Finland offers Labour an education model to challenge Gove’s retreat into the past

by Robin Thorpe

Regardless of whether Michael Gove had any influence on the recent GCSE results, education should be a major area of debate between the incumbent government and a Labour party aspiring to reduce inequality. Yet the parliamentary Labour party has been remarkably quiet on this issue and seems content to pick fault only with the way that Gove handled the exams debacle.

What I would like to see the PLP do is challenge the coalition on issues that are of real importance to the full spectrum of stakeholders within our public education system; for example a clear definition of what education is for and transparently defined objectives for any reforms that are undertaken.

Let us first consider the issue of examinations and so-called grade inflation; in 2010 the Cambridge Assessment Group reported that

“we found there were different challenges associated with different types of exam but that these are related to the changing purposes of examinations, not a simplistic matter of ‘too easy’ or ‘too hard’.”

The Cambridge Assessment Report was undertaken by a large group of educators, inspectors and assessors over a period of months and considered, amongst other things, the issue of ‘grade drift’.

The report states that “grade drift probably existed, although so many confounding factors made it difficult to isolate and identify. How this might have come about was extensively discussed.

One cause was the constant change to qualifications. Tim Oates suggested that

if you effect continual or inappropriate and unnecessary change of qualifications, it makes holding standards over time extremely difficult”.

Yet despite this report Gove has proceeded to attempt to further modify examinations without first forming a cohesive plan of what and how is to be reformed. One of the first acts of Gove as secretary of state was to cancel the issue of the new (skills-based) national curriculum that was written under the previous government. He then also removed the modular element of GCSEs; a decision that may have been made for good reason but it goes counter to the findings regarding grade drift.  Gove’s most recent proposed change is of course the E-Bacc; a sure-fire way of ceasing grade drift – change the qualification.

The review of the national curriculum now being undertaken is to be welcomed, although I fear I won’t agree with the results. The signs are that a renewed emphasis is to be placed on examinations instead of coursework and that these examinations are to be harder. In Finland, the top-performing European nation in the PISA results, the emphasis on testing has been much reduced; no external testing takes place and schools are free to set their own syllabus from a very simple national core curriculum.

Harvard Professor Tony Wagner describes the Finnish model by comparing it with the USA (and UK) system that is predicated on testing. “Tests are primarily factual recall, memorization tests where students may pass, but will learn none of the skills that are necessary in the global knowledge economy. This is what Finland has done that’s different — they’ve defined what is excellent teaching, not just reasonable teaching, and they have a standard for that. Second, they’ve defined what is most important to learn, and it’s not a memorization-based curriculum, but a thinking-based curriculum”

The reform of the Finnish education system began in the 1970s and was undertaken with the objective of creating a knowledge-based economy; they understood that to increase creativity they did not need better testing but better educators.

Finland recruits its teachers from the top 10% of graduates; from primary to upper secondary level, all teachers are required to have a master’s degree. Consequently teachers are one of the most highly esteemed professionals in Finland and have a much greater role in setting the curriculum then in the UK.

Furthermore the school is more than an educational establishment; it is a focal centre for the local community (providing hot meals, health and dental care) and as such is funded through the municipal budget. This may sound expensive but they do it cheaper per pupil then the other Nordic countries, the USA and the UK .A report published by the OECD entitled Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results gives much more detail to anyone interested in further reading.

Two of the flagship policies of the last Labour government (and maintained by the current coalition) are rooted in the same basic premise as the Finnish education model; Teach First seeks to recruit the best graduates and place them where then can have the greatest impact and the Academies program seeks to enhance the autonomy of head-teachers with greater control over resources and teaching methods.

The difference between these programs and the evolution of Finnish schools is that these are small scale reforms that seek to tweak the system whereas the Finns changed their whole attitude towards education; furthermore although the Finnish schools have greater autonomy over the education syllabus they remain funded by the municipality and work within the social care system to offer cohesive care to all children.

The organization of the successful education system in Finland is predicated on teaching children how to learn effectively and is achieved by creating an atmosphere of trust and personal responsibility and by recruiting the best graduates to be teachers. The system does not try and create a workforce but enables children to think independently. It is perhaps depicted best by this statement from a senior Nokia Manager (in the OECD report)

“If I hire a youngster who doesn’t know all the mathematics or physics that is needed to work here, I have colleagues here who can easily teach those things. But if I get somebody who doesn’t know how to work with other people, how to think differently or how to create original ideas and somebody who is afraid of making a mistake, there is nothing we can do here.”

This is what I think our education system should provide for our children.

The Finns did not achieve their education system through headline grabbing reforms; it was a process of gradual change over time and took 30 years to reach fruition. There is no quick fix, no sticking plaster that can suddenly transform our education system and take us to the top of the PISA league tables.

But we can recognise that we have well-educated, hard-working teachers; we have a comprehensive schooling system rooted in community and as a society we have the aspiration to improve the level of education of our children.

We don’t need gimmicks; we need our educators to have control over the future of their profession.  We also need, as a society, to decide what we are testing our children for? Is it to compare the quality of the school and teaching, is it to test their recall ability or is it to find out what the child is capable of?

