The magic of education in Finland


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Photo Credit: Barbara Bruns / World Bank

Anyone working in education is familiar with the story of Finland’s remarkable evolution into one of the world’s top-performing education systems. The country ranked fifth in science and sixth in reading on the 2012 PISA assessment, second on the 2012 PIAAC (the new OECD test of adult literacy) , and is routinely in the top five of practically every other international measure of education quality.  To visitors from standards-and-accountability-heavy countries such as the UK and the US, or from low-performing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), Finland’s formula can seem like magic.   All teachers have a Master’s degree. There is no student testing. There are no school inspections or rankings. Students have little homework and teachers work few hours. Teachers are trusted professionals with full autonomy in the classroom.               

My study tour to Finland in September 2015 convinced me that this formula is indeed magic.  Why?  Because the popular version of the “Finnish story” neglects elements of the institutional context that are so hard-wired into the system that the locals hardly register them.  Three crucial elements, in particular, create an accountability framework that makes it possible for the “magic” to work. 

First, teachers do not have job stability.  They are hired by individual schools – not school districts.  If a school director asks a teacher to leave – and it does happen – the teacher alone is responsible for finding a new position.  Just reflect on the incentives for performance that this creates. 

In LAC and the US, teachers are hired by municipal, state or national school systems and have civil service job stability.  If a school director is not satisfied with a teacher’s performance, it is the school system’s responsibility to transfer the teacher elsewhere, because it is virtually impossible to fire teachers.  The result? Over time, poorly qualified and/or unmotivated or “burned out” teachers sink like sediment into schools in the poorest neighborhoods with the weakest school directors.  Education loses its essential power to redress inequality by offering disadvantaged students opportunity. 

Second, school budgets depend on enrollments.  Finland runs a national school choice system where parents and students can choose freely between the 2,600 municipal and 80 privately-managed schools and funding follows the student.  While municipalities provide infrastructure financing to municipal schools, this appears to be the only major way in which the municipal schools differ from private schools.  Crucially, they do not guarantee teacher salaries or fixed costs if enrollments decline.  

As a result, about 100 municipal schools per year have closed over the past several years.  Reflect on the incentives for performance that this creates.  In public school districts in LAC or the US, if a school loses enrollments, the system continues to finance its teacher salaries and fixed costs.  In the privately-managed schools in Finland, principals serve at the pleasure of the governing board.

Photo Credit: Barbara Bruns / World Bank

​Third, students face performance pressure.  Sure, they do not have to take standardized tests (except on a sample basis in a few grades of primary school).  However, their futures depend in a significant way on a demanding set of matriculation exams at the end of ninth grade.  These exams cover the curriculum in Finnish, math, science and foreign languages (most students we met study at least two languages besides Finnish!).

Scoring highly is required for entry into the most competitive upper secondary schools and for the academic track in general; over 40% of Finnish students go into a vocational track for secondary education).  Think about the incentives for performance that this creates.  In the US and LAC, standardized testing may be onerous but it has no stakes for individual students. Most LAC and US students do not face high-stakes exams until the end of upper secondary school. 

​Visitors to Finland are invariably dazzled by school infrastructure, which reflects the close to seven percent of GDP the country invests in education.  We saw several examples of older schools that have been renovated with colorful, light-filled modern additions.  We also saw well-prepared teachers who managed class time seamlessly and kept all students engaged.  But what is dangerous for education policy elsewhere is the tendency for visitors to seize on single elements of Finland’s policies as solutions for their countries. 

A Chilean minister told me that a study group returned from Finland calling for abolition of the Chilean national assessment, SIMCE (Sistema de Medición de la Calidad de la Educación (Education Quality Measurement System) because Finland “does not use standardized testing”.  Another senior official wondered whether Brazil could raise the professionalism and prestige of teachers by also mandating master’s degree preparation, despite the much lower content, quality and effectiveness of these programs in Brazil, and the much higher academic selectivity of teacher preparation in Finland. 

In translating “Finnish lessons” into Spanish, Portuguese and English, it is crucial to recognize how profoundly the core institutional context in Finland differs from that of LAC and the US.  All of the actors in Finnish education face significantly higher individual accountability for performance – which may be the truly important ingredient in the magic of education in Finland.   

