At primary schools, the increasing gap between the best achieving and the poorest performing pupils equals already to several school years in basic education. To break the trend, there is a need for firm collaboration between experts from different fields, like what there was when the Finnish comprehensive school was set up in the first place, writes Research Professor Juhani Rautopuro.

The fundamental premises and value basis of the Finnish comprehensive school include promoting educational equality, ensuring access to education, and increasing young people’s level of skills and knowledge.

In recent years, however, there has been a lively debate on whether educational equality is endangered and whether the comprehensive school can even out the influence of the different backgrounds from which children enter the school world.

The Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) published recently a report showing large differences in the performance levels of first-graders, already.

Similarly, pupils seem to start their third grade with widely differing skills – there is wide variation between pupils in terms of their performance level.

These FINEEC findings are based on a large ongoing longitudinal assessment, where the same students are followed throughout their comprehensive school.

The FINEEC findings are in many respects similar to those of international assessments conducted by the Finnish Institute for Educational Research (FIER): In Finland, between-school and regional differences have remained at least seemingly quite small, but the between-student differences in learning outcomes have increased to a worrying extent.

In one respect, however, the findings or at least interpretations of FINEEC and FIER deviate from each other. According to the FINEEC findings, there are even large between-class differences in third-graders’ learning outcomes. The FINEEC report erroneously states that for instance the results of TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) for fourth-graders would support this view.

However, FIER findings clearly indicate that special groups explain a large part of the variation between classes.

Between-class variation diminishes essentially when special groups are excluded from the analysis. The differences in the views of FINEEC and FIER can be partly explained by the fact that FIER’s methodological repertoire is clearly more modern than FINEEC’s.

Parents’ socioeconomic status has an increasing influence on student achievement – how does teacher training respond to this?

What should we be worried about, then?

A clear finding is that between-student differences are increasing. The gap between the best- and poorest-performing deciles (tenths) of the student population equals to several school years in basic education.

Some students pass through the comprehensive school with so poor skills and knowledge that they face difficulties even in coping with ordinary everyday situations, let alone with further studies.

This poses a great challenge to the heightened age limit for compulsory education.

In comparison to many other countries, a major achievement of the Finnish education system has been the fact that we have managed to reach simultaneously high learning outcomes and small between-school differences. In addition, the effect of parents’ socioeconomic status on learning outcomes has been quite small in international terms.

While the differences between schools are not large on national level as yet, we can see worrying trends in the Helsinki region, for instance.

In international comparison, the effect of parents’ socioeconomic status on learning outcomes in Finland is already close to the international average, and this is a change for the worse. Poorer school achievement concerns clearly more likely children whose parents’ education level and socioeconomic status are low.

It seems obvious, therefore, that children bring along to school such social problems that cannot be solved by any pedagogical tricks or digital leaps. This poses a challenge to teacher training as well.

Mathematics is mastered but not liked in Finland

We should not forget the attitudinal climate towards school education, either.

For example, in the TIMSS ratings for fourth-graders’ mathematics performance, the top-five countries included Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, for instance, while also Finland reached above the international average.

These four countries were also among the top six where students liked mathematics the least. Moreover, Finnish parents’ show more reluctant attitudes towards mathematics than their peers in other countries on average. Which one is the egg and which the chicken?

While the Finnish learning outcomes are still on a good level, there are also many issues calling for attention. I am personally strongly in favour of the same kind of committee working of experts from various fields as what we had when Finland launched the comprehensive school. The school system is too valuable a thing to be subjected to thinking of one electoral term only.

Juhani Rautopuro works as a Research Professor at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä. He also has a title of docent (evaluation of education) at the University of Helsinki.




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