Lessons from a Finnish classroom

Mrs Mickelsson and Senny greeting pupils at Kaitaan Koulu

At the entrance to Kaitaan Koulu high school, I am greeted by a woman with a dog under her arm. Senny is a six year old Japanese spitz with tiny eyes half-hidden by fluffy white fur. She is probably too big to be carried by her owner, headteacher Ritva Mickelsson. But in the two hours I spend with her, her paws barely touch the ground.

Mrs Mickelsson is wearing black thick-rimmed glasses and bright flowery shirt and carrying Senny’s lead, which appears to be purely decorative. The short walk to her office takes us five minutes, because every few metres she stoops to let a passing pupil stroke the dog. Senny is used as a sort of canine teaching assistant in special education classes — Mrs Mickelsson says her presence helps to calm the pupils and open them up to learning.

We call in on a biology class, where another dog is being petted by a girl of around 11. I don’t catch his name, or his breed, and he and Senny fail to acknowledge each other — I suppose they both have a job to do. Two tables along, a girl with long blonde hair nudges her friend to point out that the class lizard has fallen asleep in her pencil case.

Finland’s education system has become almost fetishised over the last decade. When the OECD released its first PISA rankings of global education levels in 2003, Finland came in at a surprise second place. This was despite an approach which appeared to promote group work, creativity and free time over assessment and competition.

Kaitaan Koulu school in Espoo, Finland

Before visiting Kaitaan Koulu, I’d almost expected to walk into a scene from a feel-good film, with children climbing trees and holding free-flowing philosophical discussions. But it feels like any other school. Maybe that’s because Finland’s success is built on an unseen quality: the trust and autonomy given to teachers.

The animal programme is an example of this, because it was Mrs Mickelsson’s idea. As a girl, she wanted to be a farmer, and she’s always understood the positive effect that animals can have on children. She suggested the idea to the school board and government officials and it was rapidly approved. Well, except for her hope to bring a horse in…

Teachers are well respected in Finland — while many countries have problems attracting recruits, 90% of applicants to Finland’s teacher training programme are rejected. This qualification takes five years and culminates in a master’s degree. Perhaps as a result, Finnish teachers receive fewer ‘pushy parent’ emails. And governments tend not to intervene much in education, so teachers do not suffer curriculum changes after every election.

Coffee time in the teachers’ lounge at Kaitaan Koulu

We visit the staff room, where three teachers are chugging coffee before their first class. I’m hoping for one too, but Finnish language teacher Minna insists on finding tea for the English guest. I suggest that here, only the best can become teachers, and their reaction is synchronised: they shift their gaze away and mumble denials in a combination of modesty and embarrassment.

Later that day, I visit the university of Helsinki, just east of Kaitaan Koulu. There, education expert Professor Kirsti Lonka is less modest about Finland’s teachers. Her husband teaches, so she is a first-hand witness to the respect they command. Despite her own lofty academic title, she is known by neighbours as “the teacher’s wife”.

Kirsti shows me around the educational psychology department. The centre of the blue building has been hollowed out and turned into a large classroom. Oddly-shaped desks have wheels so Kirsti can move them to around test different configurations. Today, they are set up so groups of students sit around four desks, rather than facing the front.

Professor Kirsti Lonka shows off some of the tools in Helsinki University’s educational psychology department

Not everyone has bought into Finland-mania. Other education experts point out that as a small, relatively homogenous and well-off country, its education policies might not be applicable elsewhere. Tom Bennett, who advises the UK government on behaviour in schools, attributes Finland’s early PISA success to a more traditional style of education back in the 1990s, not to the modern ideas it showcases today.

But its global influence continues to spread. As we walk out of the department and into Helsinki’s biting winter air, Kirsti tells me she is flying to China tomorrow. She’s off on a book tour, to discuss the lessons other countries can learn from Finnish education. As it turns out, Finland does have some things to boast about. Across the road, a man is battling against the wind as he winches the national flag down from a flagpole to store it safely overnight. Kirsti stops and, lowering her voice, she whispers: “You know, I have fans there.”

This article was first aired on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent