Comparing education systems – New Zealand vs Finland

East Otago High School teacher Brett Smith has studied both the Finnish and New Zealand education systems and shares his comparison of the two with the PPTA News.

Any simple comparative between two education systems, should always begin with opening salvoes of statistics, vital for those imperially minded souls, and end with simplistic statements of what might work, and does not currently work. Opinion must be supported by facts. The devil in the detail in any comparative is culture.

The facts: On the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which measures OECD countries education success based on mathematics, science and reading; New Zealand Scores 513 and Finland 531. The OECD average is 493.

A complex reality

If anything above 500 is so good, what is the fuss? The reality is somewhat more complex. Given the significant investment in time and money on education, and developing literacy and numeracy, NCEA etc, then why do we not top the PISA ratings? Is it monetary investment?

According to OECD data on spending as a part of GDP, on primary to post-secondary (not tertiary) education: New Zealand spends 3.8%of GDP; heavy hitters like Finland 4% ; Japan a mere 2.5%. However, before we get bored with statistics, we need to understand what each country spends per person on education. If we look at Japan with small family sizes, we can well understand the low GDP spending. In 2014 Finland spent US$13865 per upper secondary school student. We are not comparing apples with apples, New Zealand’s GDP per capita is about $5500 lower than Finland’s.

In Finland education is a legal right

In Finland education is a legal right. Students begin at age 6 with a compulsory year at pre-school, before beginning their nine-year basic education program at age 7. In this phase there is no rigid education system of assessment. When assessments and tasks do occur it is so families and teachers understand where a student is developmentally, and if additional help is required. At basic there is little home learning, Finns expect their children to learn through play afterschool, and by interacting with adults in a positive way.

After basic education of nine years, most students move on to upper-secondary, which has both general and vocational pathways. Here a formal matriculation examination is held to determine access to tertiary education. In Finland the focus is simple: students are allowed to determine their own educational path, and that should never lead to a dead end.

 Schools and communities work collaboratively together

There are other interesting facts about Finland’s schools such as: science classes are not allowed to have more than 16 students, so there is real opportunity for practical experimentation. Thirty percent of students in Finland receive additional help to progress, and that there is little or no stigma attached to that. By and large the Finnish education focuses on quality teaching and learning for each respective child.

Schools work collaboratively together, there are few private schools. Teaching is well supported by the community at large –Finns expect to support their schools and teachers, there is little of the culture of blame we find here in New Zealand. Teaching is a sought-after career, most teachers have a Masters degree. The profession is well resourced, class sizes are smaller than New Zealand’s, and teachers are given ample time to complete lesson planning and other administrational tasks.

What can New Zealand learn from Finland?

Can we in New Zealand learn anything from Finland? The answer here is very complex, and has as much to do with cultural translation. In New Zealand, we report on three levels of NCEA. In simple terms, we are using vast resources to accomplish the same outcomes as the Finnish matriculation exam! In addition, we have fewer resources left to support student learning. Is it better for a student to leave school as a functioning literate than to have level 2 NCEA, and not be able to read?

In comparison to the league table driven success, reporting school success would have to change. For example: schools would report successful outcomes such as; how many students at the school went to work, technical training, gained an apprenticeship, gained University Entrance, are functioning as literate citizens –these are real outcomes.

Will we do what is right to support all our students?

Never underestimate the power of the careers teacher and form teacher. If we adopted a Finnish style of education, adapted to suit the needs of our learning communities, this role will assume greater importance. Likewise, so will social supporting mechanisms. Our students would be fed at school, and likely treated medically and emotionally at school –no more ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

We as teachers would have to learn to work in clusters, not just as departments, but as supported communities of learning. We would demand respect. As we would have responsibilities, so too will the parents have responsibilities as would their children; no more: ‘blame the teacher’. Instead, this would become: ‘look at ourselves –how can we (together) do better? It is a brave new education world, the final question must be: ‘continue as we are, or will we do what is right to support all our students?’

Last modified on Tuesday, 4 June 2019 14:53