Six founders of NCEE’s Superintendents Alliance make the case for proficiency based education. Read more.

Context

Finland outperformed all other jurisdictions on the first PISA in 2000. Since then, Finland has remained among the top tier in all subsequent administrations, although its performance slipped in all three subjects on the 2015 and 2018 PISA.

Not until 1970 did Finland establish a basic comprehensive school for all students through grade 8, and not until the mid-1980s did it create a common curriculum. Finland coupled this curricular reform with a restructuring of teacher education, moving preparation programs into research universities, which elevated the status of the profession. A shift in authority for managing schools and teaching from the central ministry to local schools followed in the 1990s, alongside an expansion of secondary and postsecondary education, including efforts to make secondary vocational education more rigorous. Teachers in Finland have a well-deserved reputation for excellence, and the Finnish public trusts and admires its educators. But the Finnish focus on teacher quality is only one element of a carefully designed system that has been adapting to changes in society and the economy for the last half century.

Finland does face some challenges, however. The recent decline in PISA scores mirrors a decline in performance on national exams. Moreover, while Finland remains one of the most equitable nations in the OECD, results from both PISA and a national sampling test show a slight increase in differences in performance based on socioeconomic status. Finland’s learning gap reflects growing economic inequality across the nation as a whole. Furthermore, although Finland remains largely homogeneous, the country, like the rest of Europe, has seen an influx of immigrants in recent years. Immigrant students performed significantly below their non-immigrant peers in reading on PISA 2018, after accounting for socioeconomic background. An anti-immigrant party, the Finns Party, narrowly lost a national election in 2019. More recently, the Finns Party has topped opinion polls, and public surveys show widening polarization on a range of political issues.

In April 2019, the new national government, led by the center-left Social Democratic Party, pledged to strengthen the education system and address inequality. It reversed funding cuts to education (part of the previous government’s focus on austerity) and raised the upper age limit on mandatory schooling from 16 to 18, making upper-secondary education—general and vocational—compulsory.

In addition, like many countries, Finland has tried to make its education system responsive to the opportunities and challenges of the digital era. This includes finding ways to capitalize on artificial intelligence as a means to improve teaching and learning and strengthen social supports for young people. A new national curriculum, released in 2016, attempts to take on that challenge by explicitly emphasizing cross-curricular competencies such as learning to learn, cultural competence, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) competence.

Quick Facts

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Population

Population: 5.6 million

Growth rate: 0.26%

Demographic makeup: Finnish 88%, Swedish 5%, Russian 1.4%, Other 5%

Source: CIA World Factbook 2021

GDP

GDP: $$268,662 million

GDP per capita: $48,668 (2019 estimate in 2010 dollars)

Source: CIA World Factbook 2021

Employment

Unemployment rate: 7.76% 

Youth unemployment rate: 17%

Sources: OECD, 2020 and CIA World Factbook 2020

Economy

Services-dominated economy

Key services industries: banking, IT, cleantech, and biotechnology

Key industrial areas: forestry, metal production, and electronic goods

Source: CIA World Factbook 2021

Postsecondary Attainment

Ages 25-34: 42% 

Ages 25-64: 46%

Source: OECD Education at a Glance, 2020

Governance

Governance Structure

The Ministry of Education and Culture oversees all publicly funded education, including the development of the national core curriculum and the accreditation of teacher training programs. The Finnish National Agency for Education is the operational arm of the Ministry, responsible for administering education programs. 

Below the national level, six Regional State Administrative Agencies administer some discretionary funds for education, such as for school construction. Primarily, however, administration of local basic schools falls to 311 municipalities, which determine funding allocations, local curricula, and recruitment of personnel. The municipalities can also grant autonomy to schools to perform those functions. There are more than 2,000 schools in Finland, of which one-third teach fewer than 100 students. However, larger schools exist, with the largest comprehensive schools enrolling more than 900 students. For upper secondary education, the Ministry of Education and Culture provides licenses to local authorities, municipal authorities, and registered associations and foundations to establish schools.

There are very few private schools in Finland; those that exist are granted the same government funds as public schools and are required to use the same admissions standards and provide the same services as public schools. The majority of the private schools in Finland are religious.

