Modern policies, poor results?

This week Finland announced it was no longer going to teach math, science and English – as discrete subjects – in favour of joined up lessons, thematically based lessons. However scratching beneath the surface reveals a nuanced reform, not a radical one. Certainly, this is a reform that John Dewy would have approved of.  Pasi Sahlberg, a leading Finnish educator and international heavyweight has long contended Finland’s success comes from meeting the individual needs of pupils, and favouring the holistic development of pupils; PISA success he says, is merely an unintended by-product.

Although Sahlberg is not a fan of tests like PISA, he should take heart. The resent OCED international study on adults’ skills (2013) had some worrying pointers for leading ‘G.E.R.M.’ countries like the UK and USA. Here, young people appear to be doing worse than their parents and grandparents. Despite years of rising focus on targets, standards, strategies and inspections,  young adults’ reading and numeracy have declined when compared to older adults.

The Finnish reforms reflect a little of the spirit of Singapore’s initiative – Teach Less, Learn More. This was intended to favour more student-centered teaching and holistic academic development. This promotes curriculum which allows students to “better relate different topics in relation to each other and the subject discipline.”  (Tan, 2007).

Against this background,  UK reforms get a mixed report card and we wonder, might the cure be killing the patient? Universities believe that new students’ subject knowledge has “grown broader but shallower” and that A level graduates do not always possess the necessary foundation academic skills – of course, this is not a new cry from universities (Ofqual, 2012a).  The government’s response was ‘stretch and challenge’ but Ofqual (2012b) find a lack of evidence to support a widespread and positive impact Link.

Michael Gove also called for more “deep thought” which sounds very reasonable. However, the Finnish conceptualisation of this appears different when examined along side Mr Gove’s calls for academic rigour – a return to traditional curriculum, styles and assessment. The scrapping of coursework, and a return to high-stakes, terminal exams is surely going to focus students on grades and exams; the content of which was heavily guided by universities via the A-levels Content Advisory Board.

Again, this turns our education system in to a conveyor belt designed to produce university degrees. However time and time again, this is not what employers or parents necessarily want. A key finding of the OECD’s report on Adult Skills for Life suggests that it is skills and not educational attainment that is strongly associated with employment type. There is a criticism that businesses are using universities not for what they teach, but as elaborate selection machines. In high-stakes UK, is this what has happened to schools as well? It is high time we rethought the very purpose of education – once again, Finland may be leading the way.


OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing.

Ofqual. (2012a). Fit for purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels,

Ofqual. (2012b). Comparative Analysis of A Level Student Work. London: Ofqal  (Ref. OF151)  Link

Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0.  What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? 2nd ed. London: Teachers College Press.
Tan, K. (2007). Is teach less, learn more a quantitative or qualitative idea? Proceedings of the Redesigning pedagogy: culture, knowledge and understanding conference, Singapore, May 2007.

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