Lesley Riddoch: Get the best from Finnishing school

Finnish children don't start school until they're seven, but  then they're prepared for learning. Picture: AFP
Finnish children don't start school until they're seven, but then they're prepared for learning. Picture: AFP
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The Nordic educational experience could be a lesson worth learning for Scotland

THE new leader of Scotland’s headmasters is fed up hearing about Finland. Neil Shaw, incoming president of School Leaders Scotland, has said under-achieving Scottish pupils are victims of a society “riven by inequality”, not victims of failing schools. And he has grown “weary” of comparisons with Finns who regularly top educational league tables. Toughen up, Mr Shaw. Comparison with Nordic neighbours isn’t about to disappear.

Of course he’s right. Educational attainment is inextricably linked to family income and a positive social background. That’s why state schools in wealthy suburbs outperform expensive private schools, and wealthy children in large classes do better than poor kids in small ones. There is indeed only so much a school can do to equalise life chances when society won’t invest massively in pre-school where substantially better outcomes are still possible.

Schools can only apply sticking plaster – but they can do that badly or well. According to an OECD report in 2007, schools in Scotland “are not strong enough to counter the negative effect of low social status on educational attainment”. It said other countries are far better at ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds reach their potential. And those other countries aren’t just the maddeningly efficient Nordics. Go figure.

Indeed, if Scotland is a society riven with inequality – and has been since industrialisation – we should be past masters at targeting compensatory resources on predictable problem areas. We’re not. Inequality and failing schools are two sides of the same tarnished coin. The Finns won’t even touch it – the Scots are still vainly fighting to flip it.

That’s why Nordic comparisons matter – not just because some policies are cherry-picked by politicians, but because those tediously high standards of Nordic health, education, well-being and productivity prove that a century of hard work to minimise social inequality has been worthwhile. There are educational, social and political lessons sitting aplenty just across the North and Baltic Seas. No-one wants Scotland to become a carbon copy of any other nation – that’s impossible anyway – but trying to learn from the experience of others surely can’t hurt.

Finland may not be such a daft point of comparison – they may not have Scotland’s legacy of industrialisation but they haven’t exactly had their troubles to seek. Finland is the seventh largest country in Europe by landmass, with the most dispersed population. Half lies within the Arctic Circle and Finns have lived in the shadow of not one but two bigger, ex-colonial powers for centuries. In 1917 the country was torn apart by the bloodiest civil war in European history until the Yugoslavian conflict. Some 800,000 Finns died in the wake of Russia’s October Revolution and Finland’s own declaration of independence.

During the Second World War the Finns fought against neighbouring Russia to regain Karelia – and failed. Reparations were paid in kind – efforts which formed the modern manufacturing base from which the international success of Nokia finally grew. But in the 1970s almost a quarter of the population emigrated to Sweden and beyond in search of jobs. Finland’s success has been hard won and as puzzling to modest Finns as it is to everyone else.

Finns have a history of heart disease, alcoholism and higher than average suicide rates and though rapid economic change has brought health improvement it has also increased the stress and pace of everyday life.

So the Finns are like the Scots in many ways. Why then should their educational success not be of interest to another population of five million northern souls? 95 per cent of Finnish kids go to state schools. Only the best students become teachers and even primary teachers have Masters degrees which take five to six years to complete. Primary school is not glorified childcare – that’s done at kindergarten. So kids start school at seven ready to hit the ground running in formal education. Teachers are not necessarily higher paid than other professionals but are definitely held in higher esteem. And by the by, Finns have smaller schools and smaller class sizes than the Scots.

I’m not suggesting we should “cut and paste” this education model on to existing Scottish structures. Nor should Scottish politicians focus only on aspects of “evidence” which support their own pre-existing policy ideas. There are myriad lessons education secretary Mike Russell could draw from a study of Finland’s educational success – smaller class sizes is not necessarily the most significant.

Of course Alex Salmond started it. The “Arc of Prosperity” was an unashamedly cherry-picking exercise in which the SNP leader focused on policy levers beyond the powers of a devolved Scotland – in Ireland (corporation tax), Iceland (fisheries policy) and Norway (the oil fund). Individual policy comparisons do grab attention and create headlines – and doubtless politicians need such international stun grenades as part of their political arsenal. But surely now, it’s time for more measured consideration too.

The overall lesson from the Nordics is staring us in the face. Investing in people – all your people – is the key to economic and social success and the younger you begin, the better. Scotland’s early industrialisation produced great wealth and great poverty. Despite much talk, we have not tackled that fundamental inequity. Our Nordic neighbours have. Indeed Nordic politicians made equality an underpinning feature of their new independent nations.

In Scotland, political energies are still hopelessly divided over the “national question,” postponing that real moment of reckoning when Scots finally decide how much we really want to end poverty, under-performance and the need to plead “special circumstances” during the business of international comparison.

If Neil Shaw is weary of adulatory and selective comparisons with Finland, I’m equally tired of hearing that children’s chances are made or marred before they reach school without hearing any radical solution to tackle the problem. If poverty is churning out unteachable, unreachable Scots, why is there no sense of urgency, no national commission, no cross-party agreement on the permanent Nordic-style shift of resources to equalise income and opportunity which underpins much of their success.

Scotland wants to lose disfiguring symptoms: low educational attainment, low productivity, bad health, violence, drug and drink misuse without giving up anything or changing our national diet. That’s not possible. And as Neil Shaw points out, we really don’t need another bottom place in an international league table to prove it.

• Lesley Riddoch is director of Nordic Horizons, a think tank promoting Scottish-Nordic policy exchange www.nordichorizons.org