The Finnish Schooling System

One of biggest challenges so far in writing my novel has been writing the school scenes authentically. Set half in the present and half in the past, for some scenes my main character must attend school in Finland; something I’ve never experienced myself. You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult though, would you? I have been to school after all. Surely they are all much of a muchness?

Well, that’s what I thought until I started to do some reading. I know that Finland has the highest standard of education in the world but some of the differences between schooling here and the schooling I received in the UK are amazing.

Children in Finland don’t start school until they are 6 or 7, and often don’t learn to read until this age either.

School generally starts at 08.00 and finishes at 14.00.

There is no school uniform in Finland.

Children don’t wear shoes in school.

There are no late bells in Finnish schools.

Schools often have a lounge area for children with fireplace (which is actually lit during the winter).

Children play outside for at least 30 minutes each day even in the cold winters.

Children learn to ski and ballroom dance at school.

Teachers are called by their first name, not Sir and Miss.

Children never get more than half an hours homework a night.

Finnish children generally aren’t given exams until they reach 5th grade, aged 11.

Children in Finland attend school for fewer days than 85% of other developed nations.

Education, from primary school all the way up to and including university, is free.

Hot school dinners are provided for free.

The tables the children eat at often have table cloths and small vases of flowers on them.

The school provide free transport for all children that live more than 3kms from the school. In many rural areas this means they send a taxi to people’s houses to collect and deposit the children.

After school, playgrounds are open for children to use and many of them have hot food for sale.

All teachers in Finland have a masters degree and teaching is a well respected and well paid profession.

Teachers set their own lessons and choose their own textbooks for the lessons.

The biggest difference however was the attitude to teaching. Both teachers and pupils seem to enjoy school, they trust and respect each other and the children are given enough space and freedom to learn from doing rather than simply learning from copying things from a book.

It’s a pretty different schooling experience from the one I had. The lasting memories of my secondary school involve teachers that hated children and turned a blind eye to bullying, horrible, unruly kids that frequently made teachers cry and ridiculous rules being enforced with overly dramatic consequences – I remember several boys being suspended because they’d had their hair cut too short.

It was a war; them against us. There was no trust, very little respect and plenty of attitude from both sides. I do not look back on my school days fondly. And I was one of the rule abiding kids. All this research has made me quite jealous for the schooling I never got.

That said, all of this information had been gleaned from reading articles and watching videos on the schooling system. I’m hoping to arrange to spend a day at a couple of Finnish schools to see it for myself. I wonder if the reality will match the reports. I do hope so.

41 Comments on The Finnish Schooling System

  1. Steve
    June 17, 2011 at 12:11 am (3 years ago)

    It sounds wonderful – refreshingly open and full of mutual respect. It sounds if we could learn a lot from the Finnish attitudes towards school and learning.

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 8:37 am (3 years ago)

      Doesn’t it just. Imagine being nurtured and taught rather than yelled at and belittled.

      Reply
  2. Gigi
    June 17, 2011 at 1:29 am (3 years ago)

    WOW! Can you imagine learning in that type of environment?

    If the teachers over here heard about this – we’d be in serious trouble (more than we already are – the public education system is in SHAMBLES) as they’d all up and move to Finland!

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 8:38 am (3 years ago)

      It would be utterly amazing wouldn’t it? I often wondered why the kids here seem so much more grown up and sensible than kids back home. Now i guess I know.

      Reply
  3. This is us
    June 17, 2011 at 2:02 am (3 years ago)

    I’m doing a Finnish job search right now! That sounds amazing! You know the type of schools on offer to my children, so you can imagine how idyllic the picture you’ve just painted is!! Nat

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 8:40 am (3 years ago)

      It’s unbelievable really isn’t it? And I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest if you moved to Finland because of it. When I first moved here I had no thoughts of children and knew nothing about the country but I can’t think of another country I’d rather raise my kids in.

      Reply
  4. Very Bored in Catalunya
    June 17, 2011 at 9:31 am (3 years ago)

    Wow, that sounds brilliant, it also shows that the Finnish government must invest heavily in Education unlike the UK…

    What’s with the shoes thing though, do they wear slippers? Don’t their little tootsies get cold?

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 10:17 am (3 years ago)

      they spend about 1200$ per child less each year than America does. I don’t know about the UK though. I can’t find the figures any more.

      Reply
  5. Adrenalynn
    June 17, 2011 at 9:37 am (3 years ago)

    This is really similar to the Norwegian school system – at least it was when I attended school lightyears ago. No hot food though – the politicians are still arguing about that every year! We are the Great Nation of the Matpakke (packed lunch, always bread), after all.
    Now I’m curious as to how the British system works, it doesn’t sound so great!