The local municipal authority in any given region appoints principals for six- or seven-year terms. Once appointed, the principal is responsible for managing the school, including its staff, budget, and the well-being and success of its students. Principals generally work in close collaboration with teachers.

Planning and Goals

Until recently, Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture developed its own four-year plans with specific objectives and measures to guide the education system during that period. In 2019, the country created a 10-year government-wide strategy so as to set more comprehensive national goals and to ensure stability of reform direction across all government agencies.  The 2019 Government Strategy is called Inclusive and Competent Finland – a socially, economically and ecologically sustainable society. Among its broad goals is to improve the education level of all Finnish citizens and decrease differences in learning outcomes among them; to improve the well-being of children and young people; and enhance gender equity and nondiscrimination in society through education and training.  The Ministry of Education and Culture has developed its own strategic plan with specific measures for reaching the education-related goals in the national strategy.

Education Finance

Funding for schools is divided between the central government, which covers about 40 percent of costs, and the municipal governments, which assume the remaining 60 percent. The amount of state money each municipality receives is determined by the number of resident children ages 6-15 and an annually calculated unit cost per student. Municipalities pay for meals for every student in basic education.

The Ministry of Education and Culture allocates additional funds to municipalities for immigrant students who have been living in Finland for less than four years, for low-income students, for students in single parent families, and for students with parents who are unemployed or undereducated. Municipalities can distribute these funds to schools as they see fit.

Accountability

School Accountability

In 1991, Finland abolished its central education inspectorate and established in its place the National Evaluation Council. The Council oversaw periodic evaluations of a sampling of schools, with the goal of assessing the performance of the education system as a whole. In 2013, Finland replaced the National Council with a new independent agency: the Finnish Education Evaluation Center (FINEEC). The Ministry of Education and Culture appoints researchers, teachers and principals to FINEEC’s staff, which then conducts thematic evaluations, such as the performance of immigrant children in Finnish schools, as well as evaluations of learning outcomes in specific subject areas. For the latter evaluations, FINEEC administers examinations to a sample of grade 9 students across the country in Finnish and mathematics every three years and in other subjects every five years. Currently, FINEEC’s emphasis is on evaluating the consistency of implementation of the core curriculum. It also provides support to schools to conduct their own self-evaluations. Although FINEEC publishes its findings and makes recommendations for improvement in both policy and practice, the recommendations are not binding. 

Teacher Accountability

Formal teacher evaluation is not required in Finland and rarely occurs.  Teachers are expected to use professional judgment take collective responsibility for the education of their students, and be accountable to their peers. Some municipalities have, however, created tools for teacher evaluation that principals can use. In Helsinki, for example, principals use a common form to appraise teachers’ practice. This form focuses on key teaching practices, but does not rate teachers based on student test results. 

Foundation of Support

Supports for Young Children and Their Families 

Finland offers a wide range of supports to families with young children. Since the 1930s, every mother of a newborn baby has received a box filled with clothes, sheets, toys, diapers, and other essential items. The country also provides mothers with four months of paid maternity leave and fathers with nine weeks of paid paternity leave, followed by 14 months of paid parental leave which can be taken by either parent. 

Health care is a right guaranteed to all Finnish citizens under the constitution. Municipalities manage, fund, and provide primary care under the National Health Insurance system. They also provide specialized health care in regional hospitals, usually in concert with other municipalities. Like all health services in Finland, all prenatal and perinatal care is free of charge, as are annual checkups for children up to age seven. In 2019, the Center party government proposed consolidating the provision of health care into regional authorities rather than the municipalities that currently operate it and allowing more private providers. The plan was an effort to contain rising health care costs for Finland’s aging population, but that plan was defeated amid broad pushback against dismantling a key feature of Finland’s welfare system. Key government leaders resigned as a consequence.

Finland also makes direct payments to families with children under age 17, which increase for each child. Single parents receive an extra supplement.

