The Finnish Educational System – Vesa-Matti Sarenius

Sat in a seminar room with the view above, after a day skiing, we heard from Vesa-Matti from the University of Oulu about the Finnish education system.

The Finnish educational system is split into four levels; Basic, Secondary, Higher and Teacher education. Basic education is compulsory and starts at age 7. There are many pre schools from 6, usually attached to the schools the children then go to for the rest of their basic education. Everyone has 9 years basic compulsory education in two main stages, from 1-6 and 7-9.  Many of the features of their school system are influenced by the German system.

There is a national curriculum, drawn up by the National Board of Education and includes foals and assessment criteria for separate subjects. Work is underway for a new curriculum for 2015 which will be designed to last for ten years. This time teachers are quite involved with the development of the curriculum, although this was not so much the case before. Nevertheless, the curriculum is not designed by politicians.

From the core national curriculum, the municipalities define their curriculum, and each school then adapts this to their own local context. The teaching methods and the materials used to teach are left to the individual teachers to decide.

Compulsory core subjects are;

  • ‘Mother tongue’ (usually Finnish), literature and foreign languages (Swedish or Sami)
  • Environmental studies and civics
  • Religion or ethics, history, social studies
  • Mathematics, physics, chemistry
  • Biology, geography
  • Physical education, music, visual arts, crafts, home economics and pupil counselling

Grades 1-6 are taught by class teachers, and 7-9 are taught by subject specialists. 88% of these teachers are qualified, and all of them must be qualified to have a permanent position, the remaining 12% being largely student teachers training.

74% of teachers in basic (primary) education are women, Vesa-Matti explained he thought this was more cultural than values driven and also because the salaries are lower than in some other professions. The average salary for a basic education teacher would be 36,000 Euros with 25% paid in tax. This may sound high for earl career UK teachers, but the cost of living here is also very high, particularly for food.

The constitution of Finland sets out the objective of education as giving all citizens access to education. Even foreign students can access higher education for free.

Secondary education is non compulsory, but it is compulsory to apply or your unemployment payments will be cut. 94% starts secondary education and 88% graduate. If you do not get in to the three schools you apply for then you are excused attending. A hook that is often used is that food at school is free for everyone, and many institutions also pay for all the books needed for their courses.

There are two types of secondary schools; academic secondary schools and vocational schools. The ratio of students at these is about 50:50. There is some crossover in the courses available, with academic subjects available in vocational schools alongside courses in areas such as car mechanics.

The Higher education system has two routes; Universities and Polytechnics or Universities of Applied Sciences. There are 15 Universities and 25 Polytechnics. The numbers of both of these institutions are shrining, as are the numbers of students studying at this level overall.

All Finnish teachers need a Masters degree except for those in Kindergarten. Class teachers train at University, as do specialist teachers who train for a Masters in their subject but also have 2 or 3 other subjects. Pedagogic studies will usually be one of their minor subjects, but their qualification is in the pure subject not, for example a degree in Mathematics education as we might have in the UK.

Vesa-Matti explained that although he has been involved in some ‘education export’ projects, much of their success is down to culture. He said in some areas teaching is better in England, but the difference is that in Finland there is a culture of trust in teachers. There have been no school inspections since 1983. They still have inspectors, but only to deal with complaints. Even within schools, head teachers will not come to inspect the teaching of individual teachers. This trust extends to pupils and parents. Their teacher education system takes on the mission to create teachers who are worthy of that trust.

Despite this lack of ‘checking up’ on teachers, there is a strong culture of professional development, and they have 5 days a year set aside to work on this. To Vesa-Matti this is in some ways conceptually linked to the increase in salary as teachers gain experience; there is an expectation that they continue to develop their practice as their experience and salary grow year by year. The University education is also framed as welcoming all students into the professional and scientific community, a community that continues to develop the thinking around education and the development of curricula.

My blog posts from Finland are all available here.

Related posts:

Finnish primary school visit 3
Second Finnish Primary School Visit
Helsinki, Boot Camp & Rovaniemi; Finland so far...


  1. The most fascinating thing is that the Finnish curriculum is not designed by politicians but by teachers. When teachers are allowed to think, the quality of students’ education improves.

    • My jury is out as to whether this results in better teaching and learning in this case. Sure, Finland scores very high in PISA and similar measures, but this is quite a narrow measure of the success of the curriculum. I am looking forward to visiting a number of schools and Universities over the next week and seeing first hand what the effect of what I blogged above is.

  2. Fascinating, as always Oliver. Pleased to hear a jury out verdict until you see first HSBC the range and quality of learning experiences offered. Lots of comments abound of course about narrow socio-economic and ethnic make up of students. Would be interesting to get a real life sense if that. I am interested in learning about how the culture of professional self development is sustained and what happens if it isn’t? Enjoy the trip and thank you for sharing your experience.

  3. That was not a bank reference! First hand I meant! Other banks are available…

  4. The culture of trust is massively apparent whilst out there! I would wholeheartedly agree with Vesa-Matti. Just talk yo some of the teachers about our culture of not being able to hug a child in hysterics after falling, the look on their faces in priceless.


  1. Helsinki, ‘Boot Camp’ & Rovaniemi; Finland so far… | Oliver Quinlan: Live Blogs
  2. In discussion with a Finnish primary head teacher | Oliver Quinlan: Live Blogs

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