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 10:28 am (3 years ago)

      no hot food even in winter? That seems kinda harsh. In Britain there is hot food but it’s not free, used to cost about £5 a week, no idea any more.

      I think for me the biggest difference was how homely and relaxed they try to make the schools here in Finland: first name basis, no shoes, pegs or lockers for your coats and bags, lounges and fireplaces. They seem to understand that children spend a huge percentage of their childhood in school and it shouldn’t be an institution just for learning a set rote of things that the government dictate. And that it should be friendly and enjoyable by both the kids and those that work there. England in comparison is very institutionalised, their is nothing homely or inviting about the schools, teachers are always Miss and Sir and they don’t have the time to spend really getting to know or helping children as they are over worked, the government dictate everything from the books you read to how you learn stuff and most of the teachers seem to hate their job.

      One thing I missed off the list was that there are often 3 teachers per class as well. Two to give instruction and 1 to help those that are falling behind so that everyone stays at the same level.

      Reply
      • Adrenalynn
        June 17, 2011 at 11:48 am (3 years ago)

        Yeah, so very similar to Norway! Everyone uses first names, no uniforms, and very relaxed and informal. The teachers have time to chat to the kids about stuff, and what I remember well was looking to my teachers (at least the female teachers) as both role models and a kind of guide growing up. And they’re allowed to make their own plans and use what books they like, though they usually have a sort of master plan for the school that the teachers make together. I loved school, at least until it started getting difficult :) Now I feel really bad for the poor kids AND teachers in the UK!

        Reply
  6. Merry
    June 17, 2011 at 10:12 am (3 years ago)

    The Finnish school system is talked about a lot by home educators. In many respects it mirrors it very well and when at loggerheads with local authorities it is often used to point out that if a country can produced the highest literacy levels in Europe on less school, later school and a more respectful, holistic and child centred approach, home educating in a similar way ought to provide similar. Which it does!

    My kids have all had play until at least 7, eat all their meals with an adult and a table cloth, haven’t learned to read till 6, 7 or 8 and dont have to wear shoes during the day. It appears to have been reasonably good for them :)

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 10:31 am (3 years ago)

      It is surprisingly similar. I think it stems from Finland’s schooling system coming from tiny village schools originally -although more and more they are closing down and moving to larger town schools – many schools would have really low numbers, maybe 5 kids per class in a very homely environment. A bit like you home schooling your own kids and a handful of their friends too, I guess.

      I am in awe of people that homeschool. I know for a fact I don’t have the patience for it. I’m really looking forward to my kids being school age and getting them out of the house for a few hours a day. :D

      Reply
  7. Mañana Mama
    June 17, 2011 at 10:45 am (3 years ago)

    This sounds like heaven compared to where I went to school. Mutual respect and trust between students and teachers? What an advanced concept. Maybe I need to move my kids to Finland…

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 11:24 am (3 years ago)

      Frightening how much of an advanced concept it is to many schools, eh?

      Reply
  8. Runaway Brit
    June 17, 2011 at 11:02 am (3 years ago)

    It sounds a bit similar to the Swedish school system which I am currently working in – no bells, flexible timetables (if the kids don’t have a class until 10am they don’t come in until 10am etc…).

    I teach middle school and the exam system is very different to the UK, the teacher sets the final grade at the end of the year, they don’t sit exams like they do in the UK (pros and cons of this system).

    There is no uniform which ends the eternal ‘tuck in your shirt’ battle. The kids go outside even when it’s -25 (most choose to do this, I have never seen a teacher force them to). They go skiing on frozen lakes in PE lessons.

    The food is free and delicious. We usually have a choice of 3 meals – meat, fish and vegetarian. It is a buffet and you can eat all you like. The kids are mature and sensible about this (maybe not on Taco day!) It is not unusual to see salmon or steak on the menu. There is always a huge salad bar and a selection of bread. Awesome!!

    I hope I never have to return to the UK system.

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 11:25 am (3 years ago)

      I’ve never understood why anyone would want to be a teacher before. In a system like you describe and the Finnish one I’ve read about, I’m starting to understand it. It must be a wonderful system to work in. Fingers crossed you never have to go back to the UK system!