Historically, all children in Finland have had a right to subsidized early childhood services from birth to age six, when compulsory school starts. Parents who chose to care for their children at home also received a childcare allowance. However, in 2016, a new law ended equal access to these services. Now, children whose parents are not students or full-time workers have only a 20-hour per week entitlement to subsidized care and have no right to subsidized part-time care (which parents typically use as a supplement to half-day pre-primary education). Children are more likely to participate in care outside the home as they age. As of 2017, 1 percent of children under age one participated in ECEC, while 31 percent of one-year-olds, 59 percent of two-year-olds, and 79 percent of three- to five-year-olds participated.  

Supports for School Aged Children 

Finnish schools provide many important resources and services for their students, including a daily hot meal, psychological counseling, and health and dental services.  

The Ministry of Education and Culture allocates additional funds for immigrant students who have been living in Finland for less than four years, for low-income students, for students in single parent families, and for students with parents who are unemployed or undereducated. Municipalities can distribute these funds to schools as they deem appropriate.  Since 2016, the government has also invested significant funds into additional supports for new immigrants, including improved training for teachers.

Finnish law also requires instruction in Finnish, Swedish, or Sami, depending on students’ native language. Deaf or hard of hearing students are given instruction in sign language.

Learning System

Preschool

Until recently, Finnish children began compulsory primary school at age seven. In 2016, however, the government added a year of compulsory pre-school for six-year-olds, and, in 2019, launched a pilot two-year pre-primary program for children starting at age five.  Most pre-primary schools are public, but there has been an increase in the number of private, for-profit centers. All centers must meet national standards for quality, including the national Curriculum Guidelines for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). The guidelines were put in place following the transfer of ECEC oversight to the Ministry of Education in 2013, with the goal of raising and standardizing quality throughout the preschool system and strengthening its connection to primary schools. The Finnish Education Evaluation Center undertakes periodic thematic evaluations of the early childhood system.

There are no formal learning performance standards or outcome requirements for early childhood education, and no requirements for formal assessments. However, ECEC teachers are expected to use formative assessments to gauge children’s progress and use the data from these assessments to adjust instruction or program quality.  Teachers develop an individual learning plan for each student that is passed on to the child’s primary school teacher.

Primary and Secondary

System Structure 

Since the 1970s, Finland has had comprehensive schools for all students. Today in Finland, students start school with one year of preschool at age 6, followed by nine years at a basic school. In 2020, the government extended compulsory schooling from age from 16 to 18 and made upper secondary education free. The goal is to retain the 10 to 15 percent of young people who typically leave school before earning a degree.  

During early primary school, students generally stay together in a class with the same teacher for several years. This allows teachers to build more personal, lasting relationships with students and closely follow their development over several grade levels.  Following the completion of basic school, students choose between academic or vocational upper secondary schools, with about half of students pursuing each path.  Student receive a basic school certificate when they graduate from basic school.

In the final two years of academic upper secondary education, there are no required classes. Instead, students choose from among a set of short courses, known as modules. However, the coursework is not entirely unstructured. Students who plan to attend university take specific modules in sequence to prepare for the subject-based Matriculation Exam, which is used to apply to university.  For example, all students who wish to earn a passing score on the mathematics Matriculation Exam will need to take several sequential modules in advanced mathematics.  Students earn a leaving certificate from upper secondary school.

A set of specialized upper secondary schools exists for students who want to focus on subjects such as the sciences, the arts, music or sports. Some general upper secondary schools also offer specialized tracks, while others offer the International Baccalaureate diploma program.

Students who choose vocational education work towards an upper secondary certificate and vocational qualification in one of 10 broad industry areas. These programs are typically three years.  Recent reforms have added flexibility to the program and allow students to personalize their vocational studies. Students who attend a vocational program may also choose to take courses in an academic program to prepare for the university entrance exams.

Standards and Curriculum

Finland has a national core curriculum which includes learning objectives for the core subjects; suggested time allotments for each subject; and requirements for assessment, with guidance on how to grade assessments at two benchmarks. Municipalities either develop their own curriculum based on the national curriculum but reflecting local contexts, or develop curriculum guidance and allow each school to develop its own curriculum. The local curricula, whether at the municipal or school level, define in much greater detail than the national curriculum what instructional objectives teachers should follow and how students should be assessed. Separate local curricula are required for Finnish-speaking, Swedish-speaking, and Sami-speaking schools, in which instruction in the native language complements basic education.

In 2014, the National Board of Education (renamed the National Agency for Education in 2017) began a revision of the national curriculum, which had last been revised in 2004. Although some press accounts suggested that the new curriculum for basic schools, released in 2016, did away with subject areas, this was not the case. The curriculum defines learning objectives for all core subjects, and assessments continue to measure achievement in subject areas. However, the curriculum document states that local curricula can integrate subjects through interdisciplinary projects, and the curriculum for basic school (grades 1-9) defines “transversal” competencies that are infused in the curriculum in all subject areas. The transversal competencies are thinking and learning to learn; cultural competence, interaction, and self-expression; taking care of oneself and managing daily life; multiliteracy; ICT competence; working life competence and entrepreneurship; and participation, involvement, and building a sustainable future.

To support schools and municipalities in developing local curricula based on the national curriculum, the National Agency for Education established the Majakka (“Lighthouse”) network, which created a website with resources for developing curricula and has hosted meetings of local educators. The National Agency also provided €100 million (USD $121 million) to support localities in implementing transversal competencies; municipalities also established 2,200 tutor-teacher positions to support the teaching of the transversal competencies.

The core subjects in the basic school curriculum are

  • For grades 1-2: Mother tongue and literature, second national language, foreign languages, mathematics, environmental studies, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, crafts, physical education, and guidance counseling (focused on personal responsibility and study skills);
  • For grades 3-6: Mother tongue and literature, second national language, foreign languages, mathematics, environmental studies, religion, ethics, history, social studies, music, visual arts, crafts, physical education, and guidance counseling (focused on social and teamwork skills);
  • For grades 7-9: Mother tongue and literature, second national language, foreign languages, mathematics, biology, geography, physics, chemistry, health education, religion, ethics, history, social studies, music, visual arts, crafts, physical education, home economics, and guidance counseling (focused on transitions in studies and careers). 

The Core Curriculum for General Upper Secondary Education, which was updated in 2019 and again in 2021, is designed differently than the one for basic school. Students in general upper secondary school must complete a minimum of 75 courses, which average approximately 38 hours each. Students develop an individual study plan when they begin upper secondary school.  Students do not have free choice in all their courses; there are required numbers of courses that must be taken in different subject areas.  The 2021 curriculum shifts from required courses to required competence points for graduation and assigns courses specific point values.

The curriculum requirements include compulsory courses; specialization courses which offer a more in-depth study of a subject area; and applied courses, which include methodology courses, vocational courses, and multidisciplinary courses. The curriculum document identifies the objectives and core content for each course. It also specifies that students should receive both formative and summative assessment, and that teachers should assess students using either a 10-point numerical scale (where 5 is “adequate,” 10 is “excellent,” and 4 or below is failing) or a pass-fail mark. There is no specific grading rubric for school-based assessments.

Until 2021, the Core Curriculum for General Upper Secondary Schools identified six cross-curricular themes, analogous to transversal competencies in the basic education core curriculum. The 2021 curriculum replaces these themes with a set of transversal competencies, similar to those in the basic schools core curriculum. 

The curricula for upper secondary VET schools are discussed below.

Assessment and Qualifications

The national core curriculum includes criteria and guidelines for assessment and states that the ultimate goal of assessment is to develop students’ capacity for self-evaluation, helping them learn to monitor their progress and design their own learning activities.

At the end of each school year, the national core curriculum requires every basic school to provide students with a report on their academic progress. Until 2021, the report could include a verbal assessment or a numerical grade. As of 2021, schools began to shift away from verbal assessments and towards grades in an effort to provide more consistency in feedback. The end-of-year report also provides an assessment of the student’s behavior, and indicates whether the student will be promoted to the next grade or retained. Students who fail courses can be retained, although they generally have the opportunity to demonstrate subject mastery by taking a test. 

