Author, scholar and globally sought-after speaker, Pasi Sahlberg has come to be regarded as an education “guru”. / Photo: Damir Klaic-Kljuc

Pasi Sahlberg: Finnish education miracle in jeopardy

Austerity threatens to end the success story of Finnish education, argues education pundit Pasi Sahlberg. The country is in need of an updated educational vision.


Finland – an educational superpower, full of high-performing students coasting stresslessly through a PISA–topping school system.

This is the familiar stereotype of Finnish educational excellence – and not totally unfounded. Finnish comprehensive schools dominated the PISA survey (measuring 15-year-olds’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading) three consecutive times.

A withering wonder?

Now, however, Finland’s high-performing school system is in danger, argues Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and author. The new Finnish government, in office since May 2015, is planning sweeping cuts to education: Over 600 million Euros will be sliced off the budget.

At the same time, the Nordic country sees its unemployment figures soar and its income gap between the haves and have-nots widening.

– Erosion of the welfare state would be the absolute worst for education. Finland cannot afford to compromise equality if it wishes to remain as a top player in education, Sahlberg warns.

Education has been long regarded a basic human right in Finland, and the road to a successful school system was paved with public money.

– Establishing a free public comprehensive school fourty years ago really is the first chapter of this success story. Other PISA high-achievers also share this principle of equality, Professor Sahlberg argues.

Finland needs a school update

In recent years Shanghai, Singapore and Japan have already overtaken Finland in the PISA survey, especially in mathematics. Countries like Estonia, Ireland, Taiwan and Canada are not far behind.

An impending fall from the PISA summit coupled with austerity –surely a deadly blow for the Finnish school system?

Not necessarily so, argues Pasi Sahlberg. A strong, common vision for educational reform could turn the tide for Finland, even amidst budget cuts. At present, such a vision is lacking.

– We need an updated ”School 2.0”, which would help pupils recognise their often hidden individual talents and passion. No one should leave school into further education without this insight about themselves!

“Finnish miracle” is import goods

Sahlberg, now a visiting Professor at Harvard University, has been explaining his country’s school system to an international audience for years. He is the author of the best-selling books “Finnish lessons” (2011) and “Finnish Lessons 2.0” (2015), where he analyses the causes of the Finnish education miracle.

His core message: no miracle involved, just smart implementation of educational innovation and sustained policies to support that.

Firstly, the Professor argues, Finland has imported healthy educational innovations from abroad.

– For example, cooperative learning stems from the US, whereas the whole idea of public comprehensive school was borrowed from Sweden.

Secondly, education policy has been formulated in consensus with teachers, municipalities (that employ teachers), and the government. This has guaranteed consistency of policy under changing governments.

However, according to Sahlberg, most crucial for Finnish success are equal learning opportunities and equity in education that comes with them.

– “No” to school-ranking or competition or high-stakes testing! “Yes” to high-quality teacher education and teachers’ high professional status, equitable funding of schools and support for special learners, Sahlberg proclaims.

Finnish adult education braces for impact

The new Finnish centre-right government, in office since May 2015, plans to cut 600 million from the education budget. This austerity measure will also hit Finnish formal and non-formal adult education, although it is yet unclear to what extent.

Finnish Minister of Education and Culture, Sanni Grahn-Laasonen. / Photo: Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

Furthermore, the fresh Finnish Minister of Education and Culture has recently disbanded the division of adult education within the Ministry and reallocated its tasks to other divisions. The shake-up was part of a bigger reorganization of the Ministry, justified by Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen (National Coalition Party) as streamlining the use of resources.

Disbanding the adult education division has caused unrest among adult education professionals who fear it downgrades adult education on the priority list of the Ministry.

– If the government wishes to fulfil its vision of Finland as a top country for skills and learning, adult education must stay in the picture, argues Aaro Harju, Chairman of the Finnish Adult Education Association.

He goes on to point out that in his country adult education includes not just vocational or higher education but also non-formal adult education in folk high schools and adult education centres, attracting over a million learners a year.

See also: Pasi Sahlberg’s personal website

Read more: School reform needs a “Fourth Way”: more community involvement, less testing and marketization! Dennis Shirley: Fourth Way Futures

Written by Terhi Kouvo, Edited and partly rewritten by Markus Palmén. This article was originally published in Elm’s predecessor media, LLinE.