Top of the class: Labour seeks to emulate Finland’s school system

By Sally Weale for

It’s early afternoon in Lintulaakson school in Espoo, near Helsinki. The younger children are having a snack before starting their after-school activities. Upstairs a group of 12-year-olds are in a craft class, cutting patterns and making clothes on sewing machines.

Outside, children play in an enormous outdoor space, equipped with a climbing frames, football pitches and basketball courts. “Hey, Petteri,” one boy yells casually at the principal, Petteri Kuusimäki. “Next year can we start school a bit later, at 10am?” Kuusimäki jokes with them. It’s all first names here.

The Finnish education system is the envy of the world. Along with Tove Jansson’s Moomins, Nokia phones and Iittala glassware, it has become one of the country’s most celebrated exports – and it’s easy to see why.

Its students consistently score well at the top end of the Pisa international league tables, and as Kuusimäki walks me round his school he describes a kind of education utopia – a place where teachers are highly trained, revered and trusted, and children’s well being is paramount.

There are no Ofsted-style inspections, no streaming by ability, no national exams until 18, no school uniforms, no school league tables and no fee-paying private schools.

At its party conference this week, Labour committed to follow Finland’s lead and not only scrap Ofsted but abolish private schools by forcing their integration with the state sector. Explaining the policy, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, told BBC Radio 4: “In some countries, it is not allowed to charge for education in any form … in Finland, for example.”

The British Labour party is far from alone in its enthusiasm for the Finnish education system. Every year hundreds of delegations of teachers and policymakers from all over the world pour into Helsinki to see this nirvana for themselves. So popular has it become that international visits are strictly regulated and have to be paid for – a presentation costs €682 (£607) per hour and a school visit €1,240.

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