Finland Has No Private Schools, Its Pupils Perform Better Than British Children


Finland ranked seventh in the world in OECD’s student assessment chart in 2018, well above the UK and the United States, where there is a mix of private and state education

This system is replicated in many countries across the world. Finland, however, has no fee-paying schools at all.

Everyone from six to 18, whether in a state-run or independently-run school, is entitled to it free of charge. It’s a policy of which the Finns are particularly proud.

And it’s proven to be successful, with Finland ranked seventh in the world in 2018 on its Pisa score (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment), well above the UK and the United States, where there is a mix of private and state education.

Parents do not contribute financially to their children’s education, and textbooks, materials, and school meals are provided free – all funded by taxpayers.

‘Education is a human right’

Pasi Sahlberg, a former teacher and policymaker in Finland turned professor of educational leadership at the University of Melbourne, Australia said Finland’s system was built on the idea “education is considered a public service and a human right” with “equal opportunity of access to schools and universities regardless of who students are or where they live”.

Professor Sahlberg said of Finland’s system, ‘there is not much room in education for profit’.

He said: “This was considered to be the central idea in having an equitable and well-functioning education system.

“In Nordic countries in general, education has been the driver of social mobility and equality in society.

“The current model of Finland’s education is still based on those common values and ideal of Nordic values where there is not much room in education for profit, especially in school education sectors.”

A relatively young nation, only gaining independence in 1917, Finland does not have embedded traditions in its education system of centuries-old public fee-paying schools.

Compulsory schooling in Finland starts at the age of seven rather than five and goes up to 18.

It began a comprehensive reform of its school system in 1970 and two years later, primary and lower secondary education (grades one to nine) became free of charge across the board. Further reforms in the early 2020s saw six-year-olds in pre-primary and upper secondary school students included in this.

It means education in Finland is now free for all Finnish citizens from pre-primary up to higher education.

Siru Korkala, senior specialist at the Finnish National Agency for Education, described the policy as the “cornerstone” of the nation’s educational policy.

“Finland’s commitment to equal access to education for all children and young people, regardless of their socioeconomic background, has been a cornerstone of its educational policy,” she told i. “By providing free education, Finland ensures that all students have equal opportunities, which can help improve overall educational standards.”

The only areas that do require any parental outlay are optional, non-compulsory activities or services, such as school trips or extracurricular activities.

Private schools in Finland

Private schools (those not operated by the government or local authorities) do exist in Finland but are mostly faith-based, Steiner, Montessori or university-run.

Of 2,100 institutions providing primary and lower secondary education, only 65 of them are private and the majority of their funding comes from the government.

They must follow the national curriculum guidelines and cannot be run for profit – charging for tuition in basic education is prohibited by the Finnish constitution.

There is one exception to this: the Helsinki International School is a fee-paying institution.

Mr Sahlberg, author of the 2021 book Finnish Lessons 3.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland, said: “Most schools are funded by local governments, they employ the teachers and run the schools.

“Central government’s funding formulas stipulate the levels of funding at local levels and provide subsidies to those local governments with less wealth.

“Efficiency is therefore a big driver of the economics of education that means schools try to do more with less funding based on their circumstances.”

World class schooling

Finland’s education system gained global attention in 2000, with the first ever published Pisa results in 2000.

The survey of 15-year-old students around the world in maths, reading and science found Finland topped the chart in reading, and came third in science and fourth in maths.

In 2018, results remained higher than most other Western nations’ in seventh place overall, just behind Canada, South Korea and Japan. The UK was ranked in 10th place and the US in 21st.

Within Finland, disparity in results between schools is negligible. “Student performance is similar across all schools in Finland,” said Mr Sahlberg.

What lessons can be learnt?

Mr Sahlberg said what the UK could take away from the Finnish model is a “complex question” and depended on what people in different parts of the UK want.

“I know Scotland and Wales are moving ahead in different ways than England, for example”, he said. “Both of those jurisdictions in the UK have produced education policies and reforms that are building more equitable education systems than they have had before.”

He maintained the best way to get higher performing education systems is to have policies which put “enhancing equity of education as a priority”.

“It is possible to have a two-tier system of schools [private and government] in this approach, but governments should, just like the OECD has advised over and again, manage school choice in the two-tier system so that state schools don’t turn out to be a second choice for parents,” he said.

Ms Korkala highlighted five key areas of focus: equality and inclusivity, fewer standardised tests, teacher education and professional respect, less homework and stress and pupil and student welfare.

She said in Finland all students, regardless of their background or learning difficulties, receive “the same high-quality education”, emphasis is on continuous assessment rather than standardised tests and teachers are “highly respected in society” with a high standard of education.

The amount of homework had been reduced to relieve pressure on pupils and all have access to student welfare services, including psychologists and school social workers and healthcare services.

Could this be the way forward in the UK?

Dr Jennifer Chung, from University College London’s Institute of Education, has studied Finland’s education system in depth. She said transferring that model would be a “challenge”.

“The issue is really the ecosystem that education system exists in,” she said.

Although Finland has “many things right” in its education policy, she pointed out that other social, economic and cultural factors in the country must also be taken into account in its success, such as: viewing teaching as a university-educated profession rather than a vocation, a high value placed on education in society and political consensus over education policy.

Whereas a “powerful private sector” and political involvement in education “makes it much tougher to exact change” in England, she said.

“There’s continuity and there’s change but if there’s too much change you won’t know if the policy is working or not.

“England’s education policy is very politically charged. You have to decide whether it’s about the policy or is it about the politics.”

A comment from the Independent Schools Council, representing more than 1,400 independent schools in the UK and overseas, would suggest it is still the latter.

Its spokesperson said: “It is our understanding that no political party in the UK is currently suggesting that they would wish to emulate this model.”



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