Tuesday 6 October 2015

Lusting After the Finnish School System

When Ebony was still a baby, I started feeling worried about school. Our school system is pretty standardised and there are so many things I don’t like about it. The pressure, the exams, the uniforms, the long hours, the homework… the list goes on. I started researching alternative schools. I found out about Montessori schools and fell in love. I spent six months happily thinking we would send her there, and then found out it had closed down. When I first emailed to enquire about applying, I received a reply asking whether I’d like to pass some qualifications and become the teacher because she had just retired. Erm. If only I was that sort of woman. In reality, changing nappies, breastfeeding and trying to find clothes without puke on was keeping me busy enough.

We went to look round a Steiner school at one point, but it didn’t feel like a good fit. I really loved the kindergarten and the focus on free and outdoor play, but the school itself seemed to be a bit religious. There were lots of pictures of Mary and Jesus up on all the walls, and we had the following conversation with at least three different staff members:

Laurie: So, is this a religious school?
Staff member: No. Not at all.
Laurie (pointing at the religious art work): What’s that?
Staff member: That’s just a picture of a mother and a baby.
Laurie: Sort of looks like Jesus.
Staff member: Definitely not Jesus. (shifty eyes)

When we looked through the workbooks of some of the children, they seemed to be mostly filled with biblical stories. There were also a few things about the Steiner philosophy that put me off, and I know a lot of schools no longer teach the bigoted aspects of Steiner’s philosophy, but the staff were really cagey when we asked about it. We also had a weird conversation with one teacher where she implied she used to be a teacher for about ten minutes, but when we asked what age she used to teach at she admitted she’d never worked as a teacher before. Simply put, it was not the school for us, even though I loved the idea of Ebony learning to knit and make soup.

Ebony has now started at the nursery at our local school. It’s not a huge school, but isn’t the tiny village school many parents dream about. The headteacher seems nice and caring, and the parents seem to be really involved in what’s going on at the school. So far, Ebony really loves it. She hasn’t shed a single tear, not even on the first day, and is always excited about going there. She likes the teachers, she’s made friends and she enjoys the activities on offer. So far so good.

A couple of months ago, when I was researching this article about concentration in school, I found out a bit about the Finnish school system. It’s so different to our own, but is clearly working better. Their teachers are better qualified and better paid, in fact teaching is one of the most valued professions over there. You just have to look at the press coverage of the teachers strikes in the UK to know ours aren’t as appreciated as their Finnish counterparts.

Children in Finland spend more time outdoors, even though it’s colder (like, so cold it would definitely put me off living there). They have more time for free play, and lessons are only 45 minutes long. They don’t have curriculums, teachers decide what they teach. They don’t have any standardised testing except one optional exam at the end of secondary school for those who want to attend university. And yet, Finland ranks higher than the UK globally for education. Their school children are happier and their teachers are more satisfied in their roles.

The UK boasts the least happy teenagers in the world. Around half of all UK teachers are thinking of leaving the profession because of the stress, hours and working conditions. Maybe it’s time our politicians looked to Finland as an example of how to get school right.

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