Educational Policies: Finland (2014)

One of the basic principles of Finnish education is that everyone must have equal access to high-quality education and training. The same educational opportunities should be available to all citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origin, age, wealth, or place of residence. The country’s educational policies are based on the lifelong learning principle: i.e., that individuals can always advance to a higher level of education, regardless of the choices they make in between. (Ministry of Education and Culture 2014.)

Inclusion and equal rights to education have been the main guiding principles of Finnish educational policies since the country gained its independence in 1917. Under the Compulsory Education Act of 1921, all Finnish children aged seven to 13 were guaranteed a six-year basic education. As a consequence, the elementary school network was expanded even to the smallest and most remote municipalities. (Lampinen 2003, 45.) In the mid-1930s, around 90% of seven- to 15-year-olds were attending school (Statistics Finland 2007).

In the decades following World War II, Finland underwent rapid industrialisation and structural changes. From 1950 to 1960, the number of pupils in primary schools increased very quickly as the baby boomers reached school age. As a consequence of regulations enacted in 1957 and 1958, two years of civic school were added to primary school, which then consisted of eight grades (Statistics Finland 2007). At that time, children were assigned at the age of 11 or 12 to one of two educational tracks (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 32). In the fourth grade, students could apply for admission to secondary school (grammar school), which prepared them for the exams needed for entry into university. The pupils who were not admitted to secondary school or whose parents could not afford or did not want their children to attend secondary school instead went to civic school after completing primary school. (Statistics Finland 2007.) In addition, there were a few institutions that provided vocational training (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 28).

As families became wealthier, parents increasingly wanted their children to receive higher levels of education. In 1955-56, only 34,000 children were enrolled in the nation’s grammar schools; but just five years later, enrolment had risen to 215,000.  By the start of the 1970s, 60% of children of the relevant age group were attending grammar school. During the same period, the popularity of the civic school declined rapidly. (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 33.) It became increasingly clear that the educational system required a fundamental overhaul, and a discussion about the establishment of a nine-year, universally free municipal comprehensive school started in the late 1950s. As part of an educational reform enacted in 1968, the nine-grade comprehensive school was established. The reform was implemented gradually from north to south over the course of the 1970s, and by 1981-1982 all students of the relevant age group were attending a comprehensive school. (Lehtisalo & Raivola 1999, 133; Statistics Finland 2007.)

For two decades, the system was centrally overseen and managed. A trend towards the decentralisation of the governance of education—i.e., the granting of more decision authority to municipalities and schools—started in the 1980s, and intensified in the 1990s. (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 24.) After the financing reform of 1993, education was organised for the most part at the municipal level (Lampinen 2003, 84). In the same year, the new national curriculum gave municipalities and schools more freedom and flexibility to decide on the curriculum, which made it possible for schools to specialise in different fields (Silvennoinen et al. 2002, 67). The new Basic Education Act in 1998 eliminated the former separation of comprehensive schools into lower and upper stages, and allowed parents to apply to have their children placed in a comprehensive school other than the one assigned by the local authority.


Organisation of the educational system
For each child, compulsory education starts in the year when he or she turns seven years old, and ends after he or she has completed the basic education syllabus, or after 10 years. During the year before compulsory education begins, the child can participate in pre-primary education. About 96% of six-year-olds go to pre-primary school. (Ministry of Education and Culture 2014.) Compulsory basic schooling is provided for all children in this age group, and lasts nine years. An additional 10th form of basic schooling is voluntary, and gives pupils an opportunity to improve their grades and clarify their career plans. Education after completing the comprehensive school is not mandatory, but most Finnish children continue their education by enrolling in either an upper secondary general school or an upper secondary vocational school. The type of school they choose typically depends on their performance in the comprehensive school. (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 20.)

Both the general and the vocational tracks last three years. The syllabus is module-based, and students determine their own learning plans and pace by choosing courses from the school’s offerings. Students who have passed the required courses in upper secondary general school are eligible to take the national matriculation examination, which is the only nationwide assessment in the upper secondary general school. Instead of a national examination, vocational students take a school-level assessment of learning outcomes and skills at the end of their studies. (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 21-22.) It is also possible for students to attend simultaneously a vocational and a general upper secondary school.

