The sun is shining and children are climbing up great mounds of snow, sledging and playing ice hockey! No, it isn’t another snow-day! This is play time at an average primary school in Finland. The children have been in a lesson since 8 a.m. It’s now 8:45 and they’re ready for fifteen minutes fun with friends… outside in the snow!
Fifteen minutes play after each forty-five minute lesson is quite common in Finland. The Government has also recently introduced ‘Finnish Schools on the Move’, a national programme to increase physical activity and decrease sedentary time among school aged children. All children eat a healthy school lunch for free at school too.
Most of us who work in education have heard something about education in Finland; that children don’t start school until they’re seven and that (because or despite this) they achieve very well in the Programme for International Assessment (PISA). They are not resting on their laurels though. New local curricula, based on a national core curriculum, were implemented in schools from August 2016. The Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland also published Multilingualism as a Strength in December 2017, which proposes an array of measures to develop Finnish people’s language skills. This is a familiar theme with Welsh Government’s Global Futures plan for modern foreign languages and an ambition to have one million Welsh speakers by 2050.
It is not unusual in Finland for people to know four (or even more) languages. Some children learn a second language before they start school. Language showers are used at daycare centres to develop an early awareness and interest in other languages. Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) is used from pre-school (the year before children begin formal schooling). At school the first optional language is usually offered at Grade 5 (age 11/12). English is a popular choice (fuelled in part by its use in on-line gaming and popular culture). However, people increasingly consider that proficiency in Finnish and English is sufficient and interest in and uptake of other languages is in decline.
Swedish is Finland’s other national language. Swedish speakers comprise 5.4% of the Finnish population. There is some Swedish-medium provision in areas where it is more widely spoken. Other pupils learn Swedish at school from Grade 7 (age 13/14). Projects such as e-twinning have been established to help these pupils appreciate the relevance and value of learning the Swedish language.
Heritage languages (pupils’ home languages including minority languages such as Sami and Roma) are supported in the Finnish education system. In contrast to programmes all over the world which focus on integration solely through proficiency in the country’s national language(s), Finland recognises that developing literacy in children’s heritage languages provides an important foundation for developing proficiency in Finnish and other languages. This also develops a valuable resource which isn’t always recognised by education systems or by society.
From the schools we visited and lessons we observed, it doesn’t seem that teaching and learning in Finland is very different to Wales. The teachers we met spoke of changes in society which present ever more challenges for teachers and schools – a very familiar discussion! What was striking was the trust in teachers and teacher autonomy. Pupils are tested, of course; formative assessment is used and numerical grades shared with pupils and parents. The Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) collects sample data to inform system improvement but it does not identify or compare individual schools/classes/teachers/pupils. Schools are not inspected.
So what did we learn from Finland? We learned that we want our pupils to be healthy; our teachers’ professionalism to be trusted; and all our languages valued. We also want to celebrate all that is good about going to school in Wales.
The British Council funded and organised the IPLC visit to Helsinki and Jyväskylä, Finland, in March 2018 for teachers from Pioneer schools working on the design and development of the Languages, Literacy and Communication Area of Learning and Experience for the new curriculum for Wales.
Pioneers who were involved in the IPLC visit:
Brett Gillett, Crynallt Primary School (Erw)
Bethan Moore, Crownbridge Special School (EAS)
Dilys Ellis-Jones, O.M. Edwards Primary School (GwE)
Rebecca Spiller, Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni (EAS)
Suzi Smith, Crug Glas Special School (Erw)
Maija Evans, British Council
Eleri Goldsmith, Welsh Government