      Reply
  9. Muddling Along
    June 17, 2011 at 12:38 pm (3 years ago)

    It sounds incredible and actually I can see that happy fullfilled teachers would lead to a happy fullfilling environment – sadly compared to the UK where those that do do and those that can’t teach, not exactly the way to get the cream of the crop into schools

    Reply
    • Heather
      June 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm (3 years ago)

      Amazing the results you can get if you pay your teachers a decent wage and honour them with trust and respect, eh?

      Reply
  10. linda@adventuresinexpatland.com
    June 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm (3 years ago)

    Great post, really got me thinking. US system is closer to the UK system, but differences, of course. Cool that your novel’s character is in school, at least in part.

    Reply
  11. Martina
    June 17, 2011 at 8:36 pm (3 years ago)

    Try going to school in Ireland. My eldest son has just finished collage and is now a teacher of history and english. There is not a hope in hell of him getting a job here. He is looking at going away to find work because the goverment here will not allow the schools to employ teachers. They are telling us there is no money for education. He might just turn up in a school in Finland.

    Reply
  12. Blue Sky
    June 17, 2011 at 11:57 pm (3 years ago)

    I might disagree a little with Martina about the Irish school system…about from the crazy Leaving Cert it seems better than the British system in many ways. The Finnish school system actually sounds more like the way it is at my son’s asperger outreach unit which provides food, transport, cool after school activities and the teachers are addressed by their real names, which I’m struggling to use!

    Reply
  13. Jazzygal
    June 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm (3 years ago)

    Wow..wish I’d gone to school in Finland! I agree with BOTH Martina and Blue Sky! I did experience some good and interested teachers as I went through the Irish school system and as Blue Sky says a lot of Special Schools provide theses things with the exception the lovely fireplaces! However the cutbacks that Martina refers to may hit those ‘benefits’ too.. they’ve already hit the hiring of special needs assistants…

    xx Jazzy

    Reply
  14. anonymous
    June 19, 2011 at 3:53 pm (3 years ago)

    “Teachers are called by their first name, not Sir and Miss.”

    I should point out, though, that Finns don’t customarily use each other’s names very much when speaking to one another.

    In school, you can also call teachers “teacher”…

    Reply
  15. anonymous
    June 19, 2011 at 3:56 pm (3 years ago)

    “I’m hoping to arrange to spend a day at a couple of Finnish schools to see it for myself.”

    Aren’t you a parent?
    Shouldn’t be that difficult.

    Talk to the English teacher and they won’t let you leave the school..

    Reply
  16. Angela Schmidt
    June 19, 2011 at 6:56 pm (3 years ago)

    Our German school system is different still, and there are many attempts to find the best way of teaching. We also look at other countries, like Finland. But compared to the UK and Germany, the Scandinavian countries have less inhabitants, and also less migrants, which cause special difficulties. I spent a school year in the US once, where I did not really learn much, but I found it quite enjoyable. When I talk to English kids who study German at school, I am also surprised how little they have learned. But if respect is not taught and lived, how can children get motivated?

    Reply
  17. Metropolitan Mum
    June 19, 2011 at 11:55 pm (3 years ago)

    No wonder Finland comes out top of the Pisa tables. If you are looking for England, you have to look further down. Further. Further!

    Reply
  18. Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane
    June 20, 2011 at 4:04 am (3 years ago)

    What always amazes me is how some countries don’t seem to want to learn from the experience and successes of other countries. Finland’s educational system and philosophy sounds superior, and full of common sense.

    Reply
  19. Coolwhipmom
    June 22, 2011 at 4:17 am (3 years ago)

    Wow. This. is. amazing. I’ve read other articles about school in Finland, but this one was by far the most descriptive and interesting. I’ve wondered so much why the Finnish schooling system is so successful. And after reading your post today, it has begun to sound a lot like the Montessori school my son goes to. Minus the starting school at age 6 or 7 thing. But I totally approve of that idea as well. I think here in the US we send our kids to hard core school WAY too early and take all the joy out of learning. Thank you for writing about this, Heather. This was really fascinating.

    Reply
  20. Coolwhipmom
    June 22, 2011 at 4:19 am (3 years ago)

    Wow. This. is. amazing. I’ve read other articles about school in Finland, but this one was by far the most descriptive and interesting. I’ve wondered so much why the Finnish schooling system is so successful. And after reading your post today, it has begun to sound a lot like the Montessori school my son goes to. Minus the starting school at age 6 or 7 thing. But I totally approve of that idea as well. I think here in the USA we send our kids to hard core school WAY too early and take all the joy out of learning. Thank you for writing about this, Heather. This was really fascinating.