The Finnish higher education system consists of two complementary sectors: polytechnics and universities. The mission of universities is to conduct scientific research, and to provide undergraduate and postgraduate education based on this research; whereas the mission of polytechnics is to provide professional training in response to labour market needs, and to conduct R&D which supports instruction and promotes regional development in particular. (Ministry of Education and Culture 2014.) Under the degree system at universities, it is possible to earn either a lower academic bachelor’s degree in three years or a higher academic master’s degree in five years. Moreover, universities offer postgraduate scientific degrees, including licentiates and doctorates. Courses at polytechnics have a more practical emphasis, and last 3.5 to four years, depending on the field of study (Eurypedia 2014.) Completion of either upper secondary general school or upper secondary vocational school qualifies students to apply for entry into universities and polytechnics, although only a minority of Finnish university students take the vocational track (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 22). Upper secondary and higher education in Finland are generally free of charge for students, but students typically have to pay for the cost of materials (Ministry of Education and Culture 2014).

Adult education is provided at all levels of education. Adults can study for a general education certificate or for a vocational qualification, or complete modules within these courses. They can also take other courses which allow them to develop their citizenship and work skills, or pursue recreational studies (Ministry of Education and Culture 2014).


Compulsory Education
The Finnish basic (comprehensive) school consists of nine grades and is compulsory for all children who reside permanently in Finland. Currently, the statutory school ages are seven to 16. Exemption from compulsory education is not legally possible. (Statistics Finland 2007.) Municipalities are obliged to assign pupils to a school near their home, though parents are free within certain limits to choose a different comprehensive school (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 20). Textbooks and other materials and tools used during basic education are free of charge, and pupils are offered a free daily meal, even at private schools. In addition, health care and other welfare services are offered to pupils in school and free of charge. All pupils of compulsory school age have the right to guidance and support in learning and other schoolwork whenever the need arises. (Ministry of Education and Culture 2014.)

The National Core Curriculum for Basic Education is the national framework, and it is used as the basis for drawing up local curricula. As education providers are responsible for the preparation and the development of local curricula, schools are permitted to specialise in different fields, albeit to a small extent only. (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education 2012.) The minimum numbers of class hours devoted to core subjects (e.g., the mother tongue, mathematics, history) are determined in the national curriculum framework; thus, all pupils must have had certain numbers of class hours in these subjects by certain ages.

Moreover, the national curriculum includes guidelines for teaching arrangements, learning goals, and assessment criteria. Teachers are, however, free to choose their own instructional methods, select their own textbooks, and create their own assessments based on common learning goals. In the first six grades, instruction usually provided by a class teacher;  while in subsequent grades, instruction is provided by subject teachers (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 20). However, the recent curriculum reforms have blurred the formerly sharp division between the lower and the upper stages of comprehensive school. All teachers in Finland need a master’s degree to qualify for a permanent teaching job (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 11).

Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and 5% of students attend schools in which the language of instruction is Swedish. Municipalities are required to provide education in Sámi in the regions of Lapland where that language is spoken. In addition, there are some educational institutions which provide some of their lessons in a foreign language, mostly in English. (Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg 2006, 20.)

Most institutions providing basic education are maintained by local authorities, which are obligated to organise basic education free of charge for school-aged children living within their respective borders.

Private education providers are licensed by the government. Private schools are often run by associations or societies affiliated with a church, a language (e.g., English, Russian, or German), or a pedagogy (e.g., Steiner). The private schools must follow the same laws and national core curricula as public schools. (Ministry of Education and Culture 2014.) Currently, basic education is governed by the Basic Education Act (628/1998), the Basic Education Decree (852/1998), and the Government Decree on the objectives and distribution of lesson hours in basic education (422/2012).


Authors – Contributors
Janne Mikkonen
Population Research Unit, University of Helsinki