Here in Finland you don’t really have to worry about getting into the school you want“, says Riku, a ninth-grader from a comprehensive school in Helsinki „,at least in the beginning. But after the 9th grade it is getting more difficult. If you want to get into a good upper-secondary school you have to take an entrance exam or an interview and still not get accepted‘“
Riku is not the only pupil in his class who is worried about his future. The point of time after completing the 9th school year at comprehensive schools in Finland is regarded as a “critical” phase. While nearly every Finnish pupil leaves comprehensive school with a degree, more than 8% of all Finnish pupils do not move on to a secondary school (Official Statistics of Finland 2016). Schroeder (2010) and other authors criticise the process of ‘selection’ after completing ‘basic education’ in the 9th grade: Despite the emphasis on equality in Finnish school education, pupils can express a preference to attend a certain school. The final grades at the end of the 9th grade may have an influence on the admission to their first choice of an upper secondary school. Therefore, pupils with the best grades are more likely to get accepted at their schools of choice, while students with lower grades may have to attend schools which are less in demand.
The role of special support
However, Finland can be regarded as a role model for successful inclusive education. In Finland, special education or “special needs education” is mainly integrated into mainstream schools. Some authors claim that, the main reason for the success of the Finnish school system might be the special educational support system (Hausstätter & Takala, 2011; Itkonen & Jahnukainen, 2010; Kivirauma & Ruoho, 2007).According to the new National Core Curriculum for Basic Education (2016) there are three levels of support for learning and school attendance: general, intensified and special support.
General support (1) is the first response to a pupil’s need for support. Usually this means individual pedagogical solutions, guidance, and support measures which seek to improve the situation at an early stage as a part of daily school life. General support is provided as soon as a need arises, and no specific evaluations or decisions are required.
Intensified support (2) is provided when general support is not enough, and it is continued for as long as the pupil needs it. Usually the pupils need several support forms. Intensified support is provided as part of mainstream education using flexible teaching arrangements. Intensified support measures are initiated on the basis of a pedagogical assessment. (National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2016: 154). Besides, the support measures provided for a pupil during intensified support are recorded in a learning plan (National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2016: 156). The learning plan is a written plan based on the curriclum specifying the objectives of the pupil’s learning and school attendance, the necessary teaching arrangements , and the support and guidance needed by the pupil.
Special support (3) is provided to pupils who cannot adequately achieve the goals set for their growth, development or learning (National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2016: 159). Before making decision on special support, the education provider is expected to draw up a pedagogical statement on the pupil which includes the pupil’s progress in learning. A decision on special support is usually made when it is found that the intensified support received by the pupil has not been adequate.
A pupil may only receive support provided at one of these levels at a time. Types of support include remedial teaching, part-time special needs education, assistance services and special aids. The purpose of the support is to prevent diversified and more serious problems as well as their long-term effects.
Education as a fundamental right
The Finnish education policy aims to enable all citizens of Finland free access to education, regardless of ethnic origin, gender and their financial situation (Kansanen / Meri 2006). Education is regarded as a fundamental right for all citizens and is free at all levels: from pre-primary to higher education. During pre-primary education and “basic education” (school years 1-9) teaching materials, the transportation to school and the daily lunch are free of charge for all pupils. So the question is what can other countries learn from the Finnish education system? It is obvious that school systems cannot simply be replicated from other countries, but there are certain elements of the Finnish school systems – for instance, the special educational support system – that could be implemented by others. Sahlberg (2012) claims that educational equality cannot be achieved without first implementing fundamental changes in a school system. According to him there are three main conditions: Funding of schools, Well-being of children, and Education as a human right (education must be free of charge). To put it in a nutshell, it is important to analyse the specific conditions of each country in order to understand what some countries can or cannot learn from each another.
Finnish National Board of Education (2016): National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2014. Helsinki: Finnish National Board of Education
Kansanen, Pertti / Meri, Matti (2006). Finland. In: Hörner, W., Döbert, H., Reuter, L.R., von Kopp, B. (2006). The Education Systems of Europe. S.251-262
Schroeder, J. (2010): Lernen von Finnland? Im Ernst? Probleme der Herstellung von Bildungsgerechtigkeit im Schulsystem. In: Wenning, N. / Spetsmann-Kunkel, M. / Winnerling, S. (Hrsg.): Strategien der Ausgrenzung. Exkludierende Effekte staatlicher Politik und alltäglicher Praktiken in Bildung und Gesellschaft. Münster u. a.: Waxmann, S. 171-183.