Would abolishing private schools improve the education of all our children?

Francis Gilbert's picture
I attended, together with the other founder members of the Local Schools Network, a fascinating talk given by Pasi Sahlberg this Thursday, in the House of Commons. Sahlberg is, as his website tells us, "Director General of CIMO (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) in Helsinki, Finland. He has global expertise in educational reforms, training teachers, coaching schools and advising policy-makers. He has worked as teacher, teacher-educator, policy advisor and director in Finland and served the World Bank (Washington, DC) and the European Commission (Torino, Italy) as education expert." In other words, probably the foremost authority on the Finnish Education system, which is, as has been noted many times, the best system in the world.

The following film is a short excerpt from the talk he gave, which focuses upon how and why the Finns abolished their private schools in the 1970s. Sahlberg is speaking in a packed-out committee room in HP, which contained figures from both the left and right, including the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who left after being told that the Finns abolished their inspectorate as well (see my next post about this).




Sahlberg's central point is that private elite schools were unfair and one of the root causes of inequality in the education system; they meant that the children of the most powerful people in the land were segregated off from all the others. The presence of private schools caused numerous destructive effects, which both the Left and Right wings in Finland recognised. Since getting rid of private schools, the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students in Finland has narrowed considerably. Why has no one in power realised this in the UK? Our education system will never promote equality until private schools are abolished. It's a completely absurdity that these institutions have charitable status when they only have a negative effect upon society, causing social fracture and segregation.

I very strongly recommend you to read Pasi Sahlberg's publications and his most recent book, Finnish lessons: What Can The World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?. It's not cheap, but I'm insisting my local library orders it!


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Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 21/05/2012 - 20:59

You claim that Tim Bidie is an insufferable bore yet you supply no evidence for this assertion.

'A very bad advert for a private school education'. This is not a sentence. It has no verb.

'money wasted!' That may be so, but only that of the taxpayer, as with most state funding.


leonard james's picture
Mon, 21/05/2012 - 21:03

Tim you had the high ground there and then ruined it by critiquing Alison's spag.

Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 21/05/2012 - 21:18

The high ground is a bit dull, though, isn't it:

'As regards the pure form, the economic side of this relation -- the content, outside this form, here still falls entirely outside economics, or is posited as a natural content distinct from the economic, a content about which it may be said that it is still entirely separated from the economic relation because it still directly coincides with it -- then only three moments emerge as formally distinct: the subjects of the relation, the exchangers (posited in the same character); the objects of their exchange, exchange values, equivalents, which not only are equal but are expressly supposed to be equal, and are posited as equal; and finally the act of exchange itself, the mediation by which the subjects are posited as exchangers, equals, and their objects as equivalents, equal. The equivalents are the objectification [Vergegenständlichung] of one subject for another; i.e. they themselves are of equal worth, and assert themselves in the act of exchange as equally worthy, and at the same time as mutually indifferent.'


Alison Derwent's picture
Mon, 21/05/2012 - 21:42

Complete chinless wonder smug dumb a**ehole in fact....If this is how stupid and misfit they turn out, don't send your kids to private school folks!!

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 09:06

Tim - aren't you going back rather a long way (to 1857) to find evidence that what you define as the "high ground" is incomprehensible. Although Orwell died in 1948, his essay "Politics and the English Language" is the best critique of the sort of language you found.

But this thread isn't about the misuse of language, it concerns two subjects: education in Finland and private schools. Plonking links to sound tracks may be Oh-so-amusing but doesn't move the debate on. What next? Another set of instructions about how to make a cup of tea? Perhaps you can tell us how to make a glove puppet out of an old sock and then we could respond with witticisms about where to put it.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 13:31

There is a theme, as with any good pudding, to my more eccentric links, which you clearly have not spotted.

In any case your strictures ignore remarks less good humoured than mine and are, consequently, worthy of no consideration whatsoever.

Your pudding may have a theme, but it lacks balance.

