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Erkki Aho

Fairness, Human Rights: the True Core Values of Education


Former director-general of the Finnish National Board of Education Erkki Aho discusses the commitment to quality that has driven his country’s achievements in education.

Fairness, Human Rights: the True Core Values of Education

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 384 )

In 1972, at the age of 35, Erkki Aho became director-general of the Finnish National Board of Education, a title he continued to hold for 20 years, as he guided his nation through a series of innovative educational reforms. Now, at the age of 71, with white hair and brimming with wit and charm, he revisits the position he left 15 years ago, in the following highlights from an exclusive CommonWealth Magazine interview. Looking back along Finland 's road to educational reform, Aho engages in a frank discussion of the radical transformations that have brought his country the great success it enjoys today.

Q: Why did you think you had to change your educational system? What was the basic idea of the change?

A: After World War II, it was clear that we had to reform our educational system, because, you know, Finland was an agrarian society. Yet, after the Second World War – the forties, in the fifties – began this structural change so that industrialization and the service sector were increasing. And, then, at the beginning of the sixties, Finland integrated with the European Free Trade Association, EFTA, and it was clear that we had to reform our educational system so that we could take this challenge of open markets and very hard international economic competition.

You know, that we had a very close economic connection with Russia , but we started this integration with Western open markets, Western Europe . EFTA was the first milestone.

So it was clear that we needed a better educational system, because modern technology, modern industry, needs a more capable labor force.

But, at the same time, during this structural change, a kind of democratization process was also happening in Finland . Educational equality and social equality became one central core in our social policy, and we saw that education is the key area when diminishing social inequality in society.

So you can say that there were, on the one hand, these economic reasons and, on the other hand, these social questions and these social equality goals which came very strongly up in the middle of the sixties. So the parliament made the decision that we had to start this educational reform.

The first step was to reform basic education, and reform the old parallel streaming system, the nine-year comprehensive school.

But, when some of our friends and visitors ask, “What was the strategy when you started?” I say that when we started to reform this comprehensive school, we knew that we must start at the same time also preliminary planning for the reform of secondary education.

But, we knew that these kinds of very deep-going reforms would not be possible if we didn't reform our teacher education. So already in ‘64, ‘65, ‘66, we started planning the reform of teacher education, and in the middle of the seventies we were ready to reform also teacher education so that all teachers in comprehensive school – basic education and secondary education – now had a master's degree.

And, then, the fourth reform was adult education, because we understood that, when we were reforming this education of the younger generation, there would be a gap, a generation gap.

So the strategy was that we have to see the education field as a whole, and understand that there is a very close interaction between these levels and that teachers are very, very vital, crucial elements of this reform.

Q: You say that all teachers of basic education must have a master's degree. But what about the old teachers, the older generation of teachers? Did you have any education for them, like in-service training?

A: Yes, of course. When we started this reform, all teachers had this old education. So it was very, very important – this system – that all the teachers that were working in primary education and secondary education would have the position of so-called old employees in this new system.

One key point is how to commit teachers to the reform.

Q: Some say the reason educational reform failed in Taiwan was because teachers were reluctant to change. How do you commit the teacher, or persuade the teacher, to adapt to the new system?

A: One key element was that there was no fear for your own position and your own future. So we made it clear that all of you are welcome to the new school reform, because we can't do anything without the support of the teachers.

The next point was that, when we appointed different kinds of committees that made curriculum, in-service training for teachers, and so on, we saw it as very important in every committee, in every planning organization, that the teachers, teacher unions, had their own representation, so that they could very closely see what was happening.

I think that this cooperation with teachers and teacher unions was very flexible and we understood each other.

And I have said to all visitors and colleagues, “ Remember that when you are planning reforms, take teachers within the process at the beginning and use their expertise. That's the key element in this process.”

Q: What role does the parent play in educational reform?

A: I think, in all societies, the parents have the main responsibility in the upbringing of their child, that's clear. But, the influence of the parents came through the local authorities. At the local level, we had to reorganize the school system, combine the old primary and secondary education [systems], the schools and teachers, and so on. There, the parent's role was much, much more important than at the national level.

Of course, there were different models in rural areas, where there were small schools and everybody knew each other, than here in the capital area. But, in my mind, the parents in Finland trusted very much, on the one hand, the teachers and, on the other hand, the politicians at the local level.