Robin Thorpe is a parent and a school governor and has never worked for the Labour party

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9 Responses to “Finland offers Labour an education model to challenge Gove’s retreat into the past”

  1. Felix says:

    Stone the crows, a rare constructive article from Uncut for once.

  2. swatantra says:

    Its really pointless suggesting that we ape isolated Finland with a population of 4m stuck near the polar ice cap. Its like comparing apples with pears. What works for Finland will not work with us. We should be looking at countries in eoughly the same ‘family’ as us, like France and Germany, large cosmopolitan multicultural diverse populations with a similar history. Interesting to see the USA doing so well. Maybe there is something in the American Dream: You can be all you want to be, if you work at it.

  3. Felix says:

    “Yet despite this report Gove has proceeded to attempt to further modify examinations without first forming a cohesive plan of what and how is to be reformed.”

    It’s worse than that. Gove is overhauling exams without first forming a cohesive plan of what exactly is to be examined, ie a curriculum.

  4. Rational Plan says:

    Well there is the problem only people with good quality degrees can become teachers in Finland, meanwhile in the UK…. So when are you going to advocate that all teachers that did not get a first or a 2.1 should be eased out of the profession.

  5. Robert says:

    A good article. Of course, the best way to improve the quality of teachers is to increase their pay. That is going to be very difficult for the next decade or so.

  6. Paul says:


    Some useful thoughts and I would welcome a commitment from Labour to the ‘reprofessionalisation’ of teaching, through the return of autonomy etc etc.

    One comment promised via twitter on the strangely out of place PISA tables you provide in the middle of a well-constructed argument. I’m not sure why you think it’s helpful to add them in, but you may be trying to reflect how poor the UK’s standards are in comparison to other countries (actually I’m pretty sure the data you show is for England, not UK, though happy to be corrected).

    It’s worth pointing out – not least because the Tories consistently use these PISA tables as a weapon against Labour’s achievement in government) – that the tables don’t in fact show poor performance.

    I’ve covered this in much more detail at and in my lead FT letter at in reference to Tories’ (and Ofsted’s) brazen lies about the data and especially the way they seek to compare the 2000 tables to the 2009 tables (to do so is nonsense for several well-established reasons, but it hasn’t stopped them doing so).

    The key point here is that many of the countries seen as above Engand/UK in the table are above them by a statistically insignficant amount. That is, it is simply not right to show the tables without also making that point clearly (as the OECD report does and is then clearly picked up by the NFER report on that report, presented to govt in 2010 but deliberately ignored.

    Further, there are real concerns about the validity of the whole PISA methodology. See

    Let’s not fall into the trap of accepting the Tory narrative that British education is rubbish after 13 years of Labour control. It’s not. It’s pretty good, though of course it can always be improved not least via the routes you mention).

  7. Robin Thorpe says:

    Felix – if you want more constructive articles on Labour-Uncut you could write one yourself; send to – I don’t have any association with this website nor have I met any of it’s editors, I don’t even live in London.

    Swatantra – I don’t think its pointless seeing what we can learn from other successfull countries. The Finns decided what they wanted from their education system and implemented it over a period of time. I don’t agree with your point that population is the defining factor in how you organise an education system. If a philospohy could work in Finland, it could work in Scotland and Yorkshire and Wales and the West Midlands etc. I’m not saying we should copy the Finnish system entirely but picking out little bits from different systems in an attempt to improve yours won’t work unless you clearly define the objectives.
    I also don’t agree that the USA is doing well if it’s placed 14th, 25th and 17th; it’s the worlds largest economy and they spend the 5th highest per student. They’re below the UK for Maths and Science; although this piece isn’t about the PISA tables. PISA compares a snapshot of a particular cohort and cannot be used to prove ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise.

  8. uglyfatbloke says:

    A good point from Swatantra; the same applies to Scotland where there has not been the succession of changes that have occurred in England and where all the parties (even the tories) pretty much subscribe to a pretty positive agenda – soundbite bitching notwithstanding.
    Just because something works in thinly-populated Scotland does not mean it would be a good approach elsewhere and Scotland has a very different educational tradition generally…..most rural secondary schools here have always been essentially comprehensives. Streaming and setting by ability were always commonplace in the larger schools, , but in most towns everyone went to the same school.
    One small point – the article has conflated ‘England’ and ‘Britain” the works of Gove (and his predecessors) do not carry much weight north of the Tweed.

  9. oldandrew says:

    “they’ve defined what is most important to learn, and it’s not a memorization-based curriculum, but a thinking-based curriculum”

    This is from an American academic, outlining what US-based educationalists have thought for the last 100 years. It seems bizarre, therefore, to look at Finland now, rather than the US over the last 100 years, to see this approach in action. But I guess if you looked at the history of education in the US you’d see how a low-content, skills-based curriculum helps to ensure that those from more deprived backgrounds never have a chance to catch up with those who come from privileged, knowledge-rich environments.

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