary education course, and only 10-15% drop out of a teaching career.
It sounds like Michael Gove’s worst nightmare, a country where some combination of teachers’ union leaders and trendy academics, “valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence” (to use the education secretary’s words), have taken over the asylum.
Yet since 2000, this same country, Finland, has consistently featured at or near the top of international league tables for educational performance, whether children are tested on literacy, numeracy or science. More than 60% of its young people enrol in higher education, roughly evenly divided between universities and polytechnics.
Even the management consultancy McKinsey, which has spearheaded the global movement for testing, “accountability” and marketisation, acknowledges that Finland is top. The country’s defiance of current political orthodoxies appears to do little economic harm.
According to the World Economic Forum, Finland ranks third in the world for competitiveness thanks to the strength of its schooling, which overcomes the nation’s drawbacks, in the forum’s view, such as restrictive labour market regulations and high tax rates.
The story, at least for Guardian readers, sounds too good to be true. Is it possible to pick holes in it? I met Pasi Sahlberg, a rather dour (though not, I am told, by Finnish standards) 53-year-old former maths teacher and education academic, during his recent visit to London.
Sahlberg, who now heads an international centre at the education ministry, was Finland’s last chief inspector of schools in the early 1990s before politicians decided that teachers could be trusted to do their jobs without Ofsted-style surveillance. “I only ever inspected one school,” he says.
Now he has emerged as the global spokesman for Finnish schooling. His book, Finnish Lessons, has been translated into 15 languages, including Chinese, Russian and Arabic, and each day he receives two or three invitations from across the planet to give talks or lectures.
I met him the day after Gove had announced his plans to transform GCSEs, restoring traditional three-hour exams to their former glory. He’s never met Gove, but what would he say to him if he did? “I would say: ‘I am afraid, Mr Secretary, that the evidence is clear. If you rely on prescription, testing and external control over schools, they are not likely to improve. The GCSE proposals are a step backwards’.”
He is similarly dismissive about Gove’s enthusiasm for academies and free schools, largely modelled on those in Finland’s neighbour, Sweden. “In Sweden,” Sahlberg says, “everybody now agrees free schools were a mistake. The quality has not improved and equity has disappeared. If that is what Mr Gove wants, that is what he will get.”
Finland hasn’t always been an educational superstar. Before the 1970s, fewer than 10% continued their education until the age of 18. The schools were similar to those of England in the 1950s, only worse. After taking tests at the age of 11, children whose results were in the top 25% went mostly to private grammar schools – if their parents could afford the fees. Sahlberg himself, initially educated in a tiny village primary in northern Finland, where both his parents were teachers, was one of the last to go through this system.
By the time he left school in the mid-1970s, the move towards peruskoulu (or comprehensives), had begun, heavily influenced by British thinking. Mixed-ability teaching, teacher education reforms, abolition of the national curriculum (once 700 pages), and devolution of schooling to local authorities followed later.
While England began to dilute its comprehensive system almost as soon as it was established – in the early 1980s, the Tories introduced “parental choice” and offered subsidised places in elite private schools – Finland was further extending its ideal of the common school.
Like England, it had a vociferous lobby demanding a return to selection as well as Swedish-style free schools. Business leaders and rightwing politicians argued that comprehensives held back the gifted and talented and jeopardised the country’s economic future.
But the critics were silenced early this century when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) emerged. All of a sudden, politicians and educators flocked to Finland in their hundreds, seeking the secret of its success. Finnish education became almost as big a global brand as Nokia. “Pisa stopped the arguments for privatisation and national testing,” says Sahlberg. “Many say it saved the Finnish school system.”
Sahlberg is reluctant to attribute Finland’s economic success to its schools. “Some would say it’s the other way round: we have educational success because we have economic success.” To him and other Finns, equity is the schools’ greatest achievement: the gap between high and low achievers is the smallest in the world and nobody talks of failing schools because there isn’t that much difference between schools’ results.
Sahlberg insists: “Pisa is not what we are about. League tables are not a good measure of a school system. We never aimed to be the best in education, only to have good schools for all. Equity came before a ‘race to the top’ mentality.” Like many other educational researchers, he argues that most pupil achievement is explained by factors outside of school authorities’ control and that, if politicians wish to elevate children out of poverty, they should look to other public policy areas.
Which leaves the question of whether Finnish schooling is exportable. Finland is an unusually homogeneous society: child poverty is low, and the ratio of income share between the richest 20% of the population and the poorest 20% is only a little over four-to-one, against nine-to-one in the UK. Its proportion of foreign-born citizens, moreover, is under 5%, and was much lower a decade ago.
All this, critics argue, makes it easy for Finland to put all children through comprehensives without social or educational strain. Other critics point to the Finnish language which, like Korean (South Korea is also near the top of the Pisa tables), is written almost exactly as it is pronounced. Young Finns and Koreans have little trouble with spelling, which not only makes reading and writing easier, but leaves more time for other subjects.
Sahlberg doesn’t wholly dismiss either of these arguments, but suggests that other influences outside the schools are more important. Finnish adults, he says, are the world’s most active readers. They take out more library books, own more books and read more newspapers than any other nation.
“Reading is part of our culture. At one time, you couldn’t marry unless you could read. If you belonged to the Lutheran state church, you had to go a camp for two weeks before confirmation, as I did. I had to read the Bible and other religious books to the priest and answer questions to show I understood them. Only then could I be confirmed and only if I was confirmed could I get a licence to marry in church. That is still the case. Now, of course, you can get married anywhere, but 50 years ago there were very few options other than marrying in church and, 100 years ago, none at all.”
There is another issue. Finnish education isn’t quite what it seems. Exams and competitive pressures may have been eradicated from schools, leaving teachers and pupils free for the co-operative pursuit of cultural, creative and moral improvement. But this educational idyll eventually comes to an abrupt end.
Pupils who stay beyond 16, as more than 90% do, move into separate (allegedly self-selected) streams: “general” and “vocational” upper secondary schools. Though there is some crossover between the two, the vocational school students usually go to polytechnics or directly into jobs.
Only the general school – catering for what, in effect, is the academic stream – offers the 155-year-old national matriculation exam, a minimum requirement for university entry. Wholly financed from student fees (in a system in which everything else, including school meals, is completely free until university graduation), the exam comprises traditional essay-based external tests covering at least four subject areas. To study a particular subject at a particular institution, students must take yet more exams set by the universities themselves.
As Sahlberg acknowledges, Finland hasn’t abolished competition; it has just moved it to a different part of the system. “It is getting tougher and tougher to reach the end points,” he says. “It is the Finnish compromise.”
In other words, although Finland unarguably achieves better results for more of its children than almost any other country in the world, success may (and I emphasise “may”) be attributable less to its laid-back school regime than to the children’s expectations of later competitive pressures. Exporting what appear to be educational success stories is a dubious enterprise, because it is so easy to misread how another country’s system works and to discount its cultural background.
Sahlberg, I think, would agree. He is an odd, diffident sort of ambassador, spreading the message about “the Finnish miracle” but not really believing in the data that supposedly proves that it works. His fear now is that Finland’s educational success is breeding complacency.
“Ask Finns about how our system will look in 2030, and they will say it will look like it does now. We don’t have many ideas about how to renew our system. We need less formal, class-based teaching, more personalised learning, more focus on developing social and team skills. We are not talking about these things at all.”