As England starts sampling tests in primary science, how is sampling done in Finland?

Janet Downs's picture
Finland has no school inspection system like Ofsted. So how does Finland ensure that pupils’ achievement remains at an acceptable level?

The answer: Finland uses sampling techniques to test whether pupils overall have reached results appropriate for their age.

Finnish schools assess their pupils continuously in any case. The findings inform teaching: they are formative not summative. Assessment is used to drive improvement, improve the quality of teachers’ professional development or for targeting support not for ranking schools.

Sampling in Finland works like this:

1The Finnish Board of Education (FBoE) picks schools at random.
2Chosen schools must take part.
3Officials write the sampling test.
4Teachers in the chosen schools use the test as part of their normal testing regime. This means it is not disruptive or unsettling.
5Teachers mark the test and send it be marked again by FBoE officials.
6 The FBoE produces a report based on the overall results. Participating schools are not identified or ranked.

In 2012, 6555 pupils took part in sample maths tests in 169 schools (22 were Swedish language schools). The report on maths aims to answer questions such as:

1How well do pupils learn the different areas of maths?
2Do girls and boys, or pupils in different regions, perform equally in maths?
3How big are the differences between schools?
4Is assessment (grading) of maths standardised and does it follow norms?

Compare this with the science sampling due to take place in England (see here):

1Schools will be chosen at random as in Finland.
2An external administrator will bring the tests to the school.
3In each school, only five children chosen by the external administrator will take part.
4The external administrator will be responsible for administering the tests and taking them away for marking.

The Department for Education (DfE) has said the test results will be reported as “national data”: schools and children will not be identified. Individual results will not be returned to schools. Information from the tests, the DfE says, will not be used for accountability purposes or league tables.

So, what is the purpose of the science sampling tests? That question has already been asked by John Mountford. The DfE says “detailed information will be provided to schools selected to participate” but surely the overall findings should be available to all schools to improve teaching and support professional development? That’s presuming, of course, results from tests which sample only five children in each school in abnormal circumstances could be seen as reliable.

Sampling, as used in Finland, appears to be a valid way of assessing education quality. The results are used proactively to drive improvement.


It’s difficult to see how the system of sampling science education in English primary schools will do much to improve the teaching of primary science.

Thanks to Sirkku Nikamaa-Linder for help in preparing this post.
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John Mountford's picture
Mon, 17/02/2014 - 16:15

Thanks for your diligence in taking the original thread further, Janet. Once again we see that what happens in another country, Finland, is designed to feed back into the school system rather than piling up stats for the sake of it. Maybe we will see our own department for education eventually acknowledging that it has a very pressing responsibility to support the development of education rather than reporting on its outcomes in what, most often, amounts to a punitive manner. Why am I not convinced that this is about to happen?

On a more serious note, I believe that parents need to consider carefully the outcomes of education reform in our country in the light of what some other nations with different systems of education governance are able to achieve (and I am not referring to PISA outcomes). They need also to consider whether it isn’t time for action. The present system is damaging the prospects of young people. I refer, as ever, to the disruption to and total distortion of education reform caused by the fact that education governance is shackled to general election outcomes at a maximum of five yearly intervals. As the recent report by Pearson UK pointed out, it is not even that good, “on average, education secretaries have remained in post for two years over the past 25-year period.” UNACCEPTABLE!

Food for thought and a call to action!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/02/2014 - 15:59

Thanks, John. Sorry it took so long for the comment to appear - it got stuck in moderation. But when Computer-Says-No, it requires a human being to notice. And computer doesn't automatically signal there's a comment waiting because most of the time the refused comments are spam.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 13:46

The Finnish system seems very sensible to me. In an English version it could be supported by HMI.

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