The best schools in the world in Finland?

In the PISA project the knowledge of Mathematics, Science, reading comprehension and the ability to solve problems in the young people aged 15 is evaluated every third year in the OECD countries and later in a rising number of other adjacent countries as Singapore, Japan and South Korea. The intention is to investigate how well all 15-year-olds in the country master key skills they need for their future, which factors affect these skills and how the skills develop over time. PISA also examines young people’s attitudes towards learning and the skills that support it. The survey focuses on a different area each time. The results in Finland have always been at the top level but may not have achieved as good a position in recent surveys as progress is made in other large countries. As non-OECD countries have joined the project, the Finnish position has fallen further, but has remained one of the best.

PISA 2021 is again focused on Mathematics. It’s clear that the cycle is resumed. Previous surveys have focused on the following areas (Finland’s results in relation to OECD countries – and in relation to all participating countries):

PISA measurmentReading comprehensionMathematicsScienceAbility to solve problems
Participating countriesOECD  –  AllOECD  –  AllOECD  –  AllOECD  –  All
2000: Reading comprehension1              1 4               43              3 not measured
2003: Science1              1 1               21               12                 2
2006: Mathematics1              2 2                21               1   not measured
2009: Reading comprehension2              3          2                61               2   not measured
2012: Science  3              6 6              122               54                  6
2015: Mathematics2              4 7              133               5   not measured
2018: Reading comprehension3              711            163               62                  2

The PISA results from 2018 also included a measurement of students’ knowledge of economics. In it, the young people from Finland placed took a joint 2nd place with Canada. Whereas in 2003 when Finland received extremely good results and our 15-year-olds understood what they read and were the best at counting in the world, the PISA survey in 2018 showed that Finland had fallen behind in Mathematics in relation to the countries where young people performed best. The reason for this development is not yet completely clear.

The book series Finnish Lession explains the success

There are certainly many different reasons for these good PISA scores. The Finnish school system has proved to be excellent in many respects and Pasi Sahlgren has tried to explain in which respects the school in Finland could be a model for the school system in large parts of the world in a book series entitled Finnish lesson. What he emphasizes is that Finland has focused on:

– achieving equality in education by introducing a comprehensive school in the 1970’s.

– a systematic approach to teacher and leader professionalism by raising teacher education to academic levels.

– investing economically in education rather than relying on competition, choice and other market-based reforms

The comprehensive school – a triumph

Shortly after the introduction of a comprehensive school, the streaming in different levels was abolished, as it was realized that they were socially differentiating. In Finland, there have always been comprehensive schools that replace state-owned schools, but private schools such as those in Sweden have never been introduced. It was perceived that such schools might drain the actual comprehensive schools of particularly gifted students. They could have caused a similar social differentiation as the grammar schools brought about before the introduction of the comprehensive school.

With the comprehensive school a pervasive discussion of the curriculum of the school started in 1985. However, it engaged the teachers so much in the discussion of the content of the curriculum that it undermined the dictatorship of the textbooks. Locally produced text material was introduced increasingly. Consequently, the procedure to authorize the textbooks that could be used was abolished in 1992. Moreover, several reforms were introduced that improved everyday life in schools.

In 1982 a system with resources for lessons was introduced, replacing a fixed number of lessons. This enabled increased flexibility for the municipalities and schools.

Special education was integrated as much as possible to counteract social discrimination. Pupil care with school food and school health care was introduced even before the comprehensive school and was supplemented with schooling assistants, school counselors and psychologists, although the resources for these are still insufficient in many places.

Preschool education did not become obligatory before the year 2015. But it had already begun in the 2000’s. As of the autumn of 2021, it will be prolonged from one to two years. The preschool started in Finland much later than in many other countries in Europe due to the sometimes quite long distances between home and school. That the schools in Finland had received such good results despite the lack of preschool education indicates that the greatest importance of preschool lies in the opportunity to discover students who are at risk of major challenges in the comprehensive school as early as possible.

The extension of the compulsory education in 2021 to the age of majority will undoubtedly have effects on the pupils’ study motivation in the upper secondary school classes as well, where the teaching is carried out by subject teachers. School-weary students can no longer count on schooling ceasing when they have finished comprehensive school, but they must count on several more years of study, which can probably encourage many to make further efforts in the final stages of comprehensive school as well.

Low costs for education

In almost all OECD countries, education costs rose between 2012 and 2017, with the amount of money spent on education per student increasing every year. In Finland, however, the amount decreased. OECD statistics summarize the costs of basic education, upper secondary education and higher education. With this calculation method, the costs per pupil and student for education in Finland in 2017 amounted to approximately EUR 10 000. The amount is the lowest in the Nordic countries, but slightly above the average for both the EU23 and OECD countries. The fact that Finland can receive such a good result with such low costs indicates an unusually effective education system. However, as Estonia can achieve educational results at an equivalent level with even lower costs, it must be concluded that the level of costs and results may be related to the size of the population in the country. It may be that in a country with a larger population, more challenges appear than in a country with a smaller population.