In a spirit of forgiveness, here is a favourite recipe of mine:


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 08:18

Tim - reply to comment above (7.31 21/05/12 no reply button). You raise an interesting point about the differences between the Finnish language and English with its irregular spellings. However, assessing reading in English does not seem to have harmed Canada, New Zealand and Australia which are in the ten top-performing countries in PISA tests.

You quote Professor Janhunen. He was disappointed with the PISA 2009 results because Finland was ranked third behind Shanghai-China and Korea. He said that the Finnish system was "very good at encouraging a very good mediocre."

Some people, apparently, are never satisfied. And isn't "very good mediocre" an oxymoron?


Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 09:26

Not sure what Professor Janhunen meant but what has characterized the Finns I know and have met is their modesty, so perhaps it would not be in his nature to say the Finnish system was super duper A* brilliant. When they embarked on their reforms, their motive wasn't to be the best and beat down competition. They just wanted to improve the life chances of their own citizens.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 16:02

There are a few dissenting voices in Finland, though.

'Unfortunately something very tangible was left out of both articles: the lack of a feel-good factor in Finnish schools among the 11, 13 and 15-year-olds. In fact, according to PISA, Finnish youth have one of the lowest scores of any EU country when it comes to liking school a lot. And as a side note, 15-year-olds rarely have dinner with their families.

In other words, although Finnish schools score high in various subject-related results, they score low in the emotional side of the student. I think that this is also worthy of attention. At what price do we keep stressing a student’s test scores as if they are a humanoid with a computer chip? Should the education authorities begin to see the child as a human being and not as a test-taking machine?

What is unfortunate in all this is the child who seems to be going it alone in Finnish society, with poor wellbeing scores in family relationships too. And these low wellbeing scores are certainly nothing to brag about, which is one reason why they are hardly ever mentioned or discussed within our society. Immigrants need to take note of these facts if they wish their child to be well developed not just intellectually and but also emotionally and mentally too.'


Recommending the closing down of all private schools in Britain, one way or another, looks unlikely to feature in any of the manifestos of the major parties in 2015.

Alison Derwent's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 18:18

Tim Bidet is so panicked! scrambling around here trying to make sow's ear out of a Finnish purse. No Finland ain't perfect Bidet but it does well for the majority of its citizens. Sniping from the sidelines like the snivelling impotent pubic schoolboy that you are might give the moral highground but it makes you look like a middle England travesty of the real gent. awesome fake. what a loser! The Finns would wipe you out without even trying because they don't even need to compete with the whiny schoolboy

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 19:37

This link of yours about dissenting voices in Finland - is this the result of some research or is it just some anonymous random person having a comment? Are you seriously expecting people to give this any credibility at all??

A FInnish educator at Pasi Sahlberg's lecture stood up at the end and, with the modesty, generosity and grace shared by all Finns that I know, complimented the British education system by saying our children had better social skills than many Finnish children. I wouldn't say that was a sign that "all was not rosy" in Finland. In any case, she said the Finns were working on this. Had you been at the lecture, Tim Bidie, you might not have had to resort to yet another random cut and paste job - this time so random it's from a "university lecturer" (and I'm Monica Bellucci) - to embarrass yourself further.

You're probably right that none of the parties will recommend closing down private schools but this is because, so far, there is no political will to do it. By 2015, let's see how degraded and impoverished people's lives have become as a result of this government's shocking record of widening social inequality and then let's see how much more entrenched people's attitudes will become to those who have whilst they have not. Change comes slowly. It came slowly in Finland. It has come slowly in the Middle East but change came about because the people wanted equality.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 18:50


BYTUENE Mershe ant Averil
When spray biginneth to spring,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
On hyre lud to synge:
Ich libbe in love-longinge
For semlokest of alle thynge,
He may me blisse bringe,
Icham in hire bandoun.
An hendy hap ichabbe y-hent,
Ichot from hevene it is me sent,
From alle wymmen my love is lent
Ant lyht on Alisoun.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 20:17

My dear fellow - I'm delighted to hear that you have met a Finn. I'm also delighted, though not altogether surprised, to hear that you are Monica Belluci, Your oeuvres go before you.
Indeed, let us see. Good luck with that. Regarding the Middle East, as with much else, 'plus ca change etc. etc.'

