For the last ten years or so, people have been credulously extolling the virtues of Finland’s education policies. Journalists in many media outlets have amplified this chorus, with the most recent example being Channel 9’s 60 Minutes. In a story called ‘Can Do Better’, Finland was portrayed as the example Australian schools should be following if we want to improve educational outcomes for our students. CIS senior fellow and ACARA chair Professor Steven Schwartz was given about a minute to explain why that is not necessarily the case, with much more of the program devoted to footage of rosy-cheeked Finnish children playing in the snow.
The reasons that Finland is not a good model of schooling for Australia have been detailed before. This important demographic and historical context was dismissed.
The program went on to add insult to injury with its profile of a Melbourne school that has allegedly embraced the laissez-faire Finnish model of schooling with great success. At this school there are apparently no school bells, no standardised testing, no year groupings, and children choose what to learn and how to learn it. According to 60 Minutes, students at this innovative, progressive school love coming to school (but hated their nasty former schools) and are happily engaged in and ‘taking control’ of their learning. “‘A happy learner is a successful learner,” said the school’s principal.
Do these claims about the school stack up? Data on the My School website suggest that the seeds of this particular progressive education revolution are yet to bear fruit.
The claim that students at this school do not do standardised tests or have year groups is the first fail: students sit the standardised NAPLAN tests in Year 7 and 9. NAPLAN participation rates at the school are low — 73 per cent in 2016, compared with 95 per cent nationally. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions based on comparisons with other schools, but the published data raises questions that need to be acknowledged.
In 2016, the school’s Year 9 students had the same mark in the NAPLAN numeracy test and NAPLAN grammar and punctuation test as its Year 7 students. In general, the data suggest that the school enrols above-average students and two years later they have become below-average students.
The school has a high socioeconomic status, no Indigenous students, and a low proportion of children from language backgrounds other than English. It also has a lower attendance rate than the state average, so perhaps not all the students are as enamoured and engaged as the TV program portrayed.
A neighbouring secondary school with a lower SES and a greater diversity of language backgrounds (and lower funding!) has better NAPLAN performance, higher attendance rates and larger numbers of students going on to higher and further education.
There may be a perfectly good explanation for this apparent contradiction, but it was not explored in the 60 Minutes program. Let me emphasise that this criticism is not levelled at the school or its students — I don’t know any more about the school than what is publicly available — but rather the lack of basic research and questioning of shiny new ideas that is so frustratingly typical when it comes to education. On that score we really can do better.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies
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