Quality teacher training spells success for Finnish students

published 22 December 2009 updated 22 December 2009

In recent years, Finland has consistently ranked at the top of the OECD’s PISA surveys. The Trade Union of Education in Finland (OAJ) is often asked: How do you do it? What’s the secret to your success?

A long tradition of high-quality teacher training is regarded as an essential factor in the success of the Finnish public education system. Primary school teachers have been undergoing Master’s-level university training since the 1970s. The success of young Finns in their studies is based on well-trained university-educated teachers, according to Erkki Kangasniemi, chairman of the OAJ. The high-level academic teacher training has also made the profession more attractive. Finnish teachers must have passed rigorous entrance examinations by the time they begin their studies. In fact, only about 11 per cent of students applying for primary school teacher training are admitted, says Kangasniemi, pointing out that there is not a similar flood of applicants in all sectors of teaching. The reorganisation of teacher education 30 years ago was closely connected with a reform of the whole Finnish educational system. The 1970s saw the transition from a system of parallel schools to a system of uniform comprehensive public education, in which every student completes at least nine years of basic schooling. During those years, students enjoy relatively small class sizes. On average, there are 20 children per class in Grades 1-6 and 18 children in Grades 7-9. However, these are only averages, and some classes as large as 36 pupils do exist. From the international perspective, compulsory school attendance in Finland starts rather late: not until the year the child turns seven. The requirements are the same for all children in comprehensive school, after which they choose either upper-secondary or vocational education — or even both simultaneously. University-level teacher education is based on solid pedagogic knowledge and proficiency in the subject areas to be taught. All primary school teacher trainees also engage in research, which supports them throughout their careers in terms of their pedagogical thinking and professional development. Since 1995, the training of kindergarten teachers working with children between the ages of one and six has been based on university-level Bachelor of Education studies. Previously they were trained at polytechnics. It is one of OAJ’s challenges to raise the education of kindergarten teachers to the Master’s-degree level. “A lot remains to be done in this respect,” says Kangasniemi. “Unfortunately, not all decision makers have yet realised that small children, too, need optimally educated teachers.” The comprehensive-school reform and the reorganisation of teacher education coincided with OAJ’s emergence as the general teaching union. It now represents all sectors, from kindergarten teachers to university lecturers. Ninety-five per cent of Finnish teachers are union members. OAJ is constantly engaged in close interaction with the universities with a view to continual improvement of teacher education. In this work, teacher-education students, who through their own association are members of the OAJ, are an important source of support and energy, both in the classroom and the union. By Ritva Semi.

A former pre-school teacher, Ritva Semi has been an active teacher trade unionist since 1984, when Finnish teachers went out on an historic strike. She currently works on education issues and development cooperation for the OAJ. This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 32, December 2009.