Putting a Finnish to Vigorous Exams and Endless Revision

Here in the UK we boast some of the most prestigious universities in the world, Edinburgh obviously included. On top of this, the UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the world - 5th to be exact. And yet, we are consistently found trailing behind less recognisably developed countries in the international education rankings.

The most recent international Pisa Science rankings placed the UK at 15th, behind the likes of both Vietnam and Estonia who came in at 8th and 3rd respectively. The OECD, who run the influential Pisa rankings, stated somberly that the UK’s disappointing results were ‘flat in a changing world’.

So, we must ask ourselves. What is the cause of the UK’s inability to provide successful education?

It is becoming more and more accepted that the education system here in the UK is archaic and outdated, focusing too heavily upon repeated testing in order to determine the entire scope of a student’s intelligence. After all, the system was conceived in a different age, based upon the belief there is only two types of ability: academic and non-academic – alikening much to Einstein’s infamous quote, ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it’s stupid.’

Rather than being a place of intellectual stimulation and challenging debate, classrooms and lecture halls are considered a place where information is forced down a students throat. You digest the facts (without ever really learning them) only for them to be immediately forgotten again after the adrenaline rush of exam season has passed.

The solution? To look North. Although it is neither a particularly wealthy nor influential country, Finland has been crowned the unparalleled champion of topping international educational rankings. This small Nordic country has been implementing an unorthodox attitude to education since the 1940s, when a humanistic, child-centred type of school was first established, in opposition to the Germanic syllabus-model which had previously characterised Finnish schools.

From the 1940s onwards, Finland has been revolutionising the way education in schools is approached, to the extent that Helsinki has become a place of pilgrimage for teachers and education ministers alike, desperate to solve their own country’s educational woes. The success of Finland’s unconventional education system is reflected in the stats: 88% of the population complete a course in higher education (compared to the international average of 74%), 43% of Finnish students go to vocational schools and the nation currently stands at the 5th best in the world for education.

Here are some of the ways in which Finnish schools differ to those here in the UK:

  • Everything happens when you are a lot older in Finland- rather than starting school at the ripe age of 4, Finnish children join school at 7 and don’t receive homework or sit exams until they are much older.
  • Unlike the fairly limited playtime here in the UK (on average around 15 minutes in the morning and an hour at lunchtime), Finnish law requires teachers to give students 15 minutes of play for every 45 minutes of instruction. As a result, students are rewarded a break after every lesson.
  • Separation between home and school life is vital: the Finnish believe in a lack of homework and consider home-life reserved for family, where children learn the most vital lessons
  • Every level of education in Finland is free. Not only is university tuition free, there is also no such thing as private schools.
  • There is no standardised test that every student is expected to sit - instead, teachers are trained to issue their own exams. There is only one mandatory test at the end of high school. Even the national curriculum is a broad guideline where teachers are allowed the freedom to adopt their own topics and educational methods to best fit their pupils.
  • Contrary to the set-based system in practice here, all children, regardless of capability, are taught in one classroom. Indeed, children’s level of - for want of a better word - ‘intelligence’ is not measured at all during the first six years of their education.
  • Teachers aren’t alternated year upon year. Instead, a teacher will spend roughly five years with the same group of students, allowing them to cater perfectly to each of their students’ educational needs as well as forming a positive and strong relationship with them all.

Thus, it is clear to see that the Finnish system boasts innovative and progressive techniques which have radicalised their approach to education. Due to the degree of which unorthodox approaches are established, the Finnish system is not without sceptics, nor is it considered the best system universally. In fact, the country that currently takes the lead in the international educational rankings, South Korea, could not take a more different approach to classroom techniques. Contrary to Finland’s 4-5 hour school days, South Korean pupils are often forced to endure over 16 hours of learning. This includes after-school tuition, on top of an average school day, and is expected of every student as well as countless pieces of homework and state-run exams. Pressure to succeed academically in such a gruelling educational culture may be a reason why South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any OECD industrialised country.

And so, although rigorous exams and 24/7 revision may pay off for some, for most students it provokes unnecessary anxiety and grades much worse than expected. An overhaul of the system is most definitely overdue, and we must look towards the relaxed and effective example of Finland for guidance to achieve this.

*Illustration by Phoebe Langham*

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