Alison Derwent's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 19:11

Also sprecht der Arschloch

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 22/05/2012 - 19:27


On heu hire her is fayr ynoh,
Hire browe broune, hire eye blake;
With lossum chere he on me loh;
With middel smal ant wel y-make;
Bote he me wolle to hire take
For to buen hire owen make,
Long to lyven ichulle forsake
Ant feye fallen adoun.
An hendy hap, etc.

I am a Finn myself, and have spent most of my learning time within the Finnish education system. I think that the Finnish education system is good for the most part. With regard to problems such as children not feeling good in school etc. it is hard to say without research how much the problems are due to the school system, and how much other factors such as national culture, problems at home etc. play a part.

Alan Mathison's picture
Fri, 31/05/2013 - 15:58

The Finnish school system is unlikely to be perfect as is any other creation of man, but it is surely a lot nearer to being a good system than the mess that is the English system.

How any ‘system’ could be composed of such disparate elements as the UK system and still claim to be a ‘system’? The range of independent schools is varied, the good and bad are obvious two types, but then there are the real ‘public’ schools and the private schools, the various types of independent religious schools, schools that are run as trusts and schools that are run as businesses, schools that are progressive, schools that are traditional, schools that are ‘hearty’ and those that are academic, schools that select their pupils on academic ability as well as ability to pay and those where ability to pay is the prime criterion for admission.

The state ‘system’ is if anything even more varied, and getting more varied with every Education Secretary as each tries to leave his mark on the system.

Such a state of educational and structural chaos could not provide a good education for the children of society, for a society so class conscious and social unequal as England it means that our children will never as a whole enjoy a good education without root and branch reform. Surely the example of Finland's root and branch reform, of which the incorporation of the previous fee-paying schools into the Finnish state system is only a small part, should give us much food for thought.

Keith Griffiths's picture
Fri, 31/05/2013 - 18:00

The latest comprehensive research makes it clear that nothing is clear.

'the most striking result of the search for correlations is the overall paucity of clear linkages. In this, our study is not alone.

Ludger Woessmann, Professor of Economics at the University of Munich, explains that a lack of “any relationship between inputs and outputs mirrors the extensive academic literature on this topic. If you try to go beyond simple correlations, the general result is nearly always the same.”

Chester Finn, President of the Thomas Fordham Institute, an education research organisation, and former United States Assistant Secretary of Education, agrees. “What works,” he says, “takes place inside a black box that has inputs coming in and outputs going out; but the inputs do not predict the results and what goes on in the black box is hard to quantify.”

National cultures, particularly homogeneous national cultures (which the UK no longer has), play a significant part in educational success:

'Respect for teachers, for example, is ingrained in certain cultures such as those in Finland and South Korea.'

'Finally, there are cultural parallels. The two societies are highly supportive of both the school system itself and of education in general. Of course, other countries are also highly supportive of education, but what may set Finland and South Korea apart is that in both, ideas about education have also been shaped by a significant underlying moral purpose.'

Without a homogeneous national culture, available educational choice seems to be a popular and successful option:

'The benefits were greater than average for students with a lower socio-economic status where such private schools were publicly funded, as in Belgium and
the Netherlands. Professor Woessmann, one of the authors, explains:

“If there is more choice for parents, and more non-governmental school operators so that schools are not managed by one big state monopoly, countries perform much better.”

But, above all:

'The understanding of what inputs lead to the best educational outcomes is still basic, which is not surprising given that robust international benchmarking figures are few and often of recent date.

Moreover, education remains an art, and much of what engenders quality is difficult to quantify.'


