Education reform is all about having a plan, that’s the Finnish lesson

plansInteresting article today from Steven Schwatrz, the head of ACARA, on why “Finland is not a blueprint for Australian education.” His basic position seems to be that (a) Finland is not as great as it’s made out to be “many of the claims about Finland are exaggerated or just wrong”; (b) Finalnd is being overtaken in the PISA tests by Asian countries whose approach to education is diametrically opposed to the Finish system; and (c) in any case Australia needs to find its own way.

First allow me one nit-pick: The article says Finish teachers are not so highly paid by comparing their salary to Australian teachers. The relevant comparison is to compare a Finnish teacher’s salary to other Finnish professions. The point being that Finnish teachers are relatively well-paid and highly respected. Neither of which, sadly, applies in Australia.

However, that’s not the main point I want to make here. The main point is all the examination of Finnish salaries, and how much homework the kids get, or the size of classrooms, misses the absolutely vital point about the Finnish system. Forty years ago the Finns recognised that they had a problem and came up with a plan which they then executed.

The driver for the Finns was that their economy was shifting. In the early 1970s Finland’s major industry was cutting down trees and that was a finite and declining economic driver (sound familiar anyone?). So they made a plan to re-tool the economy by changing their approach to education – starting by completely transforming the preparation and selection of future teachers and agreeing that there would be no disadvantaged students or schools.

The details of the plan are not really important. What is crucially important is that they had a plan and have stuck with it over decades. Here’s where I agree with Steven Schwartz, when he says:

If we wish to excel in education, we must develop tactics, practices and models suitable for our country’s circumstances — an education designed to meet the needs of Australian students, schools and culture.

We do need our own way forward. We shouldn’t be copying the Finnish plan and absolutely shouldn’t be copying the Korean approach. BUT WE NEED A PLAN.

In the last few years the only thing we’ve had that even approached a plan of any significance was Gonski. While Gonski is a plan, it’s also a compromise and a plan aimed solidly at funding rather than making fundamental changes. And whatever your political views on the merits of the Gonski plan itself – there is no argument that it has not been either fully implemented or stuck with over five years let alone decades.

The important thing is not so much what the plan is but that we have a bi-partisan approach that cuts across State and Federal boundaries. That we recognise that we have to re-tool our economy and that means changing our education system. Yes, ideally that would be a uniquely Australian approach, but in the absence of  a unique Australian approach surely it would be better to adopt someone else’s than just sit on our hands?

We do seem to be fundamentally incapable of coming up with an education plan. Partly this might be the unique Australian approach of ‘she’ll be right, mate’. But more likely and seriously it’s because we have managed to create a dog’s breakfast of a system spread between Federal and State control and with an entrenched reliance on Government-funded private schools which cannot be philosophically justified but has left us politically ham-strung. Navigating through that mess is a nightmare. But, and this is the lesson we should be learning from Finland, you have to do it; you must have a plan, and you have to stick with it for decades.

Just letting the status quo meander on to a background hum of concerned political rhetoric will never fix the problems we face. The absence of a plan, is not a plan.

The system has to change. To change the system we need a plan. Now. And that’s what makes the Finnish system attractive to so many people. It may not be a perfect fit, but it’s a system we can see that gets the sort of results (scores and people) that we’re OK with. If we can’t come up with a uniquely Australian approach from the ground up, then let’s start by taking something that has worked elsewhere and do something.

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