A number of years ago, a seminar entitled "The Finnish wonder" was announced at the university where I then worked. It was with great interest that I went to the seminar.
I read the title as the starting point for a critical and comprehensive review of the Finnish school system as criticism and versatility for me are basic scientific virtues. This does not mean that one could not be positive to different aspects of a school system, but a scientific analysis means analyzing both positive and negative aspects in relation to what the system is supposed to achieve.
The positive aspects of the Finnish system are, of course, desirable. It is really extremely important that a school system gives all students good knowledge and skills. In addition, the Finnish system was at the time the school system where parents' level of education had the least impact on the student's school performance.
But as the reader probably already understands, the seminar did not offer a critical analysis of the Finnish school system. I had simply read too much into the title or rather into the seminar format. The seminar was, as I recall, an attempt to explain the Finnish success story. But what would it have meant then to critically examine a school system that has had top results in international comparisons of achievement?
Well, I would have liked a description of how the Finnish system succeeded considering a broader mission. In an analysis of the governing documents for the Swedish school, I found seven aspects of a broad mission: 1) A knowledge mission that includes the desire to learn 2) An mission that deals with the transfer of values and education to democracy 3) A compensatory mission, 4) A mission that concerns development of virtues (e.g., responsibility); formulations about personal development can possibly be seen as part of this mission or as a mission in itself 5) Promoting personal development 6) Promoting community and 7) Promoting health.
I have not carried out a similar analysis regarding the governing documents for the Finnish school system but I want to argue that the seven aspects are relevant in the analysis of any school system.
I have told an anecdote in some lectures and it is possible that the passing of time has made me miss some detail but I think I remember the main point. It was a feature on TV that showed how the Swedish national hockey team's coach had introduced a new element. More precisely he started to ask the players about their opinions on how the team should play. So there were Swedish hockey millionaires who contributed constructively to the common problem solving.
Someone then asked the Finnish coach if this way of working would be workable for the Finnish team. Well, he was very skeptical of this idea and as I remember it, he emphasized that the Finnish players were used to obeying rather than discussing in this way. I usually retell this to illustrate that upbringing and education is about so much more than knowledge achievement.
I myself have tried to make an analysis of how the Swedish school system succeeds with the broader mission. It was a mixed picture that emerged and for some of the missions there was hardly any data. It was a similar analysis I had hoped to encounter at the seminar I described at the outset of this blog.
Since no such analysis was provided let us instead turn to an investigation of inclusion in the Finnish school system.
Inclusion in Finland
I base part of my presentation in this paragraph on the article Attitudes of teachers towards inclusive education in Finland by Timo Saloviita, published in Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 2020 (see link below). As a reader of this blog I probably know, I write "inclusion" when a placement definition is used.
When attitudes to “inclusion” are asked for, it is attitudes to students in difficulty being placed in regular classes that are referred to. It appears in Salovita's study that Finnish teachers are largely negative towards “inclusion”, but special needs teachers are more positive than other teachers. Throughout the article confirms patterns from previous research, where Finnish teachers have also been found to be more negative than teachers in other countries.
Salovitta also highlights Finnish education statistics which show that the proportion of Finnish students who participate in special education activities outside the regular classroom part of the day ("part-time special education") was 22.7% and the proportion of students who received education in special education groups outside of regular teaching was 5 % the school year 2015-2016. It is a very large part of the students.
There are many who claim that these efforts also partly explain Finland's success in international knowledge tests, something Saloviita is hesitant about: “It has been argued that this high amount of part-time special education would be behind Finland's success in PISA comparisons (Kivirauma & Ruoho, 2007). This suspicion, however, has remained highly speculative ” (p. 273).
As I have pointed out on various occasions in this blog, there is evidence that special solutions in the form of "part-time special education" in, for example, early reading learning have good effects. Thus, temporary solutions of that kind can be beneficial.
As I also often write in this blog, inclusion must never be a "the closed door policy", on the contrary, it can support the student to get a temporary support outside the classroom. However, such support can be provided in a more or less beneficial ways and it is important to see it as something temporary. It is not clear from Salovita's article exactly how the part-time special education is managed in the Finnish system.
Research cannot be said to provide support for more encompassing special solutions. However, this line of research is fraught with major methodological problems, which is why one should be careful with conclusions.
In any case, the Finnish system seems not very inclusive when it comes to the placement of pupils. Since the entire Salamanca Declaration and a number of subsequent international agreements express that the abandonment of special solutions is one of several important preconditions for genuine inclusion, the Finnish system can hardly be characterized as inclusive.
It could be said that the Finnish system is still more inclusive than the Swedish system because students in difficulties seem to learn more in the Finnish system. Of course, this is no small matter. But in that case, it is more correct to say that the Finnish system better in that respect, since it cannot be characterized as inclusive.
It should also be emphasized, as Sundkvist and Hannås show in a comparative study of special education in Norway and Finland (see link below) that the Finnish special needs teachers have a very high professional qualification while a lot of the special education work in e.g. Norway is carried out by assistants!
In summary, it can be stated that I want to raise a question mark about the success of the Finnish school system. While the knowledge mission has been carried out in what in an international comparison is a very successful way, which of course deserves attention and admiration, we know too little about how the Finnish system succeeds with a broader school mission to be able to characterize it as a "wonder".
From an inclusion perspective, the Finnish school is an example of a school system that is a segregated system in an international comparison with almost a third of the students in various forms of special solutions and with a teaching staff that predominantly opposes that students in difficulty have a natural affiliation to the classroom. From that perspective, it is surprising that David Mitchell (see reference to previous blog below) highlights Finland as a good example in a book entitled "Inclusion - teaching strategies that work" (see link below).
Link to Saloviita´s article:
Link to article comparing special education in Norway and Finland:
Link to blog about Mitchell´s book: