In the year 2001, Finland was recognised for educational excellence, doing very well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA measures student performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science and Finland placed 1st, 4th and 5th respectively. Governments the world over flocked to the nation to figure out what was working so well. Of course, it came as quite a shock to find that Finnish children have a pretty lax introduction to education compared to their English speaking counterparts. They start school relatively late – 7 years old – and don’t undergo the perils of ‘high stakes’ standardised testing until they are well into high school. Instead, Finnish children play and the Finnish teacher focuses on social and emotional wellbeing first and foremost before educational achievement.  This line of thinking has urged many to call for an overhaul of English speaking education systems such as Australia, which has a much lower average starting age of 5 and has ‘high stakes’ testing in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 through NAPLAN.

Pasi Sahlberg is coming to Australia this year to take up a post at UNSW. Sahlberg is a strong advocate for Finland’s progressive approach and so his coming arrival has sparked renewed hope from those who wish to push a progressive agenda – a Finnstralia of their own. On social media, Sahlberg has said that he will not advise Australia to follow the Finnish approach but I am very sceptical. From what I have read of Pasi Sahlberg, including in his book, his values are the Finnish values – to push his personal agenda is to push the Finnish approach. My scepticism was done no favours when this article came out in the Guardian in which Sahlberg lavishes play and condemns testing (his condemnation includes the Phonics Screening Check).

Alas, despite the very Finnishness of the Guardian article, I will take Sahlberg at his word, though I will remain sceptical. Calls for a Finnish approach are still common though – it has stirred up much debate on Twitter – and I feel that many who support Sahlberg will continue to support the Finnish approach and the implementation of those ideas here in Australia. I believe it would be a mistake to pursue that line of thought.

Calls for a ‘Finnish approach’ are indeed pretty common but not all is rosy in Finland. Despite being lauded for their results, in the past decade, Finland has been in educational decline. In 2006, at the height of their achievement, Finnish students scored means of 547 in Reading, 563 in Science and 548 in Mathematics. In 2015, it was 526 for Reading, 531 in Science and 511 in Mathematics. 2015 was not a random off year either – it represents the bottom of a decade-long decline in results. Yes, it is true that Finland still does well comparatively across nations, but the trend is downward, which is concerning.

There are many who will argue that this trend downhill is not perceived as a problem in Finland because that isn’t what they are about. I doubt this is the case. For one, I think all nations are concerned with the educational achievement of their students because of how educational achievement links to economic prosperity and social stability. I see no reason why Finland would not be just as concerned with the achievement of their students as everybody else. Further, why would Finland enter PISA if it is not at all interested in analysing the data it receives from the test? If they are not interested in the downward trend, one would have to ask why they enter the test at all. Of course, some may refute my logic and say that they indeed do care about the educational achievement of their young people, but it is not everything. The thing is, it isn’t everything in the English speaking world either.

Adopting the somewhat lax Finnish approach to education seems a little silly if we acknowledge that Finland is in a decade-long state of educational decline. Moreover, there are stark differences between the two countries that cannot be ignored. Finland’s population is about the same size as Sydney alone, and the cultural and racial diversity is night and day – Finland lacks diversity; Australia is one of the most diverse countries in the world. The monoculture means Finland has shared values and a shared understanding of how children should be raised, which includes a love of learning, reading and knowledge of the importance of schooling. This gives Finns a headstart on academic achievement. Imposing Finnish ideals, and trusting the diverse population of Australia will fulfil their end of the bargain, is a fantasy.

A diverse nation with differing values and beliefs about educational achievement means we cannot wait until kids are 7 to begin investing in their education. There are too many children who start from much further behind to wait. This is exacerbated by the fact that Australia reads in English – a language with a notoriously deep orthography. Finnish children read well and this has a lot to do with their very shallow orthography. In Finnish, letters match sounds extremely consistently. This makes it relatively easy to learn to map speech to print. This is not the case in English. Experts posit that it can take 3 years to learn the full English code. An Australian child will take far longer to learn to read English than a Finnish child will take to read Finnish. In fact, I’ve read that a significant minority of kids can already read before they reach formal literacy instruction. This is not going to happen in Australia. Having Australian kids play until they are 7 is simply not the answer.

So although many continue to dream the dream of a Finnstralian education system, it seems that adopting the Finnish approach probably would not be the right way to go for Australia. Not only are they in educational decline, but the nations differ markedly in many ways. I’ve no doubt that the coming of Pasi Sahlberg will renew calls for a more progressive, Finnish style approach – especially in the early years. Hopefully, our leaders can ignore the fantasy of Finnstralia and continue to work towards important reforms.




11 thoughts on “Finnstralia”

  1. “it represents the bottom of a decade-long decline in results”

    Decline? Or regression to the mean? Finland is still in the middle of a decades-long improvement, with its natural ups and downs, that it started in the early 1970s. The big upward bumps in the 1980s and 1990s came straight after it moved away from stratified and towards comprehensive education. Finland-bashers tend to overlook that point.

    On that point, I really can’t understand why so many teachers seem determined to cut Finland down. Finnish teachers and educationalists themselves are probably their own worst critics, which is why they’re constantly looking at how to improve. Doesn’t sound like an education system that thinks it’s perfect and is sitting on its laurels. And Sahlberg is constantly explaining the difference between saying why other countries shouldn’t “copy” Finland, but that other countries can “learn from Finland’s example” – doesn’t sound so nuanced to me!!


  2. Hi John,

    Please forgive my impertinence, I was doing some international travel at the time of your reply and let it too easily slip my mind.

    My argument that Finland is in educational decline across the last decade is based on the country’s PISA scores. Greg Ashman has also touched on this and has included a graph that displays this decline. It is worth having a look.

    The drop in scores is significant and concerning. It would be foolish to ignore these when talking about what we could learn from their system.

    I and others highlight the problems with ‘copying’ Finland because it seems that many educators romanticise the ‘Finnish way’. This does not happen when talking about the other very successful education systems around the world. I have no doubt there are strong points, and it is, of course, a good idea to look and reflect on these strengths, but that is very different to cherrypicking aspects of the system that resonates with one’s own philosophy and using Finland as ‘evidence’ for these ideas (an emphasis on play is a common one). My post highlights why this may not be a good idea.


  3. The graph that Greg included is from a researcher (the link is included in Greg’s own post) who pointed out that Finland has been showing a steady rise for decades. My response to Greg’s post (which he hasn’t commented on yet) is:

    “Plus, the Patrinos study that Greg linked to shows that Finland’s growth has been steady since the 1980s and earlier, on a number of measures. A fairly spectacular rise from the 1970s to 2000, and then what might be described as a “regression to the mean”, rather than the exaggerated term “decline” that seems to be bandied about. If Finland’s results plummet to what they were in the 1980s, or even the 1990s, then there might be something to talk about, but I suspect that the next PISA results will show an improvement on that front.”

    In short, there is no “decline” but a regression to the mean. Patrinos et al included a number of measures to show this besides just PISA. To speak of a “decline” is indeed cherry-picking of the Disco Stu order: Greg himself concedes that Finland’s results are still nevertheless very high.

    I agree that there are plenty of Finland bandwagoners (is that a word?) but the overwhelming majority are not from Finland. The Finns are their own worst critics and will tell you straight away what is wrong with their education system and what needs to be fixed in it – Sahlberg himself readily says such things: (Note that he mentions how Finnish educators actually themselves pre-empted the lower PISA results in 2012 and weren’t ashamed about it) I would argue that we can agitate to stop Australian educators shouting “Finland!” as some kind of easy shortcut word when they’re frustrated with our own education system, but without trashing what Finland has clearly achieved since the early 1970s and continues to achieve.

    Why do commentators like Greg, Mike Salter and others so readily use such vitriolic language against Finland? My guess is that they don’t like how their decades-long dramatic improvement in results seems to indicate that moving away from streaming, selective schooling and private schooling actually works. Now that Finland’s regression to the mean seems to be occurring (I would like it to bobbing on the surface rather than slowly sinking to the bottom) they seem to see it as a perfect opportunity to shout “A-ha! Gotcha!” and sink the boot in.


  4. “The drop in scores is significant and concerning.”

    Nope, not significant. And here’s some information that sets it out honestly (and, yet again, self-critically) without being hysterical:

    I think the difference with the Finns is that, when they see that something is wrong, they identify it and do something about it straight away. In Anglophone countries we’re much more likely to engage in tail-chasing, finger-pointing and coming up with the wrong solution!


    1. The drop is indeed statistically significant. Because it is significant, I also label it concerning.

      Perhaps the Finns really do not care all too much, although I think that’s likely not the case.

      Thank you for the link. Will follow it up in time.

      And I can agree with your last statement.


  5. It is often overlooked that while Finland’s primary schooling seems progressive, the secondary schools through the rise and highest periods of PISA performance were very traditional, didactic teaching to the max with very, very high stakes exams at the end. Finnish exchange students we have had at our school have been several curriculum levels ahead of our students at the same age. So there is something of a contradiction as fans of progressive schooling travelled to Finland and gained support for their ideas, whereas supporters of more traditional approaches could well have done the same. From what I understand there have been some changes in the Finnish secondary system recently with a move to their version of project based learning.


    1. Actually, the exponential rise in results of Finnish students also mirrors that country’s very dramatic move away from a stratified selective / private / public schooling mix to a comprehensive one, where everyone is taught together and students’ needs are prioritised. Look at any graph that shows the rise from the early 1970s to the 2000s – you can see it for yourself. That fact is always swept under the table by libertarians and free-marketeers because it will prove their point completely erroneous – they normally resort to the hair-splitting arguments of “when they were good it was b/c of traditional and then they went to progressive and so, yeah”, when really the “drop” over the last decade is anything but. They are still around the same level and there’s no sign whatsoever that they will sink to the standards they had thirty years ago.

      Ignore the haters: Finland and its Scandinavian neighbours are a success story.


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