Finland’s slipped a bit in league tables, therefore Finland’s system is failing. Really?

Janet Downs's picture
Finland has slipped down PISA league tables since 2000. This shows the much-lauded Finnish system has failed. That’s the conclusion of Gabriel Sahlgren, research director at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE), in Real Finnish Lessons published by the Centre for Policy Studies.

It’s true Finland dropped to 12th place in Maths out of 65 countries and jurisdictions* taking PISA tests in 2012, but the country is still top of the European league in Reading (6th globally) and Science (5th globally), so talk of Finland’s demise is perhaps premature.

Sahlgren argues Finland’s earlier success was down to traditional teaching which occurred before Finland’s ‘lack of accountability and the high level of autonomy for schools’ took hold together with socioeconomic and historical factors.

There is a high level of autonomy for Finnish teachers. And autonomy, as the OECD found, is a component found in systems successful in PISA tests. But it’s untrue to say Finnish schools aren’t accountable. True, there is no inspectorate, but accountability is ‘bottom up’ as OECD made clear in Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results. Oddly, this analysis of Finland’s success isn’t cited in Sahlgren’s monologue.

Sahlgren is clear about what causes educational success. It’s traditional, knowledge-based education and independent schools. ‘Pupil-led’ methods are anathema, he claims. The term ‘pupil-led’ is often used to describe pupil-centred, or ‘child-centred’, methods which put the child at the centre of education. It implies anarchy where the pupil decides what s/he wishes to learn. That is, of course, a parody of child-centred education. If the child isn’t at the centre of education, then what, or who, is? Society? Employers? Parents? Governments?

The presence of independent schools raises standards, Sahlgren writes. He cites West and Woessmann Every Catholic in a Catholic School: Historical Resistance to State Schooling (summarised here) which used PISA 2003 (and a limited number of countries – 29 of the 40 which took part) to claim 'larger shares of privately operated schools lead to better student achievement in mathematics'. But PISA 2003 actually contradicted their conclusion:

“…these [international] comparisons show that the association between a school being private and its students doing well is at best tenuous. Thus, any policy to enhance overall performance only by moving funding from public to private institutions is subject to considerable uncertainty.”

This has been confirmed by subsequent PISA reports – policies which increase choice and competition between types of schools don’t raise standards as claimed. And in 2009, the OECD found that globally, state-run schools (known as public schools in OECD jargon) outperform independent schools when social-economic background is taken into account.

If slipping down a few ranks in PISA tables shows Finland’s education system is not working, as Sahlgren claims, then what does plummeting down the league signify? Sweden, once much-praised by Michael Gove and others for its free schools, and the USA, whose charter schools inspired the Coalition, have both sunk in PISA rankings. Sweden’s performance has fallen so badly its 15 year-olds score significantly below the OECD average. According to Sahlgren’s logic, the education systems in these countries, with their emphasis on competition and choice, have also failed.

Judging school systems by how well countries climb PISA’s greasy pole is, in any case, flawed. As Pasi Sahlberg says in his critique of Sahlgren’s report:

‘…to focus only on test results as a proof of success …is to define successful education too narrowly. The quality of an education system is about more than high academic test scores.’


The myth 'Choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success' is exploded in our book School Myths. And the Evidence That Blows Them Apart. An extract from the chapter is here.

*Jurisdictions are districts within a country. Shanghai, for example, is a jurisdiction, as is Hong Kong.

PISA is the Programme for International Student Assessment which takes place every three years. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development oversee PISA tests.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 28/04/2015 - 14:23

I see lots of comment from America about this issue. The parallels with the English experience are very strong.

Sahlgren, like Gove and our own ideologues will not be persuaded regardless of the evidence.

However we must persist in refuting these claims.

Keep up the good work Janet.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 29/04/2015 - 09:29

Roger – Sahlgren appears to be on the side of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) in his support for ‘market reform’ of education. GERM encourages competition between schools; standardisation via prescribed curriculum, teaching and expected outcomes; test-based accountability and ‘choice’.

Sahlgren describes GERM as school accountability, market-based reforms, and more schoolwork and claims ‘there is little rigorous research suggesting that GERM-inspired policies are bad for international test scores.’