Raf Feys's picture
Sat, 23/11/2013 - 16:45

Finnisch miracle: fata morgana?
Finnish students’ achievement (15 y) declined significantly: study of University Helsinki
University of Helsinki - Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen
Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001
S.: The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably: under the mean of the scale used in the questions. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
Since 1996, educational effectiveness has been understood in Finland to include not only subject specific knowledge and skills but also the more general competences which are not the exclusive domain of any single subject but develop through good teaching along a student’s educational career. Many of these, including the object of the present assessment, learning to learn, have been named in the education policy documents of the European Union as key competences which each member state should provide their citizens as part of general education (EU 2006).
In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.
The results of the Vantaa study could be compared against the results of a similar assessment implemented in 2004. As the decline in students’ cognitive competence and in their learning related attitudes was especially strong in the two Vantaa studies, with only 6 years apart, a decision was made to direct the national assessment of spring 2012 to the same schools which had participated in a respective study in 2001.
The goal of the assessment was to find out whether the decline in results, observed in the Helsinki region, were the same for the whole country. The assessment also offered a possibility to look at the readiness of schools to implement a computer-based assessment, and how this has changed during the 11 years between the two assessments. After all, the 2001 assessment was the first in Finland where large scale student assessment data was collected in schools using the Internet.
The main focus of the assessment was on students’ competence and their learning-related attitudes at the end of the comprehensive school education, but the assessment also relates to educational equity: to regional, between-school, and between- class differences and to the relation of students’ gender and home background to their competence and attitudes.
The assessment reached about 7 800 ninth grade students in 82 schools in 65 municipalities. Of the students, 49% were girls and 51% boys. The share of students in Swedish speaking schools was 3.4%. As in 2001, the assessment was implemented in about half of the schools using a printed test booklet and in the other half via the Internet. The results of the 2001 and 2012 assessments were uniformed through IRT modelling to secure the comparability of the results. Hence, the results can be interpreted to represent the full Finnish ninth grade population.
Girls performed better than boys in all three fields of competence measured in the assessment: reasoning, mathematical thinking, and reading comprehension. The difference was especially noticeable in reading comprehension even if in this task girls’ attainment had declined more than boys’ attainment. Differences between the AVI-districts were small. The impact of students’ home-background was, instead, obvious: the higher the education of the parents, the better the student performed in the assessment tasks. There was no difference in the impact of mother’s education on boys’ and girls’ attainment. The between-school-differences were very small (explaining under 2% of the variance) while the between-class differences were relatively large (9 % – 20 %).
The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
The mean level of attitudes detrimental to learning has risen but the rise is more modest. Girls’ attainment has declined more than boys’ in three of the five tasks. There was no gender difference in the change of students’ attitudes, however. Between-school differences were un-changed but differences between classes and between individual students had grown. The change in attitudes—unlike the change in attainment—was related to students’ home background: The decline in learning-supporting attitudes and the growth in attitudes detrimental to school work were weaker the better educated the mother. Home background was not related to the change in students’ attainment, however. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.
The results of the assessment point to a deeper, on-going cultural change which seems to affect the young generation especially hard. Formal education seems to be losing its former power and the accepting of the societal expectations which the school represents seems to be related more strongly than before to students’ home background. The school has to compete with students’ self-elected pastime activities, the social media, and the boundless world of information and entertainment open to all through the Internet. The school is to a growing number of youngpeople just one, often critically reviewed, developmental environment among many.
The change is not a surprise, however. A similar decline in student attainment has been registered in the other Nordic countries already earlier. It is time to concede that the signals of change have been discernible already for a while and to open up a national discussion regarding the state and future of the Finnish comprehensive school that rose to international acclaim due to our students’success in the PISA studies.

