Friday, November 11, 2011

Finnish Lessons for Scotland

Here is a guest post by Niall MacKinnon who is a principal of a primary school in Scotland.

by Niall MacKinnon

I am the principal of a small rural primary school in Scotland. I am honored that Joe has asked me to write a guest blog. It is an exciting time to do this.

From half way round the globe I share the excitement of Pasi Sahlberg’s new book Finnish Lessons. Its subtitle What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? has come at the right time for us here in Scotland. 

We have just gone through a curriculum review seeking to re-vision education. A welcome policy mix was coming in: opening up wider capacities, de-cluttering, deepening learning, personalisation, choice, creativity, professionalism, and a visionary ‘building the curriculum’. This explicitly gave us local ownership of pathways forward in our own institutions. 

The official message here is that the big curriculum change debates are settled. But now there is an overlay. As we embraced principles to ‘build’ in our schools, our inspectors gave us ‘required’ characteristics of successful ‘implementation’. We were asked to declutter through rounded, non-target-driven outcomes based on experiences, but were handed a specified listing hundreds and hundreds strong and told to cross-match our practice to these. We had to continue grading to the existing audit indicator schedules, then were told that inspectors had ‘increased expectations’ in inspections. Now we are to get standardised testing. What happened? 

It is Sahlberg who shows how this happened, from the Finnish alternative. We tried to bring in a new curriculum approach without re-thinking the basic underpinning values which would frame it. Whilst our new curriculum asked us to rethink practice, it did not give us the means to think. Scotland could not break free from audit indication, inspection and targetised attainment. Its culture remained top-down. 

The critical shift needed is to purposes and principles, giving professional ownership of the means to realise them at the local level. Sahlberg shows that this is what Finland got right. It embraced dialogue basing practice change in reflection over theories and models of education. This is not possible if loaded down with top-heavy audit indication schedules, micro-specification of actions and of curriculum content from the center. 

The central message of Sahlberg’s book is that Finland established a high performing education system by adopting policies counter to that which came in across most Western education systems. Sahlberg calls these the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. The features of the GERM are: standardizing teaching and learning with common criteria for measurement and data; increased focus on core subjects, particularly literacy and numeracy; teaching a prescribed curriculum; transfer of models of administration from the corporate world; high stakes accountability policies – control through testing, inspection, division between schools and an ethos of punishment (for educators). 

That is what went wrong. These remained in place in Scotland and so our new vision was never going to succeed. Finland’s success has been achieved by the simple solution of framing the development of the system around professional dialogue. We need to do the same. But to do that we have to strip out the blockages. If we want to rediscover our professionalism and our ‘love of learning’ we need to be GERM free. The real problem in a GERM ridden system is that the simplicity of professional conversation is lost. Of course, what we may then talk about is anything but simple. 

This is a lesson for Scotland, and for the world. We all need a course of Finnish Lessons.


  1. Thank you, Niall, for sharing your thoughts and experiences. As an American who briefly worked in Scottish secondary schools, I shared many of the same concerns.

    I was not very familiar with the Curriculum for Excellence before taking up my position, and I remember wondering how the sound pedagogical theory underpinning the CfE would actually fit into the existing qualifications and inspection framework. You provide an excellent analysis of why the curriculum has been with some resistance. It is simply not possible to shoehorn the CfE into a system that still emphasises external assessment and top-down initiatives. That said, I wish you all the best!

  2. "Now we are to get standardised testing."
    How utterly depressing - especially so from my point of view because I live in Scotland and have a 1 year old son who will have to endure this nonsense - probably long after everyone else in the world has realised what should have been clear from the outset.

  3. Thanks for the comments. There are signs of hope in Scotland, but signs of the old ways returning. Hence the vision needs to be fought for, and the way to do that is with clear thinking, which for us just now is coming from Finland – and Canada!

  4. This so called 'curriculum for excellence', is already being implemented in our Scottish schools, and if my family's experiences are anything to go by, it is simply NOT WORKING.
    My P7 grandson has special educational needs, but is in a mainstream class. Right now he is thoroughly stressed out, as are his parents, by the relentless demands of 'homework challenges', which give the pupils a period of time to produce topic related booklets and Powerpoint presentations.

    My poor grandson keeps getting marked down, for not understanding exactly what is required in terms of volume or content; sometimes the instructions are just verbally given, or are limited to a couple of 'airey fairey' lines defining the topic. This is all dressed up as the children finding out things for themselves, and justified by official soundbites like 'school parent partnerships' and 'involvement'.

    Some pupils,(and their parents), have certainly become very adept at cutting and pasting Wikipedia, but what exactly are they learning? What about those unfortunate kids who don't have access to a home computer or whose parents are not computer literate?

    I am not against homework, or children finding out things for themselves, but this seems oppressive. Children spend all day at school, ostensibly to be educated. Now it seems the educational 'planners' regard homes as an extension of the education system. This is a dangerous and very unfair concept.


Follow by Email