In discussion with a Finnish primary head teacher

I had an interesting chat with the head of the school I visited today, keen to expand on the lecture from Vesa-Matti earlier this week on the Finnish education system.

The schools serves what the head described as a fairly affluent population, he said about 80% of the families he would describe as being well off, with the other 20% having some ‘problems’ and not doing so well. One of the problems that he said affects some children’s progress is coming from families where the parents have split up, and he reckoned around 10-15% of the children in his school were in this situation. I asked how typical this was, and he said this figure would be fairly typical in schools across Finland.

He had been teaching since the seventies, and talked at length about the changes he sees in Finnish society. Particularly he has been recently finding dealing with parents more challenging, and he said the way parents approach their parenting has changed for some, with teachers having to fill the gaps that have been left in dealing with children’s emotional education. He said he has seen increasing numbers of children who need emotional support coming into his school, and that teachers are having to provide this support, although this is something they do gladly and are skilled at.

I asked what the main challenge was his school faced, and he was quick to cite decreasing budgets. The school is funded based on the number of pupils, and whilst they have been increasing numbers and class sizes, the money available has been decreasing. However, he appeared to have a high degree of control of his budget, and talked about his ability to shop around with educational suppliers to make sure he could get the best value for the children in the school. Generally his subject leaders make decisions about resource purchasing which he then ratifies.

One of the key themes of our discussion was the freedom of teachers, and he pointed out that teachers are given autonomy to choose how they teach. He does not decree a way in which they should teach, and does not check up on them to make judgements. However, he explained how in recent years there has been a shift from teachers shutting their classroom doors and being quite insular, towards much more collaboration. He described that teachers often work together, or work with each other’s classes if they feel it would be beneficial. They also often come to him for discussion and support, and he said despite the autonomy he had a very detailed knowledge of what was going on in the school because the teachers discussed with him as they felt necessary.

This appeared to be particularly the case concerning children who needed extra support, and he said he has discussions most days with teachers about how the school can best support these children. They appeared to have a comprehensive and individualised support system for those children falling behind, involving increased one to one support and children coming out of the main classes for intervention. Whilst he talked at length about specialist intervention, he did not mention personalisation or differentiation as part of the main classes. I described the kind of three way differentiation by task you might see in the UK, and he said that was not something they practiced in Finland.

My impression was that the teaching was aimed at the whole class, with those falling behind being given extra support, but the majority of the class moving at a similar pace. Having said that, their ‘resource teacher’ often takes groups of ‘talented’ pupils or groups of struggling pupils in extra lessons out of their main class. The head also pointed out that their ethos in whole class teaching is very much to get to know the children as individuals and tailor the teaching to these individuals. This seemed to be more about relationships than planned differentiated tasks or target setting.

We had an interesting discussion about the status of the teaching profession. It takes five years to train to be a teacher, and all teachers must have a Masters qualification, at primary level this is usually in the study of pedagogy with some other curriculum subjects as ‘minors’. Despite the long study, and what he described as the low pay compared to other professions, he said teaching was a very popular subject. However, not everyone in a classroom is a qualified teacher, it is possible and commonplace to work as a substitute teacher before one is qualified. There are some classroom assistants but relatively few, with his school of over two hundred pupils only employing five.

He lamented that few people take on other careers before teaching, and he said it would be beneficial to get more career changers into teaching to bring a variety of experience, however there is no national drive to do so as they have a good supply of well qualified people coming into the profession. At the other end of the scale, he said many people do teach for a few years and then go into other careers, as the education and training they get to become a teacher is seen as rigorous and broad in a way that sets them up well for many careers. Employers outside of education, he said, like to take on ex teachers as they are seen as very capable people.

This conversation uncovered an interesting mix of similarities and differences between formal education in the UK and Finland. The comparison is therefore complex, and it seems there are many specific local differences. Tomorrow I visit another school to provide another point of comparison…

My blog posts from Finland are all available here.

Related posts:

Lessons observed in Finland
Finnish primary school visit 3
A visit to a Finnish primary school

1 Comment

  1. It is refreshing to see how the Finnish head teachers engage in pedagogical discussions with their teachers. This respectful collaboration benefits the children’s education.

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