Q: You trust teachers and trust politicians?

(Both laugh)

A: Yes. And especially in the sixties, seventies and eighties this trust was very, very much, perhaps, stronger than now. We can say that politicians at the local level were trusting of professionals and teachers, and also parents trusted teachers. So there was no need for a very active parents' movement as in many other societies.

Q: Why is fair play so important in the educational system? Because, I have always wondered, is it fair? I think the teacher puts much attention on the slow learner, but it is unfair to the fast learner. So what is your idea of fair play, and why is equality so important to you? Is it equal?

A: It's a very, very essential question. It has been, it is and it will be. But, we have made this choice. It was at the beginning of the eighties when we decided that we would give up all kinds of tracking or ability grouping in comprehensive schools. Why? Because we knew that, if we have this kind of structure in our schools, there is a very close connection to the economic capacity of parents and the educational capacity of parents at home. So we know that this is a very big challenge for teachers when you have a very heterogeneous group, but it was a very clear choice that we keep educational equality as the main goal of our educational policy.

And, why it is so important? This is a very small country, only 5.3 million inhabitants. If you are a bigger nation, you can miss one million, two million and so on. But if you have only 5 million, you have to take care of every, every child.

It was, at the beginning, clear that good basic education is one part of human rights. So in the eighties when we were reforming the legislation, we took all children into this education system, including the mentally and physically disabled who were before in the social or health system. But, for the parents of these disabled children, it was important that their child is also a pupil, is one part of this educational system.

So there has been this kind of very, very strong will in Finnish society and among our politicians that every child is important, and, if we allow some structures which separate at this comprehensive level, it means going back to the old tracking system.

Of course, the teachers can, and must, use grouping in their classes, but it cannot mean that it has some implications for [students'] further education at the secondary level. So this comprehensive school, this basic education, we think that it's so important that we, during these nine years, keep this age group without any separate system.

Q: There must be some elite in your society and some, let's say, geniuses, some very talented kids in the class. What about them?

A: We trust teachers when we have these very highly qualified teachers in the school. As I said, it's a really difficult task, but we trust that our teachers can handle it, and our experience is that after this comprehensive school, after secondary school, a lot of possibilities are offered, and the differentiation can happen after this comprehensive school.

Nobody knows what will happen in the future, because you know that it's competition, competition, competition. It's now the key word also in Finnish society.

Q: So you don't want to have competition in basic education?

A: No.

Q: But they have to face the reality of society. Society is very competitive. You don't want them to have a sense of competition?

A: I'm sure what's more important for this competition and the reality of this bad, bad world is a sense of friendship and cooperation. Because, you know, when these youngsters are going into the labor market after vocational education, what they really need there is cooperation with different people in different jobs and different roles in factories and the working place.

So when we started this reform in the middle of the sixties, our politicians and also we civil servants taught that every school class must be a mini society, that there are different people from different backgrounds. And now, for example, when we have more and more immigrants, we do not have any special separate classes for them, but every child of these minority groups is a member of this society. It's one essential part of the way of thinking in this lifestyle in Finland .

One important part is the role of the school in the nation-building process.

Q: What do you mean by nation-building?

A: If the important calling in our society is social equality, the comprehensive school is like a guarantee. For example, now, when we have unemployed parents and they are not able always to support their students to go to the schools, it happens very easily that these children will drop out of the system. And, if we allow some kind of grouping or tracking, it's very easy to put them into their own group. We think in this situation, this basic school is supporting this national unity.

Q: After 30 years of experimentation or exploration, do you think that educational reform has been a success here in Finland , and what is the challenge Finland faces?

A: I think that we have now, in my mind, a very well-functioning educational system and the structure is now so well-functioning that we can face the new challenges.

But what are the challenges now? One point is a lack of teachers. The profession is still very well respected and so on, but when every teacher now has his master's degree, they are very useful experts in different professional things in society.

Teacher trade unions say, “If we don't get higher salaries, you will miss teachers, and they are moving to the other sectors of the society.” Of course, I hope that we can keep these professionals in our education system.

Then, one challenge is immigration. This very monocultural society is changing to a multicultural society, and how can we integrate these newcomers to our society? It's a political question, but it's also an educational question, of course.