Delays in digitization

The OECD’s report “Effective policies, successful schools” shows that although we in Finland have generally considered ourselves to be a pioneer in digitalization in schools as well as in business, we have significantly fewer computers per class than in the OECD countries on average. According to the report, there are 0.6 computers per pupil in Finland (only 60% have access to their own computer), while the OECD average is 0.8. In Estonia and Sweden, the figure is 1.1. Each pupil thus has access to at least one computer in both Estonia and Sweden, but not in Finland. The number of laptops has nevertheless increased sharply in Finland, too. The survey presents the views of the principals and pupils who participated in PISA 2018. The report describes how the schools’ practices, materials, teaching methods and staff resources correlate with the pupils’ knowledge. An important question is how the municipalities have recently reacted to the current situation in view of the corona pandemic’s demands for increased digitization. Scoring high in the PISA measurements despite these shortcomings is exceptional.The teachers’ union is claiming that the teachers in general have managed the digital leap caused by the corona quite well, but that there is a big difference in how the municipalities had prepared for the transition to more digital teaching. In far-sighted municipalities, each pupil had access to a computer, while in municipalities with a more traditional teaching model, three pupils could sit around each one. Of course, this also meant that pupils’ skills in using digital tools varied greatly. But perhaps even more important than teachers’ and pupils’ digital skills is the practice developing in distance education. For the pupils to be able to keep up with the teaching at all, the most important factor was that the teacher saw them daily and immediately took action if the pupil “disappeared under the radar”. It is worrying, however, that particularly vocational education has reported a number of students who have discontinued their studies. Here, I hope that Finnish school culture has nevertheless been boon in minimising the damage, even though there is no exact data on the situation yet. Regarding the impact of the corona pandemic on the quality of teaching, my guess is that the schools that did well before the corona pandemic also cope with the pandemic better than those that previously got weak results.

The National Board of Education’s development project

On 23 February 2021, a studio discussion about the school system in Finland was arranged with Facebook Live under the heading The best school system in the world. I found the title so intriguing that I borrowed it here. It then turned out that Åbo Akademi (an old university in Turku) has produced a Podcast series with the same name based on conversations between students, experts and teachers where they talk about experiences about current school topics such as dyslexia, special education, students’ well-being, school absenteeism, anxiety etc. In many respects, I agree with them on the specific issues they raise. Even if the title quite pretentious, it should primarily be perceived as an appreciation of the school we have in Finland. But from my point of view, the title is not so badly chosen given how the Finnish school is valued internationally.

The concept of the Finnish school system being the best in the world is actually a project started by the National Board of Education under the more unpretentious title #Uutta koulua (Innovations in school). As a project, it ended with a webinar on 28 October 2020. The starting point of the project was the perspective of the pedagogical management, school staff, students and parents. The directors of education and the heads of education followed the project most closely as a reference group. The project discussed the situation in today’s school, what education is really about and what future challenges the school faces. Collaboration between the municipalities was particularly important through teaching planners and teachers, who were here called municipal coaches. The project included four main themes for which the company Synesis Oy (Ltd) was responsible. The project meant that the participants participated in courses on positive learning that emphasized the importance of how students perceive their learning situation. It is thus about the whole social interaction in the learning situation with teachers, assistants, students with special needs, the primus of the student group and perhaps clowns or invisible students. Dialogue was the main method used.

To me, the project shows that the National Board of Education is aware that it is necessary have the foresight to conquer the position as one of the foremost school systems in the world. I especially see the new title school coach as a central figure in the context. Together, the student and the coach explore what thoughts, dreams and strengths the student has. The student gets knowledge about themself and which path they should choose. The school coach becomes an extra asset and security for the student alongside other staff in the school. A school coach should not be confused with a school counselor, caretaker, break guard, assistant or other resource staff. It is important that the coach is in the forums where it is beneficial to get to know the individuals and groups to be coached. For school coaches, training is arranged at least in Sweden. Parents are an important resource group in the school coaches work. There is also a school coach in Finland in some municipalities, among others Korsholm/Mustasaari. I am delighted with the project of the National Board of Education and hope that it has provided experiences that could be applied on a larger scale throughout the country.

Finally, it must be mentioned that as a sign of the quality of the Finnish school system, it has become so renowned that it has begun to be exported, at least to Saudi Arabia. Åbo Akademi which educates teachers in Swedish, is now planning to start class teacher education in Sweden and other countries because it is a key to our schools’ success.

The happiest land

According to the UN’s World Happiness report, Finland will hold the position as the world’s happiest country in 2020 for the third year in a row. The report focuses on the effect of Covid -19 and how people all over the world have fared. The aim was twofold, first to focus on the effects of Covid-19 on the structure and quality of people’s lives, and second to describe and evaluate how governments all over the world have dealt with the pandemic. In particular, the report is trying to explain why some countries have gone so much better than others. Although the World Happiness Reports are based on a wide variety of data, the most important source has always been the Gallup World Poll, which is unique in the range and comparability of its global series of annual surveys. Trust and the ability to count on others are major supports to life evaluations, especially in the face of crises. Trusted public institutions were more likely to choose the right strategy and have their populations support the required actions. Trust in society is created when everyone feels given a chance. The report separate respondents by age, gender, immigration status, income, unemployment, and general health status and the additional variables age, gender, marital status, education, unemployment and whether the respondent was born in another country. I believe that in Finland education is an important factor because it contributes to create equality and trust in our country.


Åbo Akademi: Larsmo

Curriculum of the comprehensive schools:

Happiness report

Hufvudstadsbladet 17.3.2012, 10

Learning experience:

Ministry of Education

Streaming in different levels:

Pre-school education:

Resources for lessons:

Sahlgren Pasi: Finnish Lessions

Uutta koulua:



Martin Gripenberg


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