Raf Feys's picture
Sat, 23/08/2014 - 20:52

View of Finnish teachers versus view of Pasi Sahlberg
Oxford- Prof. Jennifer Chung ( AN INVESTIGATION OF REASONS FOR FINLAND’S SUCCESS IN PISA (University of Oxford 2008).
“Many of the teachers mentioned the converse of the great strength of Finnish education (= de grote aandacht voor kinderen met leerproblemen) as the great weakness. Jukka S. (BM) believes that school does not provide enough challenges for intelligent students: “I think my only concern is that we give lots of support to those pupils who are underachievers, and we don’t give that much to the brightest pupils. I find it a problem, since I think, for the future of a whole nation, those pupils who are really the stars should be supported, given some more challenges, given some more difficulty in their exercises and so on. To not just spend their time here but to make some effort and have the idea to become something, no matter what field you are choosing, you must not only be talented like they are, but work hard. That is needed. “
Pia (EL) feels that the schools do not motivate very intelligent students to work. She thinks the schools should provide more challenges for the academically talented students. In fact, she thinks the current school system in Finland does not provide well for its students. Mixed-ability classrooms, she feels, are worse than the previous selective system: “ I think this school is for nobody. That is my private opinion. Actually I think so, because when you have all these people at mixed levels in your class, then you have to concentrate on the ones who need the most help, of course. Those who are really good, they get lazy. “
Pia believes these students become bored and lazy, and float through school with no study skills. Jonny (EM) describes how comprehensive education places the academically gifted at a disadvantage: “We have lost a great possibility when we don’t have the segregated levels of math and natural sciences… That should be once again taken back and started with. The good talents are now torturing themselves with not very interesting education and teaching in classes that aren’t for their best.
Pia (EL) finds the PISA frenzy about Finland amusing, since she believes the schools have declined in recent years: “I think [the attention] is quite funny because school isn’t as good as it used to be … I used to be proud of being a teacher and proud of this school, but I can’t say I ’m proud any more.”
Aino (BS) states that the evenness and equality of the education system has a “dark side.” Teaching to the “middle student” in a class of heterogeneous ability bores the gifted students, who commonly do not perform well in school. Maarit (DMS) finds teaching heterogeneous classrooms very difficult. She admits that dividing the students into ability levels would make the teaching easier, but worries that it may affect the self-esteem of the weaker worse than a more egalitarian system Similarly, Terttu (FMS) thinks that the class size is a detriment to the students’ learning. Even though Finnish schools have relatively small class sizes, she thinks that a group of twenty is too large, since she does not have time for all of the students: “You don’t have enough time for everyone … All children have to be in the same class. That is not so nice. You have the better pupils. I can’t give them as much as I want. You have to go so slowly in the classroom.” Curiously, Jukka E. (DL) thinks that the special education students need more support and the education system needs to improve in that area.
Miikka (FL) describes how he will give extra work to students who want to have more academic challenges, but admits that “they can get quite good grades, excellent grades, by doing nothing actually, or very little.” Miikka (FL) describes discussion in educational circles about creating schools and universities for academically talented students: 3 Everyone has the same chances…One problem is that it can be too easy for talented students. There has been now discussion in Finland if there should be schools and universities for talented students… I think it will happen, but I don’t know if it is good, but it will happen, I think so. I am also afraid there will be private schools again in Finland in the future … [There] will be more rich people and more poor people, and then will come so [many] problems in comprehensive schools that some day quite soon … parents will demand that we should have private schools again, and that is quite sad.

Linda (AL), however, feels the love of reading has declined in the younger generation, as they tend to gravitate more to video games and television. Miikka (FL), also a teacher of mother tongue, also cites a decline in reading interest and an increase of video game and computer play. Saij a (BL) agrees. As a teacher of Finnish, she feels that she has difficulty motivating her students to learn: “I think my subject is not the … easiest one to teach. They don’t read so much, newspapers or novels.” Her students, especially the boys, do not like their assignments in Finnish language. She also thinks the respect for teachers has declined in this past generation. Miikka (FL) also thinks his students do not respect their teachers: “They don’t respect the teachers. They respect them very little … I think it has changed a lot in recent years. In Helsinki, it was actually earlier. When I came here six years ago, I thought this was heaven. I thought it was incredible, how the children were like that after Helsinki, but now I think it is the same.
Linda (AL) notes deficiency in the amount of time available for subjects. With more time, she would implement more creative activities, such as speech and drama, into her lessons. Saij a (BL) also thinks that her students need more arts subjects like drama and art. She worries that they consider mathematics as the only important subject. Shefeels countries such as Sweden, Norway, and England have better arts programs than in Finnish schools. Arts subjects, according to Saij a, help the students get to know themselves. Maarit (DMS), a Finnish-speaker, thinks that schools need to spend more time cultivating social skills.


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