OECD found accountability when linked with school autonomy was a feature in school systems which performed well in PISA tests. But accountability* doesn’t necessarily imply judging schools on exam results alone. Performance accountability via national exams was used in 23 of 35 OECD member countries at age 18 but only England, Northern Ireland and Wales used 16+ exams. And in England there was already an excessive emphasis on test results in 2011, OECD warned. This emphasis has increased not diminished.

Other forms of accountability used were regulatory accountability and market accountability – evidence for the efficacy of the latter was fragmentary and inconclusive, OECD found. Yet Sahlgren wants market based reforms because they’re not found to be ‘bad’. But they’re not good either. And OECD and others found market initiatives such as choice and competition resulted in greater segregation.

In any case, as Pasi Sahlberg made clear, education is not solely to shove countries up international league tables. It’s more important than that.

*See faq above ‘How are schools held accountable in OECD member countries?’ for more information.

Jenny Collins's picture
Thu, 30/04/2015 - 11:25

The social advances made in this country after World War II are being dismantled by a combination of business interests, career politicians, a compliant media and think-tanks such as the CMRE.
I wrote a letter to Gabriel Sahlgren in November 2013. You can read it here:
His response included a reference to Finland moving to a lower position in the PISA tables; now he's written a little book about it for a think-tank. It helps to create the sense that there is a debate about whether Finland has a good education system or not. Clearly by any standards it does. What it doesn't have is a model of education that fits the standardised, corporate version of schooling being foisted upon us by private greed. It surprises me that anyone takes this stuff seriously. Lots of people do unfortunately...lots of 'educated' people!
Keep up the good work Janet.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 30/04/2015 - 11:58

Jenny - Sahlgren wrote a lukewarm review of Pasi Sahlberg's 'Finnish Lessons' in Schools Week.

Sahlgren says there's no evidence that Finland's success in PISA is down to 'equality, collaboration, strong professional autonomy, and the principle that “less is more”' He points to Finland's slippage in PISA to claim the Finnish Way hasn't worked.

He may be right that correlation isn't causation - that the Finnish Way didn't actually cause Finland's high PISA score. But he can't have it both ways - if the Finnish Way didn't cause Finland's achievement then it can't have caused its (very slight) decline.

A week later in Schools Week, the phrase 'less is more' appeared again. But not in relation to Finland but Singapore. The article's not available yet online but Pak Tee Ng* said while PISA was a 'useful benchmark', Singapore was more interesting in improving its system so it 'could achieve high quality education that goes beyond performing well in assessments' (this reaffirms was Pasi Sahlberg said - education is more that PISA scores).

'We encourage teachers to "teach less" so that students can "learn more" ("Teach Less Learn More"),' Ng said.

Not sure Sahlgren would agree with that.

*Pak Tee Ng is Associate Dean, Leadership Learning and the Head of Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE) , Nanyang Technological University

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 30/04/2015 - 12:12

Jenny and Roger - Sahlgren was once a Koch Fellow at the US-based Competitive Enterprise Institute which describes itself as ‘a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty.’

The Koch brothers are ‘conservative billionaires’ whose empire has’ expanded into a far-reaching operation of unrivaled complexity, built around a maze of groups that cloaks its donors,’ according to the Washington Post. They ‘fund a host of libertarian think tanks and advocacy groups’. They set up the Cato Institute, a free-markets advocacy group, but a lawsuit in 2012 reduced Koch influence.

Cato in turn is linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which, among other things, drafts ‘model bills’ which ‘spread uniformly-drafted rightwing legislation from state to state.’ Cato and the struck-off UK charity, Atlantic Bridge, signed a ‘special relationship’. Michael Gove was on the advisory board of Atlantic Bridge.

I think we can see where ‘market-based reforms’ are coming from.

For an infograph and further info of Gove links with News Corp, ALEC, Pearson and presidential hopeful Jeb Buss see here.

Jenny Collins's picture
Thu, 30/04/2015 - 13:53

Yes, thanks for that Janet. I wondered what the smell was!

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