Primary and Secondary Education

Finland Table of Contents

The School System Act, passed in 1968, abolished the twotrack elementary school system and replaced it with a single comprehensive school with a nine-year course of studies. The new school was uniform throughout the country and was compulsory for all children between the ages of seven and sixteen. Children in Finland began school at a later age than those in many other countries because of the distances some of them had to travel in sparsely settled areas. Private schools also were gradually incorporated into the system, which was fully in place by the late 1970s.

The school program was broken into two stages: a lower level for the first six grades and an upper level for grades seven through nine. In some areas there was a voluntary tenth year. The school year began in the second half of August and ended in early June, with a two-week break at Christmas and a one-week break both in the winter and at Easter. The pre-school system was directed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. In the mid-1980s, this system was able to accommodate only onethird of the children of the relevant age group.

Instruction at comprehensive schools was free, as were books, a daily hot meal, transportation, and even lodging for those students who lived too far from a school to manage a daily commute. Efforts were made to ensure that the quality of instruction did not vary and that children in Lapland were as well instructed as those in Helsinki. In bilingual communities, children had the right to instruction in their own language. Children also had the right to classes in their own religion, unless there were too few students of a particular religion to make this practicable, or they could be excused from religious instruction. If at least five students had no religion, an alternative nonreligious course was obligatory. Schools were not divided according to sex.

After graduation from a comprehensive school, students continued their educations at either vocational schools or the more demanding vocational institutes, or at the academically oriented secondary schools. During the 1980s, a slight majority of students chose vocational training to prepare them for one or more of several hundred commercial and technical occupations. Some 60 percent of these students attended two-year to three-year courses at vocational schools, while the remainder enrolled in four-year to five-year courses at vocational institutes that led to careers in highly skilled fields or to management and planning positions. Students at the academic high schools had to pass an examination, after three years of study, before they could attend a university. Fewer than half passed this examination, and only about one-fourth of those successful managed to secure places at universities. Although the academic high school was the most common route to a university in the 1980s, an increasing number of places there were being held for graduates of vocational institutes.

The schools' curricula were set by law, and their content was determined at the national level by the Ministry of Education, the National Board of General Education, and the National Board of Vocational Education. Local authorities, however, had some say about how they would be taught. Language instruction accounted for one-third of teaching time in comprehensive schools and for somewhat more in secondary schools. In the third grade, children began taking a second language, usually Finnish for Swedish speakers and English for the others. Sciences and mathematics accounted for about 30 percent of teaching time at the comprehensive level and for somewhat less at academic schools at the secondary level, while social and humanistic courses accounted for 12 percent in the former and 18 percent in the latter. Comprehensive schools spent one-fourth of their time on art, physical education, and related courses, while secondary schools accorded them a little less than one-fifth of their time. The courses vocational schools offered varied greatly because of the wide variety of material taught. After the first year of general courses, most instruction was connected directly with the chosen specialty.

Since the late 1970s, all teachers in the comprehensive and secondary schools have been obliged to have a university degree. Two art academies and eight universities provided teacher education. Vocational teachers, given the wide variety of courses they taught, could sometimes substitute occupational experience for university training. Teachers of the first six years of comprehensive school functioned as class teachers rather than as subject specialists and were required to have a Master of Education degree, while their colleagues in the upper levels needed a master's degree in the subject they had chosen to teach. Although selection criteria for places in teacher training were stringent (only 10 percent of applicants were accepted), Finland had enough teachers to allow classes in the comprehensive system to average about 30 pupils; classes in the secondary schools averaged about 20 pupils. In sparsely populated areas, however, it was sometimes necessary to form classes with pupils of different ages and grade levels.

Special education generally was accomplished within regular schools. This practice was in consonance with the overall policy of avoiding "tracking," which was seen to limit a pupil's range of educational opportunities by placing him or her at a particular level of instruction. An attempt was made to keep all members of a class together and to address special needs through individual counseling and tutoring. This principle reflected the overriding goal of having an open and flexible school system that matched individual qualities and aspirations.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress