Should we be more like Finland? The Finnish education system explained.

By Tom Stehlik

Educators around the world laud the Finnish school system and there is constant discussion in Australia about how we should try to follow Finland’s example. However there is scant depth of knowledge about how the Finnish school system actually works. Recently I spent two months in Finland on an Endeavour Executive Fellowship, undertaking research into schools and university teacher education programs. You might be interested in details of what I discovered.

Freedom and trust

The basic right to education is enshrined in the Finnish constitution. Public authorities must secure equal opportunities for every resident in Finland to receive education and be able to develop themselves, irrespective of their financial standing. Legislation provides for compulsory schooling and the right to free pre-primary and basic education, which includes daily meals for students and subsidised transport. There is a strong culture of trust where teachers are addressed by their first name, have a lot of freedom in their classrooms, do not have to submit their pupils to benchmark testing, and are highly respected within the community.

University is free

Higher education is also the responsibility of the Ministry and all university tuition is free, including for foreign students. Finland has 14 universities; eight of these offer teacher education programs.

Funding and administration

Education in Finland is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Culture. The Ministry is the third largest in Finland and its share of the state budget is 12% (6.6 million Euro in 2014). The Finnish National Board of Education works with the Ministry to develop educational aims, content and methods for primary, secondary and adult education.

Local administration is the responsibility of the regional municipal authorities, which play a prominent role as education providers. Kindergartens, day-care centres, comprehensive schools, upper secondary schools, vocational and further education centres are all administered by the local municipality. This includes responsibility for teaching staff salaries, employment conditions and professional development.

Teacher Education

Every teacher in Finland (apart from kindergarten teachers) has a Master’s degree as a minimum requirement. Teacher training is organised in a unique way in comparison to the Australian situation: the eight universities offering teacher training all have University Teacher Training Schools which belong to the Faculties of Education. Teachers in these schools are actually employees of the university, while the schools themselves still follow the National Curriculum and enjoy the same independence that other schools do. In Finland they are known as Normaalikoulu (Normal schools); also referred to as Training Schools or Practice Schools.

Teacher training and status

There are eleven Finnish Teacher Training schools that not only provide an education for students at comprehensive and upper secondary levels, but they also offer supervision for teaching students undertaking professional experience, act as ‘demonstration schools’ for teaching experiments and educational research, as well as providing and supporting in-service teacher training. The number of students in the Teacher Training Schools totals around 8,000 and every year about 3,000 teaching students complete their teaching practice there.

Teaching is seen as a high status profession in Finland and was described as a ‘favourite occupation’. Historically teachers were seen as ‘Candles of the people’ lighting the way to Finnish independence, and this is still a very strong cultural and societal view. It is therefore competitive to enter teacher education programs requiring a high standard of entry to university – based on a matriculation score as well as an entrance exam and an interview. Points are awarded for each of these three entry requirements. If an applicant fails the university entrance exam they must wait a whole year before applying again.

3 plus 2 year model of teacher education – Bachelor and Masters degrees

Successful applicants enter the initial three year Bachelor of Education program, equivalent to 180 credit points. The degree structure includes a 5 credit course in Quantitative research methods and a 5 credit course in Qualitative research methods, and 10 credit points for a Bachelor’s thesis.

Entry to the Master of Education degree is automatic on successful completion of the Bachelor degree, if a student is continuing at the same university. Entry at Masters level to another university may require additional entrance requirements, in which case Grade Point Average would be a consideration.

The two year Masters degree is equivalent to 120 credits, and includes courses such as Education for Sustainable Future and Education in Diverse Cultures as well as 10 credits on Research-based teaching; 10 more on research methodology; 10 credits on designing a Masters thesis, and finally a Masters thesis equivalent to 30 credit points.

While the qualifications to become a basic classroom teacher (Grades 1 – 9) or a secondary teacher (Grades 10-12) require a minimum of 5 years (3 plus 2), it is unusual that the minimum qualification to become a kindergarten or pre-school teacher only requires a 3 year bachelor degree in Finland. Kindergarten teacher salaries are therefore less than other teachers’ salaries. However, since children do not start Grade 1 until age 7, the kindergarten/pre-school centres are important providers of education and day care – with some providing 24 hour care.

