Finnish fairy stories - Tim Oates

Finnish fairy stories - Tim Oates

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Fairy stories often have a dark side and pick up ‘eternal truths’. Dark side perhaps, but no eternal truths in the last decade’s fairy stories about Finland’s education system. In the case of that country, people have been seriously misled by stories told by people who have looked at it through their own, restricted lens. The real story of Finland is more subtle, more challenging, and far, far more interesting.

There are some fascinating insights to be gained from looking in detail at Finland – but the greatest insights come from looking, with sensitivity, at history and a wide range of evidence. The Finns effected wholesale, coherent system change. Moving an entire system to fully comprehensive education was an outstanding feat of social consensus, policy formation and meticulous, centralised implementation strategy. Look there – the past, not the present - for insights as to what another nation might aspire to do, and what means might be used to achieve it.

The analysis is presented here as a series of statements and ripostes to put the record straight about the following often misinterpreted 'accepted truths' about the Finnish education system:

There is no inspection and no national testing in Finland

The national curriculum in Finland is very general and allows schools a very high level of autonomy

There are no private schools in Finland, and no policy of school choice

Teachers are highly respected and highly paid in Finland, far more so than England

Finland is a model for the rest of the world



This analysis is not intended to denigrate the achievements of educators and members of society who put enormous, concerted effort into substantial reform of education in Finland. It is, however, designed to correct a whole series of misconceptions and misrepresentations about what was done when in that reform process. The reforms in Finland were impressive but, due to myopia and elementary errors in enquiry, what foreign analysts have taken from Finland frequently has amounted to ‘Finnish fairy stories’.

Tim Oates CBE,
Group Director Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

Finnish fairy stories

Finnish fairy stories - Tim Oates (PDF, 136KB)


Following discussion with Cambridge about its insights into the errors made in past analyses and narratives, Gabriel Sahlgren obtained funding to look at the Finnish system in greater detail, and what he found strongly corroborated the view we built up in the Curriculum Review – a view which contrasted strongly with the common assumptions and statements about the Finnish system.

Real Finnish Lessons - The True story of an education superpower - Gabriel Heller Sahlgren (PDF)

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