For more information about teachers in Latin America and the Caribbean, read this report.
Check out this previous blog about the Finnish education system.
Watch the video of a conversation our education experts had with Education Minister Krista Kiuru about Finland.


Barbara Bruns

Lead Education Economist, Latin America and the Caribbean

Eero Nevalainen
October 29, 2015

The "funding follows student" model in Finland is not supposed to be causing schools to compete for students, though, and that really just wouldn't happen. The whole point about paying schools by enrollment is to guarantee that there are x euros per student per year available to the school, and the logic behind this is very egalitarian -- you have to have the same kind of possibilities regardless of the school you went to, so if some school ends up having more students, they also need more resources.
Also, what are these matriculation examinations at the end of *ninth* grade? Never heard of them?

November 01, 2015

You are right-- the objective of Finland's funding model is to equalize opportunity for all students, and it does that very well. It is not aimed at creating competition for students. But while Finns might not conceptualize it this way, the impact of a funding-follows-the-student system is to create performance pressures on schools to maintain enrollments by delivering quality services.
I'm surprised by your comment about the 9th grade exams. Every school we visited talked about them.

July 28, 2016

In my country we have the same model. You know what that funding-follows-the-student model ever achieved? High graduation rates. Doesn't matter how stupid you are, you will always graduate, because that is the only metric. It's the same as the metric in animal farms. The more animals, the more money needed. That's it. No quality ever comes from such an education model. It CAN NOT.

Joni Karjalainen
October 30, 2015

In the 9th grade 14- or 15-year-olds do not have final exams. A pupil may want to achieve a high enough final average from her/his studies to get accepted into a high school s/he is interested in.
Others opt for vocational studies. Some combine high school with vocational skills.
Matriculation examinations are organised at the end of a typically three-year high school. They require preparation and focused studying for the 18-year old student to cover Finnish, foreign languages, selected fields (philosophy, social studies, history, biology etc.) and math.

susanna patja
October 31, 2015

Hmmmm....isn't every one of her three points incorrect? 1) It is not easy to fire a teacher in Finland as many have tenure 2) You can not freely chose your child's elementary school, it is based on the school districts dependent on where you live 3) Matriculation exams are taken in the 12th grade not the 9th grade.

Jimmy R. Aycart
October 31, 2015

It was really a surprise the first time that it was reported to the world how good in education Finland was doing. But, besides the scores from the PISA's test, I believe that there are more variables that must be considered in your comparative analysis. That is, the countries real and possible desire to achieve a great base of prepared human resources to be able to meet their future development demands. Furthermore, in International comparative education we have to be careful reading educational structures and other social and political variables before we write and opinion. Latin America is different from Finland in many ways and even more the United States. But, getting to the PISA's scores, "East Asian countries nations continue to outperform others, while Scandinavia shows mixed results" (The Learning Curve, Pearson Report 2014)

Patricia Huion
November 02, 2015

I don't like this link between tenured teachers and poor teaching performance. I live in Belgium, have a stable teaching job and like many of my colleagues I've never lost my passion for education and my commitment to inclusive education. I think there are many reasons why teachers drop out which should be researched in an unbiased way.

Barbara Bruns
November 02, 2015

Yes, you are right -- I would never say that tenure causes teachers to be bad. In many systems -- like Finland and Belgium, where teachers are of high caliber because the career is selective and pre-service training is good -- it is the professional culture and commitment to children that motivate teachers to perform, not fear of losing their job. But it's interesting that they still CAN lose their job in a particular school (in Finland, I don't know about Belgium) if they do not perform well. I was drawing a contrast with systems where entry into teaching is not selective and pre-service training is not good, and there is not a strong professional culture. In these cases, the fact that teachers who do not perform well in one school are guaranteed a job in another really has negative impacts on system quality.  

Dandan Chen
November 25, 2015

The Guardian also published an article on education in Finland, which may offer additional insights.
According to this article, in Finland, teaching is "a highly prized profession," and the teacher-training system is of high quality and strongly research-based. Additionally, the students are also very involved in research even at the primary school level, which is planned purposely so as to stimulate "cognitive dissonance." Moreover, teachers tend to have more autonomy in Finland than many other countries, as they are allowed to plan curricula and assess students independently within a school, without national standardization or inspection.
Here is the URL to this article. Hopefully it helps: