Monday, 21 May 2012

Pasi Sahlberg's Talk and Discussion in the Houses of Parliament: Thursday 17th May 2012

Pasi Sahlberg came to the Houses of Parliament to try to explain how the incredible standards demonstrated by Finnish students in PISA tests have been achieved.

He spoke in committee room 14 which as packed with about 150 people. Two hours flew by and the applause was long when we were reluctantly forced to stop. This blog is an attempt to capture what was said as I remember it. My thanks to Janet Downs for her contributions to these combined notes. Others who were there are welcome to add their memories in the comments section where questions are also welcome.

Five Key Points:

1 Increase co-operation/collaboration, decrease competition.
2 Increase personalised education, decrease standardisation. Recognise that pupils are different and tailor teaching appropriately.
3 Trust professionals, decrease external accountability measures. Don’t use standardised tests judged against the average but increase formative assessment.
4 Focus on pedagogy. Regard technology as a tool not as an end in itself. Pupils need time away from technology to connect with humans not machines.
5 Increase professionalism and reduce bureaucracy. Only professionally-trained teachers should be allowed to work in schools and all should acquire masters status.
The critical emphasis was on increasing equity. The Finnish Government allocates resources to increase equity – this means that money is targeted where it is most needed. 30% of Finnish children are assessed as needing some kind of special education at some time during their school lives. There is no stigma attached to special education because so many pupils receive it and in 22% of cases it is not permanent. Pasi claims that the Finnish government never pursued excellence - they pursued equity instead.

When asked what he would choose if he could advise one thing to English education Pasi said that we should be letting our children play more. School starts at 7 in Finland with children having the option to go half time from the age of 6. Even when they are full time they spend about an hour less in class each day and have much longer play times instead. The teachers spend the time in collaboration, student assessment, school imrovent, welfare issues and planning. Gladwell’s law of 10,000 hours has its most important application to children and play. Little homework is set – especially for young children.

Setting by ability is illegal in Finland and private schools became state schools.

He showed the picture of the different animals in the classroom where the test (to be sat at 10am) was to climb the tree to illustrate points 2 and 3 above.

Pasi got himself appointed as the chief inspector and his only action in that role was to abolish the inspectorate. Areas now appoint their own inspectors/advisers. (There were people at this meeting who remembered the night Ofsted was created - it had been intended to adopt the structure Finland now had but by moving the vote to midnight on the night before Ascot someone managed to get an amendment through to make it a central and compulsory authority).

Some substantial aspects of the reforms have been achieved at times of crisis and/or economic collapse. They have been opportunistic, so for example measures of accountability have been shut down at the same time school budgets have been cut.

He contrasted Finnish culture in education with the culture in many other countries which he called the GERM culture

GERM culture / Finnish Culture
Competition / Collaboration
Standardisation/ Personalisation
School Choice / Equity
Test-based accountability / Trust-based professionalism
Here is an explanation of GERM culture:
Diane Ravitch, New York Review of Books, reviewed Sahlberg’s book and wrote: ‘Sahlberg recognizes that Finland stands outside what he refers to as the “Global Education Reform Movement,” to which he appends the apt acronym “GERM.” GERM, he notes, is a virus that has infected not only the United States, but the United Kingdom, Australia, and many other nations. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program are examples of the global education reform movement. Both promote standardized testing as the most reliable measure of success for students, teachers, and schools; privatization in the form of schools being transferred to private management; standardization of curriculum; and test-based accountability such as merit pay for high scores, closing schools with low scores, and firing educators for low scores.’

Pasi paid tribute to the people in UK maths education who inspired him when he was doing his PhD research in London 20 years ago.
(On a personal note I know those people and they inspire me still – for insight into the culture Pasi would have been experiencing then I would recommend Jo Boaler's book 'Experiencing School Mathematics')

Pasi strongly recommended we read the OECD report: Equity and Quality in Education.

Here is Pasi Sahlberg’s website.

Here is his recent book about Finnish Education.


  1. I like the GERM acronym, must remember that one.
    Here is a link to a report by the Grattan Institute, an independent "think-tank" in Australia, based on the PISA data. Page 12 lists 3 key points: 1)pay attention to what works, 2)value teachers, 3)focus on learning. You would have to be stupid to ignore number 1 !

  2. yes lets pusue equity and excellence will take care of itself. thanks for this article, its inspired me to find out more about the finnish system. At Infinite Arts, we currently developing educational resources to support maths ( and other subjects) through making kites. Non competitively, creatively, investigatively and experimentally.

  3. Thank you for your comment ged and pauline.
    Your work sounds wonderful.

    Are you linked up with one of the maths teaching associations or to either of the discussion forum 'Math, Math Education, Math Culture' or 'Math Matters, math journeys' on I co-manage both and there are plenty of like minded people to chat to there if you'd like to chat about what you do.