At the end of basic education, schools administer a final assessment. The final assessment is required for mother tongue and literature, the second national language, foreign languages, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, health education, religion or ethics, history, social studies, music, visual arts, crafts, physical education, and home economics. Students are graded on a 10-point scale and need a 5 to pass. At present, the core curriculum only contains guidance on what students must do to earn an 8, or “good” grade, in all subjects. Ministry officials have collected samples of student work from different levels and determined that teachers need more guidance on grading. They are developing standards for awarding grades of 5 (“adequate”) and 10 (“excellent.”) 

At the end of basic education (ninth grade), students who have received a grade of 5 or better in all required subjects receive a basic education certificate. The certificate shows the student’s grades in each core and optional subject and confirms that the student has received guidance counseling and an introduction to career pathways. Students who earn a certificate can apply to general or vocational upper secondary schools.  

A sample of students in grades six and nine also participate in external testing, but these tests are used for monitoring the effectiveness of the overall education system and do not analyze the performance of individual students, teachers, or schools.  Finland also participates in international assessments like PISA. At the end of basic education (lower secondary school), Finnish students must decide whether to continue in an academic track (possibly leading to university) or to pursue vocational education. Students are admitted to academic upper secondary schools based solely on their seventh and eighth grade GPA, and admissions can be quite competitive in urban areas where there are many choices of schools. Vocational upper secondary schools are generally less competitive but often have specific pre-requisites for admission.

At the end of upper secondary school, all students who want to apply to research universities take the Matriculation Exam. This examination measures a student’s competency in five subjects: two are compulsory (mother language and literature) and three are chosen from mathematics, foreign language, science and humanities subjects. The languages and mathematics tests have two levels, basic and advanced. Students can take either level on a given test but are required to take at least one advanced level test among the four subjects. In addition, the test subjects are weighted, so that students who pass exams in priority subjects (such as advanced mathematics) receive many more points toward university admission. For this reason, almost all university-bound students take the same subjects. 

The national language tests include a skills section that measures the student’s ability to read, comprehend, analyze, and make inferences about passages of text, as well as an essay. For the essay, students choose one topic out of 12 and write a four-to-five-page response. The foreign language test includes multiple-choice and open-response questions, as well as translations and short essays. On the mathematics test, students answer 10 of 13 multi-step problems and show their work. The other tests vary by subject but include multiple-choice and essay questions as well as drawing assignments and data analyses. All of the tests have been administered online since 2019. Teachers can access them through a password-protected online portal. 

Although Finland’s higher education institutions historically administered their own admissions tests, most universities now primarily consider Matriculation Exam results. There are national guidelines on the percent of students who must be admitted based on Matriculation Exams; these were recently raised in an effort to reduce the amount of individual university-based testing students needed to do to gain entry.  Students who do not take the Matriculation Exam can choose to take university-based exams in their place and some specialized programs continue to use their own admission exams in place of or in addition to the Matriculation Exams. Students can also retake subject tests or supplement their scores by taking more advanced level tests or adding tests in additional subjects. Students in upper secondary vocational school can also take the Matriculation Exam. Admission to university is highly competitive in Finland, as there are a limited number of places, with admission rates below 20 percent in many programs.  Students often apply multiple times to the most competitive university programs before they gain entry.  The average age of first year students is 24.

Learning Supports 

Unlike many countries, Finland does not distinguish between students who need general learning support and special needs students.  All Finnish schools are assigned full-time specialists to address an array of learning needs. Teachers refer students to the specialists, who work with students individually and in small groups, as needed. Almost half of Finnish students receive some sort of academic support at some point during their schooling.   

Finnish law outlines three levels of support for struggling students. Teachers provide “basic support” to most students who need assistance, including remedial instruction, part-time special needs instruction, and individual guidance. About 22 percent of students qualify for basic support. Students who need “intensified support,” as determined by a pedagogical assessment, receive an individualized learning plan, which includes part-time special education classes and individual guidance. Students’ learning and attendance are monitored regularly and learning plans adjusted as needed. In 2018, about 11 percent of students received this intensified support. The third level of support is “special support.” Students who need more than part-time support in the classroom are referred for full-time services. About 8 percent of students receive this level of support.  Most receive these services in mainstream schools, but a small number of students with severe handicaps, autism, dysphasia, and visual or hearing impairment (less than 1 percent of the school population in 2018) are served in special schools funded by the national Ministry.

