The role and peformance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

Annex 2: Note of the Committee's visit to Finland, 17 and 18 February 2011

These note offers a brief record of the visit to Finland undertaken by five members of the Education Select Committee, as part of its inquiry into the role and performance of Ofsted. The objective of this short visit was to establish how Finland manages to have such a world-leading education system with a complete lack of central inspection, and with very little public scrutiny of its schools.

Members in attendance:

  • Graham Stuart MP (Chair)
  • Neil Carmichael MP
  • Nic Dakin MP
  • Ian Mearns MP
  • Lisa Nandy MP


In advance of the Committee's visit, the Committee Chair and Specialist met the British Ambassador to Finland in London. On the morning of Thursday 17 February, the Ambassador and Embassy staff provided Committee members and staff with a fuller briefing on Finland's education system.

Compulsory education in Finland begins at age 7; basic education continues until 16. At that point, students attend either general or vocational schools. Teaching is a much-admired profession, with only around 12% of applicants being accepted for training, and there is very little central prescription: in addition to the lack of inspection, very little attainment data is published, and spending is entirely devolved to municipalities. There is also great emphasis placed on continuity of education policy: the direction of travel has remained similar for fifty years. One in three Finns has aged 25-64 has a higher education degree, and there are no fees payable for higher education.

It is worthy of note that Finland is, in many respects, a very different country to the UK. The population is dramatically smaller (5.4m compared with 62m) and there is substantially less immigration. Politically, Finland is commonly governed by Coalitions; geographically, it is very large with a very sparsely populated north.

Vesala Comprehensive School, Helsinki (ages 13-15)

The Committee's first visit was to Vesala School, where members were hosted by headmaster Juha Juvonen and special education co-ordinator Niina Halonen-Malliarakis. Vesala is situated in an area of some deprivation, and students hail from twenty-three nationalities, accounting for around 27.5% of the 387 students. There are seventy special needs pupils. All forty-six teachers have Masters level degrees, and the school has an emphasis on nature and science, including an outstanding greenhouse facility where students learn about and care for animals and plants. The school receives 'positive discrimination funding' because of its situation in a socio-economically deprived neighbourhood.

The Committee was particularly struck by the Finnish school system's emphasis on welfare. A nurse works in the school every day; other welfare staff include a social worker (half the week), a psychiatric nurse (half the week), and a psychologist (one day a week). Great attention is also accorded to students with special needs. Almost a third are "integrated" into mainstream classes, with others taught in a variety of other special needs classes. The Committee was also interested to see the flexible solutions offered, where students participate in school on a part-time basis.

Mr Juvonen explained the processes used at Vesala for quality evaluation, in the absence of external inspection. Staff undergo a yearly evaluation with the school leadership, but are not often observed by the headteacher in their own classrooms. Pupils and parents are both offered questionnaires, and exam results are submitted to the Helsinki municipality, although they are not usually made public. Mr Juvonen explained that dismissing poorly-performing staff is a complex and lengthy procedure, but does not often happen, attributed in part to the high quality of Finnish teachers. Ms Halonen-Malliarakis explained that Finnish education, and society more broadly, places great store on equality between adults and children. This was demonstrated in, for example, the lack of uniform, and the first-name terms between teachers and students. However, Ms Halonen-Malliarakis also noted that this can lead to difficulties around behaviour and discipline, because boundaries are not sufficiently drawn between teachers and their classes.

Lunch with members of the Finnish Parliament

The Committee was delighted to meet its counterparts from the Finnish Parliament's Education and Culture Committee. Lunch, held at the Parliament building, was hosted by Ms Raija Vahasalo (Committee Chair) and her fellow members Mr Tuomo Hanninen and Mr Paavo Arhinmaki. Discussion between members focussed on the lessons which the two countries' education systems could learn from each other, as well as the respective programmes of work for their committees.

