Leo R. Sandy
Plymouth State University
April 2007
New Hampshire Journal of Learning Vol 10 


The ethic of care appears to be flourishing in Finland where education is strongly supported as evidenced by high achievement scores, low dropout rates, and one hundred percent literacy. The character and experience of the Finnish people provide clues about why education is so highly prized. This interview with Eeva Penttila, Director of International Relations, Helsinki Department of Eduction, explores the values underlying education in Finland as well as practices that promote learning beginning with the birth of a child.

Education in Finland

A society that is grounded in the ethic of care is one that advances human development because the needs of children and families are seen as paramount and essential for a healthy functioning nation. Education thrives in such a place because it is a primary vehicle for expressing care.  One such place is Finland - a Baltic nation bordering Norway, Sweden and Russia that has a total population of about five million people. “The Finns regard education as the keystone of their democracy, and so they put their money on it. The goals of education, as the Finns see it, are to ensure equal opportunity for all citizens and to improve the quality of life” (Rajanen, 1981, p. 145).

Within the Finnish character and experience lie some clues as to why Finns place such a high value on education.  Finns are seen as having an independent attitude, a willingness to compromise and learn new things and “a belief in the significance of the welfare state, so that equality, solidarity, and tolerance are bywords whose effectiveness is being tested all the time” (Rikkinen, K., 2000, p. 65).

The Finnish education system is reputed to be the best in the world due in part to Finnish students having the highest achievement scores in the world. For example, in 2003, fifteen year olds achieved first place in the world in reading literacy and science and second in mathematics and problem solving. In Finland, students pay no tuition from preschool through graduate school, and meals are provided in schools at no charge to all students rather than just to those from low income families. There is compulsory education for full-time students between the ages of 7 and 16, and the neighborhood school is the predominant model. The literacy rate for both men and women is 100 percent and the graduation rate is 99.7 (Education in Finland). The education budget is approximately six billion Euros. Mandatory education does not start until children are seven years old to avoid premature interuption of childhood.  There are no separate programs for gifted students, and the more able students are routinely expected to assist the less able. Students are required to learn two foreign languages starting at the primary school level. Teachers may teach what they want as long as they follow the core national curriculum, and they even choose their own textbooks.  Children in Finland are voracious readers and the number of children's books produced in the country surpasses that of all other countries relative to the population. Finnish children even read while watching TV because they read the subtitles. “Reading to children, telling them folk tales, and going to the library are all high status activities” (Education in Finland, Recipe). Preschool is optional but since most mothers work, children usually begin preschool at age one.  In one survey, most teenagers chose teaching as their favorite profession. All teachers in Finland must have master’s degrees and many have higher degrees. “Many more people want to become teachers after graduating from upper schools than universities can actually handle, so the vast majority are turned down” (Alvarez, L, 2004). Finkelstein, L.B. (1995) reported that “teachers are paid as much as physicians and lawyers, and there is great respect for their knowledge and proficiencies” (p. 31). One reason given for the high value of education is the Kalevala, the book of epic poems that “epitomizes the virtues of study, wisdom, hard work and cultural pride.  Finnish students are exposed to these words and lessons in primary school, and the impact seems to linger” Finkelstein, 1995, p. 31). Another reason is traced back to an old church law in 1686 that said that people were not allowed to marry until they could read ((Rajanen, 1981). Other reasons Finkelstein (1995) offers include the emphasis on character education, parental support, and the value of lifelong learning.  Essentially, “Finland has made a grand deal with its citizens. The Finns honor, celebrate, and help their educators, and the educators in turn bring the national consensus on learning to full fruition. Their students are among the best educated in the world” (Finkelstein, 1995, p. 31)

The Helsinki Education system is the largest in the country with about 60,000 students.  It provides preschool education, vocational education, and adult education. There are 157 general education schools and 3 vocational schools. They also provide youth workshops for unemployed youths who lack vocational preparation as well as services to children with special needs. Five thousand children a year receive preschool education for four hours a day. There are four schools at hospitals so that students will be able to keep up with their studies while hospitalized.  Students share in power and decision making through school environment meetings where they discuss general issues in the school and allocate funds for specific projects. They also participate in regional forums where they discuss issues with politicians and leading officials. In terms of information technology, there are over 10,000 workstations linked to the Helsinki City Education Department information network. Helsinki students are also involved in several international projects. Currently, extensive cooperation is being carried out with the school districts of St. Petersburg. Moscow, and Beijing (Learning for Life, 2006).

