Finland is a country that is not well-endowed with natural resources. It has very few minerals that have not been mined. Forests cover approximately three-quarters of the nation and these are significantly economically and one of the keys to the Finnish sense of self. In the absence of other resources, brains are the resources they have developed.
After World War 2, Finland was classified as a developing nation. It is now one of the world’s wealthiest nations with one of the world’s best education systems.
Teachers are respected and trusted. They are trusted by parents, students and local administrators. Teaching ranks highly amongst the professions. It is an attractive career choice and competition to enter the profession is high. Only 5-10% of all applicants become classroom teachers.
The high level of autonomy came about more by accident than design. The economic crisis that struck Finland in the 1990s meant that there wasn’t the money to pay for school inspections so they were abolished. From that point, the autonomy of schools and individual teachers increased. Interestingly, there is no word in Finnish for ‘accountability’ and quality assurance is based on steering, rather than control.
Teachers’ pay is not large (beginning teachers earn $A4000 per month and principals earn between $A8000 and $A10000 per month), so other factors must attract teachers to the profession. Several educators we spoke to found the high autonomy and freedom associated with the job to be a significant drawcard. The high level of pedagogical autonomy allows them to decide what they want to emphasise in their teaching; when they teach certain topics; the methods they use, the topics and subjects they want to integrate; the materials they use and how they evaluate and assess the learning of their students. Collaboration is a key component of education but teachers can decide how they collaborate with their colleagues.
One of the things that surprised me was how few middle management positions there are in Finnish schools. They have a principal, a vice-principal, one or two positions of special responsibility and that’s about it. There are no heads of department – hierarchy is low and there a small number of administrative personnel. Lack of bureaucratic rule and regulations would suggest that relatively few people are needed to run a school when the sole purpose of the school is to advance the learning of students. One teacher we met is a deputy principal and a full-time classroom teacher; an inconceivable position in any Australian school I know of, although we do need to recognise that many of the teachers in small schools fulfil the roles of principal and classroom teacher.
It is generally well known that Finnish teachers have completed education to a Master’s degree level. As here, teachers in the first six years of basic education (ages 7 -12) are generalists while upper secondary teachers are subject specialists.
It is not uncommon for teachers to stay with students for several years during their primary education as many teachers enjoy the challenge of teaching different grade levels. Principals are required to hold higher academic degrees, teacher qualifications and work experience and a certificate in educational administration.
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