Then, of course, you mentioned this competition. Of course, the Finnish economy just now is experiencing very strong growth, but all the time the competition is becoming harder and harder, and so I think that the main challenges will be at the university level. How do we keep research at a high level so that all technological institutes are not moving abroad?

Then, of course, if we go to the school level, external factors are influencing schools. I mean, children of unemployed parents, using of drugs, alcohol, and so on, so that it seems that schools must invest more and more in health services, counseling, these kinds of supporting activities, so that we can take care of these pupils who have problems in their families, broken families. And, when we earlier discussed the role of parents, I think that this question is rising up again and how the social sector can support the parents and the school can support the children of these parents.

So its means cooperation between the schools and the social sector, and so on. Society is changing all the time – for example, the Internet. It's a factor which is influencing the world of these children. Teachers and headmasters say that children are more and more tired in school because they are sitting at home all the night and surfing the Internet.

So these kinds of external factors are influencing the schools and make the work of the teacher more and more challenging. How, in these circumstances, do we develop very motivating learning environments?

Q: When you started this educational reform, what was your goal? What kind of abilities did you want to build up in kids? What did you want the kids to be?

A: We wrote, “cultural persons.” I mean, not only being capable in literacy, math, science, and so on, but we also wanted to support all sides of the personality of the young person. Not only this cognitive area, but social, aesthetic, etiquette and psychological.

Q: How do you evaluate performance?

A: We are not using tests. You know that we say that Finnish school is fair, free school. The only national examination is this matriculation examination after secondary school. But in comprehensive school, in basic school, we don't have any nationally adopted tests. We say that we have very flexible accountability.

We think that it's very important that we don't have these tests, so the teachers can concentrate on the learning process. And, of course, at the end of comprehensive school, in ninth grade, every child gets a very carefully made evaluation, and during the last two years, every pupil is discussing with counselors what will be the best way to continue after comprehensive school.

Q: What is the difference between the Finnish educational system and the Swedish educational system? Or, let's say, the American model?

A: I think that all Nordic countries have not the same, but similar educational systems, because we all have these nine-year comprehensive schools. Of course, the content of learning is different depending on the country, but the structure is the same.

But, then, the difference, the clear difference, is at the upper-secondary level. About 60 percent of pupils continue in upper-secondary general education and 40 percent in vocational education. So secondary education is divided into general and vocational education. In Sweden , in Norway and in Denmark , secondary education is more integrated. But, we have clear, different general education for three years with this matriculation examination. And, this is a very, very old Finnish tradition.

This is the most clear difference between Finland and other Nordic countries.

And, then, if we compare the Finnish system with European and Latin American systems, and so on, I think that this nine-year comprehensive school without any ability grouping, that's the Finnish trademark.

Q: In Denmark , Norway and Sweden , do they have ability groups?

A: They have some. I must say that we have the most comprehensive.

Q: What is the one element that most contributes to the success of Finnish education?

A: Perhaps two. First is political consensus. The second one is sustainable leadership. You know what political consensus means, so I don't have any need to explain it. But sustainable leadership means that all the time we are concentrating on evolution, not revolution, using old experiences and innovating new solutions. You can say that sustainable leadership means there is a continuity.

Use old experiences, what you have done, but try all the time to be innovative and take risks. So at the political level, it's important that these kinds of reforms have strong political consensus.

Q: No matter whether it's on the left or right?

A: No. No. No. Of course, all the time there is discussion, but, on the big questions, there's a very large consensus.

And, when you have highly qualified teachers, you can adopt this kind of strategy at the school level.

Q: Do you think that the policy that all teachers must have a master's degree is right? It seems to be that it becomes a challenge, because with a master's degree, teachers will want higher salaries and will change their careers if there is a better opportunity. Why do you believe so much in the master's degree?

A: Because, this high level of education is so important to Finland , and we know that we can't face these new challenges if we don't have these highly qualified teachers.

We made a very clear decision in the sixties that this would be the key element in our reform: higher-educated, higher-trained, motivated teachers. So we can trust the teachers. We can say to them, “Take the risk, don't be afraid, we trust you, be innovative.”

Transcribed by Stan Blewett

Chinese Version: 公平與人權才是教育的核心價值