Seminar at the Finnish National Board of Education

A seminar was hosted at the National Board of Education with a focus on school inspection and accountability. The Committee was hosted by Ms Jaana Palojarvi, Director for International Relations at the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Dr Kristiina Volmari, Senior Adviser at the Board of Education, presented an overview of the Finnish education system, including school accountability. She told the Committee that Finland has strong political consensus on education—as well as on childcare entitlements, and it was noted that the direction of policy has changed very little in fifty years, which has given Finland the opportunity to focus on improvement. There is also very little private education in Finland (less than 1% of students)—there is also little Church involvement in education—and throughout the system there is an average class size of under nineteen students. Officially, there are no catchment areas for schools but priority is given to local parents; nearly everyone gets their 'first choice' school. Finland does not have a strong sense of 'class': education is valued, because it is firmly seen throughout society as the way to get better prospects, jobs and lifestyle. For example, Finns are ineligible for unemployment benefits under the age of 25 unless they have applied for further education.

Dr Volmari emphasised that a major factor in Finland's consistently high performance in international education tables is the quality of its teachers. The profession is one of the most popular among graduates—only around 12% of applicants are admitted into teacher training—although there are currently efforts to recruit more men. Men are, however, over-represented in school leadership positions. 57% of principals are men, compared to just 25.4% of primary school teachers, and 20% of special needs teachers

Another major factor, which relates directly to inspection, appeared to be the professional autonomy accorded to teachers and school leaders. Finland operates on a system of trust, and considerable budgetary, curriculum and pedagogical power is devolved to school level. For example, decisions on the education of special needs pupils, and how to spend the extra money they receive, is left to headteachers. Similarly, much of the curriculum, outside the core subjects, is dictated at local level, as are all quality assurance and teacher evaluation methods. There is no directive on how much teacher observation heads should conduct; nor are there central regulations on class size or allocation of municipal subsidies. This, in turn, promotes a strong relationship between school leaders and the local government. There is also a good relationship between Government and the single union for education staff, which Dr Volmari said is involved in all decision-making.

Following Dr Volmari's presentation, the Committee heard from Dr Pasi Reinikainen, the Secretary-General and Director of the Finnish Education Evaluation Council. The Council is an independent expert body which assists the Ministry of Education and Culture, as well as individual institutions, in matters pertaining to evaluation. Dr Reinikainen outlined reasons for Finland's outstanding performance in international education tables, such as PISA. He emphasised that there is socio-economic background makes very little difference to Finnish students' performance, as there is great emphasis on providing equality of education at all schools; the variation in student performance between schools is very minimal. Like Dr Volmari, Dr Reinikainen placed great emphasis on the quality of Finnish teachers, who are accorded great status and are educated to Masters degree level. Local partnership working and substantial school autonomy are, he felt, major factors in the system's high performance, as is the substantial per-pupil funding and the low levels of formal testing.

Dr Reinikainen explained how Finland manages school accountability without an inspectorate. Schools are accountable for spending to municipal and regional offices, who have devolved power for spending, and who are also responsible for scrutinising a school's examination performance. The Education Evaluation Council works with Government to provide schools with support to evaluate their own performance, and schools have 'welfare boards' concerned with the broader well-being of students. However, because the focus has been on equating performance across schools, it was reasoned that there is thus no need for an external inspectorate to judge performance across the country. Committee members noted, however, that—considering the lack of publicly available, or much collected, data—it is difficult to establish whether schools are, indeed, performing at consistent levels, which might be considered an argument for inspection.

Interestingly, the aim of evaluation was seen as the gathering and analysis of information to develop education generally, rather than to direct improvement in individual settings—again supporting the focus on a fair and balanced system, rather than on changing individual school practices.

Meeting at the Ambassador's Residence

The British Ambassador to Finland hosted a meeting with guests drawn from across the Finnish education system. These included local politicians, Government and municipal officials, academics and headteachers. Conversation covered a wide range of topics concerning education and children's services, including local provision and autonomy, curriculum and qualifications, the role of independent scrutiny, Government policy, and international comparison.

Lansimaki School, Vantaa (ages 7-12)

To conclude their brief stay in Finland, Committee members visited Lansimaki School, where they were hosted by Principal Ms Virpi Lehmusvaara and members of her staff, along with Mr Ilkka Kalo, Director of Basic Education for the City of Vantaa. Lansimaki School has a focus on music education, with additional funding from the local authority to support its orchestra, as well as provision of instruments and specialists. The school serves a diverse section of the population, including immigrant students from a number of cultures.

The Committee toured the school and visited classes, as well as meeting students and staff. Similar observations were made to the experiences at Vesala School, not least in the focus on children's well-being; small class sizes; and the degree of professional autonomy available to teachers.

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Prepared 17 April 2011