Each school has a group of staff that meets twice a month in order to discuss which students need new or continued learning support and how they are faring in particular classrooms.  This group — comprised of the principal, the school nurse, the special education (or learning support) teacher, the school psychologist, a social worker and the classroom teachers — determines whether classroom supports are adequate and what other interventions may be needed. If students need help beyond what the school can provide, the school helps the family find professional intervention.

Digital Platforms and Resources

Finnish schools have embraced digital resources for their classrooms.  Most Finnish texts are online and many municipalities have invested in online learning platforms for schools. The government utilizes a nationwide communication platform, Wilma, to share school information at home, including student assignments, grades, teacher feedback, and other administrative information. The National Agency for Education seeded a peer learning network specifically to foster digital competence among teachers and encourage the use of technology in the classroom.  The National Agency has also recently developed an online national library of digital tools and resources for teachers, and a coalition of six Finnish cities developed the DigiOne learning platform for education. In partnership with Business Finland, the government office for innovation in business, the coalition hopes to expand participation in DigiOne to 70 cities and municipalities by 2023.

Career and Technical Education (CTE)

Development of the System

Since the 1970s, Finland has committed to modernizing and expanding its upper secondary vocational schools; they are now such a popular option in Finland that over 40 percent of upper secondary students are enrolled in VET programs. The 1994 Vocational Qualifications Act established a sequence of competency-based vocational qualifications —initial, further, and specialist —that can be earned based on demonstrated proficiency of skills, with or without certificates of formal training. The 1994 Act was followed in 1998 by the Act on Vocational Education, which required all upper secondary vocational programs to be structured as three-year, full-time programs of study with a common academic foundation. This made the structure and foundational courses of vocational upper secondary programs equivalent to academic programs and allowed all graduates to apply to university, although vocational graduates often need to take additional courses in order to succeed on the admissions exams.  Amendments to the legislation in 2017 introduced a modular structure for vocational qualifications that provides students with a foundation of basic vocational skills with options for individualization and specialization depending on a student’s career interests. 

In addition, the 2017 reforms focused on improving the quality of VET and encouraging lifelong learning. The introduction of performance-based funding encouraged schools to raise completion rates and help students find jobs in expanding fields.  The reforms also streamlined oversight and regulation of upper secondary VET, continuing VET, apprenticeship training, and labor market training, and halved the number of qualifications. The remaining 43 initial qualifications were broadened to better align with the labor market and to provide students with a more flexible skill set. The reforms also made VET available in varied learning environments, including online, in school and in workplaces. The goal was to encourage more participation in VET from both students and adults seeking to upskill. 

Governance and System Structure

VET programs are developed, delivered, and assessed in cooperation with business and industry partners.  The National Forum for Skills Anticipation, working on behalf of the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Finnish National Agency for Education, organizes groups from key industry sectors to monitor, evaluate, and anticipate the development of education and training needs in their sector, making projections about the future labor market and revising them on a regular basis. Secondary VET is designed to prepare students to earn one of 43 initial vocational qualifications, organized in 10 broad areas of study, which indicate competence to enter employment in particular fields. Beyond initial qualifications, young people and adults can earn further and specialist qualifications that certify an increasingly specialized set of skills. Vocational qualifications are developed by a broad range of stakeholders, including representatives from the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, unions, industry, and universities. 

The 10 broad fields of study in the Finnish VET system represent a range of industries that go beyond the traditional trades, including agriculture and forestry, education, humanities and arts, natural sciences, and technology. VET schools, mostly operated at the municipal level, prepare their own school curricula based on the Finnish National Agency of Education’s requirements for qualification. The national requirements specify the vocational skills to be mastered and methods for demonstrating and assessing competence. Industry representatives participate in the development of school curricula, organize and plan training and skills demonstrations, and play a role in assessing students. 

