Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Kevin Donnelly: We can learn from Finland and Sweden

What is the most effective way to raise education standards? Given Julia Gillard's argument that we need to "take a giant leap forward in education" and her promise, most recently reiterated in a letter in News Limited tabloids on Sunday, to put Australia among the top five schooling systems by 2025, the question is more than academic. 

Given Australia's appalling results in the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study test, where our students are ranked 27th in terms of literacy and the fact that universities now have to conduct remedial classes in essay writing and syntax, something needs to be done. 

The solution favoured by cultural-left educationalists is to copy Finland - a nation whose students are ranked among the top performers in the Program for International Student Assessment Tests. Leftists argue that in Finland, there are no non-government schools, teachers are respected and well paid and - unlike the traditional pedagogy in places like Shanghai and Singapore - education is child-centred and new-age. 

Actually, while it is true that teaching is a highly sought after career and state schools predominate there is much that those touting Finland ignore. For example, the education union is a key player in Australia, consistently opposing funding to non-government schools and advocating an extreme Left curriculum agenda. Yet Finnish academic Hannu Simola says a key reason Finnish schools do so well is that "radical labour-union politics, and the extreme Left, have been virtually non-existent in the Finnish teaching profession". 

Similarly, European researcher Ludger Woessmann argues that "a larger influence of teacher unions in the education process leads to inferior performance levels". 

In Australia, teacher training institutes, subject associations and professional groups like the Deans of Education have enforced a dumbed-down approach to teaching and learning, which is best illustrated by the new national curriculum. 

Finland, on the contrary, is conservative in its curriculum and in what happens in the classroom. Simola says Finnish classroom pedagogy is "very traditional, mainly involving frontal teaching of the whole group of students" and "teachers in Finnish schools also appear to be pedagogically conservative and somewhat reserved or remote in their relations with pupils and their families". 

This is very different from nearby Sweden, a country sometimes touted as taking a more right-wing approach to education because it has introduced free schools to promote autonomy. Yet Sweden regularly underperforms in international tests like PISA. Why? Partly because, as in Australia, it promotes new-age learning and a situation where teachers are friends and fellow learners instead of experts. 

And as with the Gonski report, there is also a strong emphasis on equity and social welfare and the state dominates education, based on what are described as the "values of universalism and social egalitarianism". 

The impact of state control means that even so-called free schools are not truly independent: they cannot charge fees, must follow the national curriculum and are under the control of central and local authorities. 

Leading into this election year, the Prime Minister has nominated education, especially the impending response to the Gonski school funding review and her National Plan for School Improvement, as key policy issues. Central to Gillard's model of education, much like Sweden, is a centralised, bureaucratic and statist approach where all roads lead to Canberra. 

Significantly, Finland adopts the opposite approach; one based on decision-making at the local level. 
Like Australia's Catholic and independent schools, Finnish schools have the autonomy and freedom, within broad and flexible guidelines, to manage their own affairs and reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities. 

In his book Battlelines, Tony Abbott argues that the education agenda has been hijacked by unions, bureaucrats and professional associations that put their interests ahead of communities and students. Schools must be freed from this provider capture so that they can strengthen and raise their standards. 

Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: It's Not Rocket Science.

1 comment:

Denis McCarthy said...

The comments in your final two paragraphs are especially valid.

In my time as a primary teacher I saw the curriculum dumbed down by the decisions of unknown bureaucrats in Wellington. This commenced after the advent of Tomorrow's Schools. In spite of all the spin about schools having more autonomy the reality was that leftist ideological mandates continually arrived from Wellington.

The teachers' union seemed to have no problem with this. Very likely its officials were on the same ideological wavelength.

Yes, we do need schools with more genuine autonomy able to chose the curriculum and learning styles best fitted to advance the learning of their pupils. However, schools do not have to be little clones. We accept that children are different so I suggest that we combine the Swedish element of school choice (where funding follows the child) with the conservatism and autonomy of Finnish schools. By conservatism I mean conserving what is good while opening one's mind to what might be better.

Now the teachers' unions and vested ideological interests will fight tooth and nail to oppose such changes. If parents want better schools then they are going to have to fight for them. By fighting for them I mean they are going to have to support any political Party which will allow them.

I believe better schools more focused on the learning needs of children, schools with more autonomy to do this, schools with the ability to specialise in particular subjects and/or to be organized to deal with pupils with particular stengths or needs will attract good teachers.

Good teachers actually want to teach children and do not enjoy being bogged down with unnecessary paperwork or the latest PC mandates from Wellington.

Yes, we do need educational reform but nothing is going to happen unless and until the parents and taxpayers take political action to achieve it.