The success of Finland’s education system is well known. At the turn of the century it emerged as a global leader in education. PISA tests revealed Finnish pupils produced some of the world’s highest scores in maths, science and reading, to this day the country’s performance remains the highest ranked in Europe.
The success came under a system built resolutely against the grain of prevailing education fashions adopted by other developed countries including Britain. Driven by a commitment to equality Finland has outlawed school selection, formal exams before the age of 18 and streaming by ability. Competition, choice, privatisation and league tables do not exist. Private schools and grammar schools were abolished decades ago.
Finnish parents don’t worry about whether or not their children will attend a “good” school because educational outcomes vary little between schools so children attend the local comprehensive. Whilst at school there is a considerable emphasis placed upon children’s health and wellbeing with free nutritious meals provided and many opportunities for playing and learning outdoors. The school day is shorter too and homework is kept to a minimum or none at all.
In Finland teachers are very highly regarded and their salaries reflect this status. They are also very highly qualified. Power is devolved and Finnish educators have a great deal of autonomy in respect of how they design and direct learning. Educational policy and teaching is heavily research-based. For the Finns there is no crisis of recruitment and retention, instead, teachers are valued, autonomous and have an esteemed professional status. With no inspections, tests, uniforms or fees, Finland’s education system is ranked among the best in the world.
In Finland children don’t start school until they are seven, but what happens before then is even more important. This late start to formal schooling is central to the country’s education policy. In the child care centres the emphasis is not on maths, reading or writing but instead on play, especially outdoors, creativity, health and wellbeing, social skills, self regulation, nurture and relationships. Official guidance also emphasises the importance of “joy of learning” during the early years of a child’s life. The main goal is that the children are happy and responsible individuals.
In Scotland there is an organisation called Upstart Scotland which is a charity campaigning for a kindergarten stage for children aged 3-7 along Nordic lines where children will enjoy rich play experiences especially opportunities for free play outdoors. Formal, academic learning will wait until the child starts school at the age of 7. Most European countries have a compulsory school starting age of 6. 6 is the most common school starting age worldwide.
The UK has a younger school starting age of 5 and many children start at 4. In Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland its 7. These countries with a later start age in particular Finland have much better attainment and much happier and healthier children than in Scotland.
Those in favour of retaining the current early start age argue that children as young as 4 and 5 are capable of learning the more formal skills of a school curriculum and that an early start gives children a head start. They also maintain that an early start particularly benefits children from disadvantaged backgrounds by allowing them to make up the deficit in their academic skills.
On the other hand concerns have been raised about the appropriateness of a school environment for young children. The evidence available suggests that teaching more formal skills (in school) gives some children an initial academic advantage, but that this advantage is not sustained in the longer term.
Many parents and educationalists are worried about the impact of an early start in relation to children’s health and well-being and the increase in the numbers of children particularly boys being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other developmental disorders. There is far more required than the current narrow definition of “school readiness” to enable children to thrive in a school environment.
It was the Education Act (1870) that determined the school start age and it was an economic decision to get women back to work, rather than an educational one. All children develop differently so determining the age at which children start school purely by their date of manufacture seems a bit crude. A four year old whose birthday is in January/February can be particularly disadvantaged in a school environment with classmates who may be as much as a year older. They may simply be not ready for the school curriculum as well as the social and emotional adjustments required.
Age 3-6 is considered to be a recognisable developmental stage during which children require a developmentally appropriate curriculum that delivers rich, stimulating play experiences within a nurturing social context. Play has a unique relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being for young children. A holistic play based approach embraces the belief that there are many things children need to learn before they begin to read and write such as speech and listening skills, social and emotional skills, empathy, self regulation skills, curiosity and creativity and these take time to develop. By the age of 7 most children will have developed their self-confidence and emotional resilience to enable them to embrace the rigours of more formal learning rather than just cope at age 4 or 5.
Upstart Scotland’s campaign to introduce a play based Kindergarten Stage for children aged 3-7 has captured the attention and imagination of parents, grandparents, teachers and other educationalists. It supports delaying the start of formal education and believes that a statutory kindergarten stage based on the Nordic model would change the ethos of Scottish education in the early years. It is also unequivocally opposed to Scottish Government’s introduction of testing of 4 and 5 year olds during their first year at school.
Sadly we have yet to convince the politicians that adopting this approach to early learning and childcare will if Finland is anything to go by, improve our children’s health and happiness and potentially address the poverty related attainment gap if introduced in Scotland along with other measures to reduce the appalling inequalities experienced by citizens in Scotland especially amongst our children and young people.
Ultimately, a society and education system that is built around principles of equality and fairness is what Scotland should be aiming for. And for this to happen, deep structural change is needed. We also need to review the curriculum to meet the needs of children and young people today rather than just preparing them for a world of work where many of the jobs and occupations of previous generations will be a thing of the past. For example New Zealand is putting mental health above economic stability and growth.
As I have a particular interest in education I think our schools should do the same. We should move away from our obsession with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and instead focus on General Well-Being (GWB). I hypothesise that such a move would be good for the economy as well as personal happiness as happy, healthy people are likely to be more productive and have fewer days off work through stress related illnesses. So perhaps schools should put mental health before tests and academia and educate children and young people to have a happy and healthy life.
As 50% of mental health problems start before the age of 14 at a cost to the economy of an estimated £105 billion a year this would make sense. The success of a school would be judged against measures of emotional well-being as opposed to exam results and university entrance. A broad curriculum that focused on skills for life including outdoor activities for physical and mental health and resilience as well as creative pursuits would allow children time and space to develop their own interests and adopt healthy and positive life habits.
The school would be based on a strong ethos of responsive care, play, relationships, democratic decision making and love. Schools would work together in an integrated way with other services to ensure that children and young people who required additional help would receive it promptly when needed. This approach would be the cornerstone of our education system from the age of 3 to 18 with a distinct kindergarten stage for children aged 3-7 where children have many opportunities to play outdoors and find out who they are and develop their social, emotional and personal skills before embarking on more formal learning.
Finland and Denmark have educational systems like this that place happiness and well adjusted citizens who contribute to their society in a positive and responsible way before exam passes. Not all children and young people are academic but within a system like this that valued each person as an individual instead of as economic fodder they would be able to discover what they are good at and follow their passions and talents. The present education system does not provide equity and equality especially when so many pupils are becoming disengaged from the learning process. New Zealand has recognised this and is moving in a different direction away from knowledge based learning towards the arts, technology and vocational qualifications.
Why is educational reform so difficult? What do you think? What kind of educational reform would you try to achieve, and how might it be achieved? Or are you happy with what we have?
Hilary Long Upstart Scotland