Funding for VET comes from both the national and municipal governments. Funds are paid directly to VET schools, which can use the funds as they see fit. A new performance-based funding process is being phased in as result of the 2017 reforms. By 2022, 50 percent of a school’s funding will be based on student enrollment, 35 percent on how many qualifications it awards and graduates it produces, and 15 percent on the percent of its graduates who are employed or enrolled in further studies.

CTE Programs

The Ministry of Education and Culture regulates, finances, and monitors VET, including accrediting VET schools. VET programs are developed, delivered, and assessed in cooperation with business and industry partners. VET schools prepare their own curricula based on guidance from the Finnish National Agency of Education that specifies required units of study, specialization options, and criteria for assessing student mastery of skills. As of 2017, students can complete an entire qualification or can customize it with a supplementary skill set via another vocational module. Students can work at their own pace and “place out” of certain units if they demonstrate competence. At the time of enrollment, each student, in partnership with the school and worksite supervisor, designs an individual study plan. A typical program for secondary school students is three years. 

Since 1998, all initial vocational qualifications have had the same basic structure, which includes a common set of academic studies. This enables VET students to have the academic preparation needed to pursue academic pathways after their VET qualification. The academic areas focus on communication and interaction; mathematics and science; and citizenship and workplace competence. About 75 percent of the coursework in VET programs is vocational, in a student’s field of choice, and the remaining 25 percent covers core curriculum subjects, which are common to all upper secondary pathways. VET programs also include six months of on-the-job learning in addition to coursework. The training can take the form of a paid apprenticeship or an unpaid training agreement between the education provider and the workplace. Some schools also provide a simulated workplace. Skills demonstrations are arranged as part of on-the-job learning periods. 

Once students have completed and passed assessments for all modules included in a qualification, they receive a qualification, which consists of a vocational upper secondary certificate and a certificate of skills demonstrations. VET graduates can continue their studies and earn further and specialist vocational qualifications at VET schools.  Students can also progress to higher education, either at a general research university or a university of applied sciences (polytechnic). Students who want to apply to a university program take the same Matriculation Exam as students in general upper secondary school. They also have the option to take university-based entrance exams.  Students who take the Matriculation Exam often take courses at an upper secondary general school to prepare.

Continuing education programs and classes are available for adults, whether the ultimate goal is learning to read or earning a master’s degree. Adults who did not complete upper secondary school may take courses toward a general education certificate or vocational qualification; they can strengthen their education in certain areas by earning advanced degrees or qualifications; or they may take non-degree courses. Raising the participation of adults in lifelong learning — already much higher than the EU average of 10.8 percent at 26 percent —is a key priority in Finland.

Teachers and Principals

Teacher Recruitment 

Finnish teacher education programs, like most graduate programs in Finland, are highly selective. Historically, only one out of every ten applicants to primary education programs is admitted; while that number has increased slightly, it is still highly competitive. Up to 40 percent of applicants to subject teacher programs (lower and upper secondary school) are admitted, depending on the selectivity of the field. Programs assess applicants based on their upper secondary school record, their extra-curricular activities, and their score on the Matriculation Exam, which is taken at the end of upper secondary school. Applicants to primary school teacher-education programs must earn exceptionally competitive scores on either the Matriculation Exam or the Vakava entrance exam, a take-home, multiple-choice test that assesses critical thinking and knowledge of the education sciences. Applicants who pass this first screening round then participate in an interview and a simulated teacher observation. Only candidates with a clear aptitude for teaching and a commitment to the profession are admitted. 

Teacher salaries are somewhat lower than other professional salaries in Finland but teaching is still a highly-regarded profession and teachers feel well-respected by society. On the 2018 TALIS survey almost 60 percent of Finnish teachers agreed that teaching is highly valued, much higher than the average of 26 percent.

Teacher Preparation and Induction 

In the 1970s, teacher education was moved from seminaria, or teachers’ colleges, into universities and a master’s degree requirement was added for all teachers. Only eight universities have traditional teacher education programs, so quality control and consistent standards are easy to achieve. 

