Monday, 23 February 2009

Education for all- the Finnish example.

I'm fortunate enough to belong to a very small, select and privileged group; despite coming from a working-class background (and primary school), I managed to obtain entry to a state-sector grammar school via the trauma of the 11 Plus examination. Those who are presently fighting on behalf of my old grammar school would probably hold myself (and my brother and sisters) up as examples of the essentially egalitarian nature of selection-based education. But back to my first sentence, the key word is that "despite"; "despite" my father being at the time a “mere” fitter we were given the opportunity to benefit from a grammar school education, an opportunity denied to the vast majority of my peers. Out of my year of sixty children in my primary school, a grand total of five managed to push themselves, by hook or by crook, into a grammar school- the remaining 91.5% disappeared into the academic darkhole that was our local secondary.

I’m convinced that I “succeeded” where the vast majority of others “failed”, due to being fortunate enough to possess two very motivated parents who were determined to ensure their offspring would, unlike them, have the opportunity to reach their full intellectual potential. Don’t get my wrong, I’ll always be very grateful for the material and more abstract sacrifices they made to ensure that potential would have a chance of being reached, but the plain fact remains- whilst 20% or so of our children have benefited greatly from our present system, the large majority have not.

"Ah, but look at the comparisons", says the all-powerful grammar school lobby- "look at how our grammar schools compare with the comprehensives in England". During this debate we’ve been usually looking at comparisons which are, excuse the pun, selective. Try comparing the top 20% of comprehensives in England with our grammars, compare the number of teenagers from say the Shankill managing to achieve a place at university with their peers from similar areas in England...selective comparison can really be so subjective, but if you really want to put the cat amongst the pigeons, why not compare the results obtained in Finland with those obtained here?

Until the age of 16 Finland operates a non-selective education system. High emphasis is placed on that all-important word "motivation" I mentioned earlier- motivated teachers, students and parents. The same curriculum is taught to all pupils. Individual Finnish students' results did not vary a great deal and all schools generally have similar scores. And yet at the age of 15 (ie a year before the streaming into vocational and academic takes place) comfortably the highest results in Europe are achieved in the Finnish system.

Could such a system work here? Of course it could, given the right conditions. Those conditions would include the acceptance of the underlying principle that all kids should be given the opportunity to reach their potential and more concretely, a competent, efficient, focused and open-minded educational and political establishment that are prepared to put differences aside in order to achieve that first condition. But competence and efficiency, in particular, are qualities which seem to be a bit scarce on the ground at the minute.

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