A Generous Helping of Equality Pie

Hugh Fitzpatrick has worked in Finnish Education since 1998. He trained as a History and Civics Teacher and currently runs the High School preparatory year and bilingual and English provision at Eira High School for Adults.

What is more important for an education system: That it contains some of the most prestigious schools in the world or that the vast majority of its schools are decently above average?

I have just listened to a representative of the Finnish Board of Education deliver the keynote speech to a group of around three hundred teachers and administrators from the independent schools of Finland.

When you only have a population five and a half million, many of them who are soon to be retired, you can’t afford to leave even a small part of the population only partially educated. The message from the Finnish state is that education matters, equality in education matters, quality in education matters and inclusivity in education matters.

I can’t imagine many governments in Europe who would disagree with the main lines of this message. But, if you were to ask me what makes the Finnish education system successful, I would answer that it is the emphasis on equality that marks the system as different.

Imagine walking into the staffroom at Eton and suggesting that the education delivered is on a par with that delivered at the local comprehensive. The very proposition seems absurd. In Finland the education that a student receives at the most elite entry High Schools in Helsinki is more or less the same as that received by students in any High School in Finland. This is not a controversial statement but a generally recognised fact.

Between schools the level of student attainment may differ but the quality of teaching is consistent across the board. It is the equal distribution of quality teaching that should be emphasised here. It is not that the absolute quality of teachers and teaching is necessarily better in Finland than anywhere else in Europe, but that good and less good teachers are more or less equally distributed throughout the system. Maintaining this equality is currently one of the largest headaches of a system faced with rural depopulation and migration to population centres largely in Southern Finland.

The reasons for this high level of equality are partly pragmatic and partly radical. Pragmatism dictates that the careful shepherding of resources including human resources is just good sense. A system that only delivers quality education to elites is by definition highly wasteful of resources. The radicalism is the other side of the same coin. It dictates that economic and social elites should be educated in the same way as everyone else. Goodbye Eton! Now there’s a proposal to make an education system better.

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