Primary school teacher training programs are four years. Students must major in education, with a minor in two primary school curriculum subject areas. Secondary school teacher programs are five years. Students must major in the subject they will teach and then do a year of pedagogical training. Student teachers for both primary and secondary schools complete a research thesis on a topic of their choice and must spend a full year teaching in a university-affiliated training school before graduation. Training schools have the same curricular and teaching requirements as other municipal public schools, but their schedules are designed to accommodate the feedback and collaboration needs of student-teachers and mentors without affecting the learning time of students. Further, because the training schools are affiliated with universities, prospective teachers and researchers have a pathway to publishing the results of their innovations in teaching and learning. The Finnish Education Evaluation Center monitors teacher education programs across Finland.

Finland has comparatively high standards for early education teachers. Lead teachers and heads of childcare centers in Finland hold bachelor’s degrees, and every third staff person in a childcare facility must have primary teacher certification, which requires a master’s degree.

Vocational teachers are required to have either a master’s degree or a polytechnic degree (or whatever is the highest possible qualification in their occupational field), as well as three years of work experience in the field. Finland has five vocational teacher education colleges and one Swedish-speaking university where vocational teachers are trained (free of charge) in pedagogy and teaching practice. Vocational teachers are also required to participate in continuing education (usually up to 5 hours per school year) to keep their classroom competencies up-to-date. In addition to classroom teachers, workplace instructors supervise students during on-the-job learning periods and assess their vocational skills.

Teacher Career Progression

Because the Finnish system places so much emphasis on school and teacher autonomy, the teaching profession does not have a clearly defined career ladder. Teachers have control over their classrooms, lesson plans, and hours outside of teaching. However, following the introduction of the new curriculum in 2016, the national government created the position of tutor-teacher and proposed to have a tutor-teacher in all 2,200 comprehensive schools. These tutor-teachers provide peer-to-peer guidance and support on implementation of the new curriculum, design of multidisciplinary learning modules, incorporation of digital pedagogy, and other areas of teaching and learning. Between 2016 and 2019 the government provided €23 million (USD $28 million) to train tutor-teachers and created regional networks for them to share ideas. 

Successful teachers may become principals, who are appointed by the local municipal authority. Principals oversee school budget and other aspects of administration, but they do not have much authority over teachers.  There is no tradition in Finland of principals observing teachers in order to evaluate them. In smaller schools, principals may have their own teaching load in addition to other duties.

Teacher Development

Professional development requirements differ by municipality. The national government requires each municipality to fund at least three days of mandatory professional development each year, but interpretation of the requirement varies widely. Similarly, the government does not regulate the type or content of professional development offered to teachers. However, Finland does fund professional development for national priorities; in 2019, the government provided €9 million (USD $11 million) to support professional development in pedagogical, vocational, and subject-specific competencies; well-being and support for learning; development of school culture; language and cultural diversity; and digitalization and ICT. 

TALIS data indicate that the average Finnish teacher spends seven days a year on professional development, even though there are no financial incentives to do so. The types of professional development vary, with some municipalities arranging large, multi-school training events and others leaving it up to schools to develop in-service programs. 

Principal Recruitment, Preparation, and Development 

Principals in Finland must be qualified to teach at the level of school they lead and meet one of three additional qualification requirements: a Certificate of Educational Administration issued by the Finnish National Board of Education (this primarily certifies knowledge of Finnish educational law and policies); completion of a program in Educational Leadership at a university; or proven experience in educational administration. In practice, almost no principals are hired without a Certificate of Educational Administration or a qualification in Education Leadership from a university, and the university qualification is much more highly valued. Vice principals are required to have the same qualifications. Municipalities, which conduct principal hiring, can specify additional requirements for candidates depending on their own needs.

The most common path to the principalship is through completion of a university program in Educational Leadership. The programs typically last 18 months, and candidates can enroll in them part-time while teaching. The curriculum at the University of Jyvaskyla, for example, focuses on management and leadership issues, and requires students to participate in weekend seminars and do a field practicum with a cooperating school. The practicum consists of five field visits to a cooperating principal, each focused on a different aspect of the job. Senior principals, or “tutors” guide student discussions; many of these tutors are themselves working towards a doctorate in education. In addition to a final exam, students must develop and present a personal leadership philosophy, based on their own research and experience in the program.