    Reply
  21. Dymphna
    June 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm (3 years ago)

    Sounds great!! Do teachers in any schools in UK go by first names? Some do in Ireland. My LOs in Irish School System now but we are relocating to America so I hope the school we select will be good!! Fingers crossed!!

    Reply
  22. EmmaK
    June 22, 2011 at 5:41 pm (3 years ago)

    Fascinating insight especially learning ballroom dancing sounds fab. Sorry your educational experiences were so grim. I went to a private school where it was okay just wierdly enough there were many really boring/bad teachers and I spent most of the time passing notes and daydreaming. Later when I went to a comp for sixth form the teaching was pretty fantastic and the experience became more enjoyable.

    Reply
  23. Molly @ Mother's Always Right
    June 22, 2011 at 5:46 pm (3 years ago)

    Man I wish I’d gone to school in Finland! I must admit, of all the differences listed here the one that most jumped out at me was “they don’t wear shoes in school”. I’d have avoided some awful fashion mistakes of the 90s if I’d been schooled in Finland.

    Reply
  24. Iota
    June 29, 2011 at 2:09 pm (3 years ago)

    It does sound very good. I was just about to say “what are the downsides?”, but then that would be so English, wouldn’t it? Looking for something to complain about.

    Reply
  25. Lunarossa
    July 1, 2011 at 2:10 pm (3 years ago)

    Very interesting, Heather. Sounds nuch much better than here in the UK. With the latest Government cuts, the UK school system is now on its knees. My husband is a primary school teacher and loves teaching but his life is getting more and more difficult because they have cut the school resourses and sooner or later the teaching and leaning will suffer. Not to mention now the University fees that are now so high that only the Royals cann affor to enrol. I’d stay in Finland as long as possible if I were you! Ciao. A.

    Reply
  26. bigwords
    July 5, 2011 at 9:59 am (3 years ago)

    I really hope the schools are as wonderful as you’ve described. It sounds like they try and keep that glorious sense of child-like freedom for longer. Unlike other school systems which try and turn kids into little adults ready for the cruel realities of work. Please let me know if the reality matches the vision. xx

    Reply
    • Anna
      December 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm (9 months ago)

      Reality is a pretty accurate match actually (I speak for my own almost nine years – almost done now!). They teach us to be adults slowly and encourage children to be childish and play and have fun for as long as they can. We older ones are still taught through a lot of creative systems – we have lots of PE, theme days, art, music and cooking. I think they kinda sneakily teach us by slowly giving us more and more responsibility and freedom. Like today, my class worked alone for 30 minutes while the teacher was away to sort out something. We handle ourselves, do our work, hush if our classmates are noisy or interrupting our work, and today we actually dealt with some overseas guests peeking into our classroom… they just simply were introduced to what we were doing, told we eagerly answer question if they have any, that they’re welcome to watch and then we kept working.
      Let me point out my class consists of 19 pupils, 14-15 years old.

      Reply
  27. Circus Queen
    July 5, 2011 at 7:05 pm (3 years ago)

    Like you, my experience of school was hugely unpleasant. This sounds so different. I could see how difficult it would be to write it authentically without seeing it yourself.

    Reply
  28. Henna-Maria
    July 11, 2011 at 10:38 pm (3 years ago)

    Hi Heather! I find your writings very interesting, as I am a Finn myself. It is great to get a view of Finland through foreigner’s eyes. I disagree with you sometimes, for example I do *not* think that Hattivatti characters from Muumi’s look like used you-know-what-you-called-them! ;) Those characters are holy to us! Another wink.

    About the school. I feel proud of our school system, but it is not all so glorious as you made it sound…No fireplaces or table cloths usually…maybe on special occasions like Independence Day?

    School is on 190 days a year..is it really only 85% of what other developed countries have? 1st and 2nd graders are supposed to get 19 hours of teaching each week, and hours go up the older they get. There is home work, and I remember studying hours in the evenings, but again, this is in higher grades.

    I hope you will get a chance to go visit a school/class room come August…DO you know any teachers personally?

    Have a great time living in Lapland! I love the light nights here in the summer…can’t believe it is 10.30 pm already and light as a day!

    Reply
    • Heather
      July 12, 2011 at 10:00 am (3 years ago)

      Hi Henna,

      thank you for commenting. You made me laugh about the hattivatti.

      My husband didn’t recognise half te stuff I mentioned here ether, but then talking to people with children at school now and they say that a lot had changed over the last few years and this is all very normal now(?. Perhaps it does depend on the school…

      Reply

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