In order to gain a firsthand account of education in Finland, I interviewed Eeva Penttila, Director of International Relations for the City of Helsinki, Finland Education Department.  She explains why Finland’s educational system has such a positive image in the world: “for one thing, what we ask the young people is how to apply knowledge and not how to repeat it. By comparison, in the countries of German and Japan, teaching and learning is mainly based on the fact that you are a good student if you can repeat what the teacher has said. In Finland, it is important for children to apply what they have learned in their normal lives. Systems like Germany to our mind are old fashioned. We also believe in Finland that if we  want well educated children, we
must have well educated mothers. There is an expectation by mothers for children to perform well in school …we also emphasize autonomous schools, autonomous teachers, and independent children. What we try to do is make the children responsible for themselves at a very early age. The children may have seven people to share their lives with so they must learn to be responsible…they have to learn by practice. How can a child who has never done it, be able to answer the questions? For such children, it is mathematics but for our children it is common life.  There isn’t always the mother or father taking children from point A to point B so that gives children the initiative to take care of themselves. If you are not educated, you are considered an outcast from society. For example, we don’t have this problem of dropouts. Our dropout rate in Helsinki used to be 9 and now it’s 13 (out of 60,000 students). It isn’t something we are doing so well in the schools but it is the ethos of our society. Seventy percent of our students in Helsinki are at A level and it goes up and up and up… When a child is born in Finland, every mother gets a box (maternity package) from the Mother Care Center which consists of the first bed the baby has...(and)… three books. There is a book for the mother, a book for the father, and a book for the baby. Of course the baby book has…mainly those faces that babies easily can see. This indicates to the parents that for this new member of the family, you have to read. Reading to the baby is so important. I was amazed when I read somewhere that when you consider our population, we produce more children's books than any other country does. One thing you can’t do here is to buy good education for your child. Everything is free including universities. Every child is a self made person in this kind of a system because whatever your background is, you can make it but if you don’t make it, whatever your father is, you will drop down because we do not have this elite. The school meals are also free…Education isn’t even free in China. If I count the taxation from my salary, it goes somewhere about 60 percent. I am a happy taxpayer because my grandchildren get everything they need for free” (personal interview). 

On the topic of the financing of schools, Penttila noted that, “the responsibility of educating a human being belongs to everyone. There are four kinds of taxation. We love taxes in this country! There is estate taxation, municipality taxation and, if you belong to a church, you pay there also. Of course we have this VAT (sales tax). It is 22 percent. The municipality gets money from the state but it gets a lump sum. The law says that each municipality has to provide for the general education…our politicians have been very very kind with education...the teachers’ salaries are the same everywhere in Finland because our teacher’s union is (one of) the most powerful union(s) in Finland” (personal interview).

In terms of special education, Penttila noted that “The schools have many specialists who are assigned to and work as part of the school staff including school psychologists where there is usually one for every 800 children. With school social workers, the ratio is even less. The specialists serve the general student population so no child feels singled out. For example, Penttila noted that, “otherwise, if you tell a socially deprived child to see the psychologist, he wouldn’t do it” (personal interview).

 Becoming a teacher in Finland is a rigorous undertaking, according to Pentilla.  “In order to become a teacher in the primary, secondary of upper secondary, it takes five to seven years depending if they are doing other things in between. If you become a teacher in the primary, you have to teach all the subjects. When you are preparing to be a teacher, you have to study two subjects which you study more profoundly so that you are also able to teach those two subjects in the age group 12 to 15 which is the upper level of compulsory education. The teachers for the upper level study for the same number of years. They don’t study as much psychology or theology as the primary teachers. They study three subjects more profoundly. The upper secondary students have to study two subjects really profoundly. The salaries for the teachers are such that the age 7 to 12 teachers are less than those who are teaching children age 13 to 15 and in the upper secondary level you have to teach a certain number of hours so the salaries are paid according to the lessons you are teaching. It also depends on what subject. Let’s say in upper secondary school when you teach the mother tongue, it is fifteen lessons a week because you are supposed to do a lot of other work in order to prepare and correct papers. The teaching profession is really a profession and all teachers up through the university must be certified to teach” (personal interview). 

When asked if she thought that the U.S. could learn any lessons from Finland, she said that, “you can’t take an educational system from one culture and put it into another one because you have to take the culture and social structure into account. For example, two countries have been attempting to import something from us. One is Russia, and the other is China. We are wondering if this will work because these (Moscow and Beijing) systems are based on totalitarianism and they don’t have the faintest idea what it means to choose because everything is told to them from birth. But they are taking our ideas to the best of their schools which is for the elite” (personal interview).   
In conclusion, it is clear that education is vibrant in Finland. For it to be likewise in other countries of the world,  there must be a serious commitment to the ethic of care exemplified by the kind of education envisioned by Nell Noddings (1992) who said, “ If we make centers of care the focus of universal education, how will we evaluate our efforts? The answer has to be that we should look for the positive signs we see in healthy family life: happy, healthy children; cooperative and considerate behavior; competence in the ordinary affairs of life; intellectual curiosity; openness and willingness to share; a confessed interest in existential questions; and a growing capacity to contribute to and thrive in intimate relationships (pp.108-109). She further asserted that “Classrooms should be places in which students can legitimately act on a rich variety of purposes, in which wonder and curiosity are alive, in which students and teachers live together and grow. I...believe that a dedication to full human growth...will not stunt or impede intellectual achievement, but even if it might, I would take the risk if I could produce people who would live nonviolently with each other, sensitively and in harmony with the natural environment, reflectively and serenely with themselves” (p. 12).

From the time children are born, family support and education need to be expressed through policies and structures. If society demonstrates and thereby models  care for families, such care can easily be transferred to children. This is a laborious process that will take time, resources and a changing of priorities. Finland is a country with a thousand years of history and, while age  is no guarantee of  calmness, wisdom, and peacefulness, it is an important dimension. Finland has much to teach the world. It is master builder of bridges – the kind that make connections between institutions – families, schools, communities, universities and the government. The lessons of Finland are clear. We must strive to develop family-school-community-university-government partnerships, and we must elect politicians whose values are centered on improving society through strengthening families and schools. The rationale for this can be made on scholarly, moral and practical grounds. The image of a civic global community of educated and peaceful people makes the journey not only desirable but also necessary. It is time to begin the process.


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