Teacher researchers

The salient feature of the 3 plus 2 model of teacher education in Finland is the research-based approach in both the Bachelor and Masters degrees, reinforced by the research intensive Teacher Training Schools which are funded and supported by the universities. Teachers are taught to think critically and must produce a research thesis both in the 3rd year of their bachelor degree and the final year of their Masters degree. The research-based approach is modelled in the Teacher Training schools where mentor teachers are also university employees and the interaction between the institutions is integral to the approach, providing PD for teachers and access to the universities’ teaching and research activities.

At Savonlinna campus of the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) where I was located during the Endeavour Fellowship, the teacher training school was on the same site and interaction between university and school was constant and immediate. The principal held a PhD and was involved in a research project on 21st Century skills with researchers from UEF, based on evaluating the introduction of iPads to all students from Grades 1 – 9 in the school. Students on Professional Experience at the school were also involved in the research. The Director of Educational and Cultural Development for the Municipality of Savonlinna who was directly responsible for 24 schools and 900 staff in the region also held a PhD and found time to stay involved in research and write articles with researchers from UEF.

Teacher salaries

Finally, it is interesting to note that despite the high status of teaching in Finland, teacher salaries in general are significantly less in comparison to Australia:

  • Finland teacher salaries on average: 32,400 Euro ($45,600)p.a.
  • South Australia: $61,500 up to $89,000 p.a. (Tiers 1 – 9)
  • In other Australian states and territories classroom teachers earn about the same as in South Australia

So we can see there are more differences than similarities in the Finnish system compared to Australian school systems. How realistic would it be for us to emulate or adopt any of the Finnish approaches to education in Australia? Tell me what you think.


TOMDr Tom Stehlik is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include adult learning, student engagement, school governance and communities of practice. He has had a long association with Steiner Education as a parent, educator, researcher, consultant and board member of a Waldorf School. In July 2014 Dr Stehlik took up an Endeavour Executive Fellowship to study teacher education and schooling in Finland.

6 thoughts on “Should we be more like Finland? The Finnish education system explained.

  1. Des Griffin says:

    There are numerous articles by Pasi Sahlberg on his site including an interesting response to declines in PISA scores and comparisons of US and Finnish education systems. In the first of these Sahlberg lauds the importance of learning from other countries. Australia is “learning” too much from US and UK practices instead of their research.

  2. James Ladwig says:

    For a more impartial view than Pasi’s (he was embedded in the system afterall), you can also check out the analyses of Hannu Simola. Pasi is great, but Hannu didn’t pull his punches as much. Hannu recently retired from U Helsinki, but did publish several articles on what he somewhat sarcastically called ‘the Finish miracle.’ He does a great job of explaining the history that developed their system.

  3. James Ladwig says:

    It seems I spoke a tad soon. Hannu is about to launch a new book on his work:

    Simola, H. (2015) The Finnish Education Mystery – Historical and sociological essays on schooling in Finland. London: Routledge.

  4. Des Griffin says:

    I was interested in your comment James. I tried to get hold of Simola’s latest offerings without success. The journals are not available on line at the State Library. However, I gather he is not a fan of PISA.

    Over at Inside Story ( Dean Ashenden has a review of Yong Zhao’s book, “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Dragon” and Diane Ravitch’s review of it in the New York Review of Books. He comments on PISA, In responding to Ashenden’s article that I argued that there is value in the PISA exercise. However, some of the criticism of it assumes more influence for PISA than is warranted, that autonomous nations decide what notice they will take of it – I understand Sahlberg to say Finland does not take much – and media and political correspondents have no facility with basic concepts of statistics, especially when the results are used as league tables . Of course standardised testing is hardly, by itself, a recipe for education improvement.

    In a review of Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” by Foster & Yates (Monthly Review November 2014) the comment is made that [improvements in] skill and training cannot explain the gross inequality that has arisen in US society. Is this support for the proposition that public funding should not be used to support universities, a view I gather gaining traction in the US?

  5. Hannu Simola says:

    Dear Des – If you interested in my anthology “The Finnish Education Mystery”, do not hesitate to contact

  6. Lee says:

    We can never really pick-up and transplant other countries pedagogies into our own one, rather, we should look at what is great about them and how we can evolve them into our own situation. History, politics and cultural beliefs and behaviours have a major shaping effect on education systems. The Finnish respect their teachers, the People of Reggio Emelia respect their teachers. In Aus (perhaps always) that respect is not the same. We do not value childhood, we do not value teachers and we do not value education as much as we should.

Comments are closed.