Challenges in the Finnish Education System

Written by Enes Gisi

Finland has impressed many other nations with its exceptionally high in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores. It is a test designed to evaluate the reading, math, and science knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students in the participating countries. It evaluates not only memorization, but also the students’ ability to apply school knowledge to real life situations. This makes PISA scores a reliable metric for education. PISA is conducted every three years, and it started in 2000. That year, Finland scored at the top in all three (reading, math, science) categories. This was undoubtedly very impressive, and it led to representatives and education professionals around the world visiting Finland to learn what their magic trick was. This phenomenon was even given a name: PISA tourism. Some of the unique traits of the Finnish education system were praised, such as its pupil-led, less teacher-centric approach. According to some, however, Finland maintained its traditional education system, which came with more robust testing and more centralized education until the 1990s, which would’ve yielded the high scores of PISA 2000.

Throughout the subsequent four assessments (2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012), however, a sharp decline was observed in Finland’s PISA scores, leading many to wonder what went wrong. It now scores below average among the 38 OECD states. Interestingly, there wasn’t a consensus on how its scores were high in the first place, and the explanations for the decline are also diverse. Some commonly cited reasons have included “over-digitalization” of the classroom, decline in student mental health, increased role families’ social backgrounds play, inadequate accommodation for the gifted students, budget cuts, and too much bureaucracy. The achievement levels for Finnish boys are also significantly lower than their female peers. Finnish education system remains distinctive, and the teachers are highly respected for the role they played in the Finnish state-building project in the 1970s and 1980s. A master’s degree is required to become a teacher, and due to their rigorous training, even private companies seek to hire them. We will delve into some of the challenges in the Finnish education system.

Finnish students in a classroom. Image via Flickr, by @kmoliver.

Difficulty of the Classes, or the Lack Thereof

One of the features of the Finnish education system is its ability to tailor the difficulty of education to individual students’ cognitive abilities. Some argue that this is a strength, others favour standardization. Its ability to support high-achieving students, however, is poor. Pentti, a teacher, says that the Finnish system cannot yet “adequately take care of those students who are gifted in a certain subject.” This issue has partially been addressed by allowing students who do well in maths to focus more on maths. However, this hasn’t been implemented in all Finnish schools.

As with the improvement in Asian countries’ PISA scores while Finland’s were in decline, some have compared both systems. Some have argued that while Finland lowers the difficulty of instruction for students who appears to have hard time catching up; Asian countries who participate in PISA expect all students to catch up to the same standards, leading to improvement in their PISA scores.

Budget Cuts, Social Background, and the Gender Gap in Achievement

Budget cuts followed the illusion of “infallibility” of the Finnish education. Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education expert, argues that governments tended to cut education budgets following the 2008 global financial crisis, expecting oil-rich countries from the Middle East to keep paying for the “PISA tourism”. Years of budget cuts eventually led to shortage of teachers in some areas. This will increasingly affect especially children with autism and special needs. Bonuses, including sign-up bonuses, are now being offered to special education teachers.

Cuts to education budget following the 1990s recession have also manifested in delay, according to a research report by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. The reports states that ”differences in learning outcomes related to the social background have become more pronounced than earlier.” Immigrant students are also struggling in several other ways. They don’t know how to exert their rights in school and generally, it’s not even encouraged. They face racist bullying and not enough is done for their healthy integration into the society. They’re encouraged to seek professions their teachers “see fit” for their ethnicity. The report by the Finnish ministry states that immigrant kids in Finland “had the lowest reading scores in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD”.

There’s a significant gender gap in school achievement. On average, boys in PISA countries fare worse than their female peers. This issue is especially present in Finland. Finnish boys receive average marks for reading, whereas Finnish girls will receive nearly twice as high. Finland’s gender gap in reading skills is the 4th highest in the 74 PISA-participating countries.

Whereas boys typically fare better in maths and science across OECD countries, boys also lost this advantage in the recent years. Men are also less likely to pursue higher education than women in Finland.

Students in a Finnish Classroom. Photo by Arbeiderpartiet on Flickr.

Over-digitalization in the Classroom and Inadequate Sleep

Finnish educators appear to have assumed that more tablets and laptops with the students, the better. Critics argue that despite numerous studies done on the effects of mobile device use among youth, Finnish educators rarely ever talk about it. Some have argued that this “rush to digitalization” is to be avoided. Finnish first graders are given iPads to help them learn the Finnish language at home. Even though health authorities warn the public that screen time for kids need to be limited to two hours a day, many aspects of education have now been digitalized, exposing students to excessive screen time. William Doyle, an American-Finnish, believes that the Finnish education system is still among the best. He cites the highly trained teachers, free school meals and other supports. He acknowledges, however, that the quality of Finnish education is in decline, and mentions several effects of over-digitalization.

He believes that constant exposure to mobile devices has played a role in the declining reading scores, especially among boys. It has also contributed to the elimination of physical activity. Mobile devices that students use don’t have any filters or limits, leading to use for entertainment beyond healthy limits. Students will use their laptops for entertainment during class, as the teachers don’t see the screens. Widespread dependency on mobile devices, in turn, reinforces the same behaviour as students now fear missing out on things: they can’t quit their dependency alone. Over-digitalization of student life and excessive use of social media have also impacted their sleep schedules. Students sleep 7 and a half hours on average, less than that is appropriate for their age group. Their sleep quality has also been in decline, leading to poorer concentration when reading. Doyle argues that a “tidal wave” of global research associating excessive mobile device use with risk to psychological, physical, and academic wellbeing is largely ignored. PISA-age students would ideally get 8-10 hours of sleep, per the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Lack of Structure

Onto some structural problems within the system. We’ve mentioned how respected the teaching profession is in Finland. While it comes with its advantages (e.g. highly sought, prestigious), it seems to have placed too much responsibility on teachers. The profession has transformed into a semi-bureaucratic job with less teaching element to it, consuming more of their valued time for non-instruction related duties. Though it’s been cited as Finland’s “magic trick” to high PISA scores in the early 2000s, critics also argue that “pupil-led” education actually has contributed to the decline that’s seen in the following PISA cycles. More structured, teacher-dominated methods of instruction, they argue, could help the Finnish education pick up, as also suggested by other evidence.


Finland’s education system surely remains among the best in the world. For all of its weaknesses, in my opinion, it possesses the ability to adapt and make changes as needed. As the evidence documenting effects of excessive use of mobile devices mount, the Finnish authorities must comply with the recommendations of health authorities. As also seen in other parts of the world, boys are experiencing decline in school achievement in Finland. As mentioned, this gender gap is among the greatest in the world, and it might require a thorough investigation to prevent other problems it may cause in the future.

The disadvantages that may be coming from immigrant or other social background are also more pronounced in Finland, compared to other countries. This type of inequality may contribute to further alienation of minorities in the Finnish society, disproportionate representation in the correctional system, increased risk for extremism, mental health problems, and other harder-to-solve problems in the long run. Teacher may benefit from cultural awareness and other training opportunities to better assist disadvantaged students.

Students with special needs are disproportionately affected by the budget cuts, as one of the first things these cuts have done is to reduce the available number of special education instructors. Increased budget for education may alleviate the shortage. It can also help schools allocate more resources for challenging over-achieving students more. Whether a more centralized and structured system would improve overall education outcomes remains to be a matter of debate.

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