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
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.
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.