Toward Finland’s Educational Model

By Nicolás Torres Echeverry*


The Finnish model of education is ideal: it has a non-socioeconomic-segregatedsystem with outstanding quality. Finnish students obtained the first place in PISA tests in 2000, 2003, 2006, and 2009, with one of the fewest variations among results between students in the poorest and the wealthiest socioeconomic quartiles.

In this system, 92% of students attend public institutions; local education authorities and schools have a great deal of autonomy to manage personnel, resources, as well as contents and educational methods. Finnish education is therefore a model characterized by autonomy and public provision.

However, the Finnish secret rests deeply in the material and cultural factors upon which it is based. Finland has a small population that enjoys relative socioeconomic equality and good material conditions, and the country is characterized by a great deal of interpersonal trust among people. Additionally, the Finish value knowledge and the role of teachers.

To achieve this model, these material and cultural factors must be taken into account.

The following graph describes four different educational models, according to the level of autonomy of local authorities and schools, and the importance of public enrollment (students being registered in public schools). These four models are representative of different systems and trends in the world.

  1. Chile has a privatized system in which supply is subsidized and therefore schools have a great deal of autonomy. In this country, 60% of education is provided by private schools.
  2. Colombia has more public provision of education and these institutions have little autonomy. In Colombia, about 66% of provision is provided by public schools.
  3. The United States has mostly a public system; about 90% of students attend public schools. However, institutions have more autonomy than Colombian ones but less than in a private system. (Although since the US is a federal system, the education system varies according to the state).
  4. Finland has the system with the greatest autonomy and public enrollment, as stated above, with 92% of students attending public schools.

None of the three former countries is close to achieving what the Finnish system does, especially concerning economic segregation. In these systems rich students go to good schools and poor students go to bad schools, which contributes to the reproduction of socioeconomic stratification. These systems have neither the quality of education nor the level of equality that Finland’s educational system has.

For each of these models to move closer to the Finnish one, public educational policies that address different cultural and material conditions must be implemented. The following table shows some of the variables related to relevant conditions to keep in mind in designing these policies.

One might believe that socioeconomic segregation in schools is a reflection of the socioeconomic differences that the table presents (e.g. the GINI index). However, these differences are precisely what the educational system should serve to reduce. It should provide equality of opportunities. If the gardener’s daughter wants to carry out the same life project as the businesswoman’s son, both students should receive the same education in quality.

In order to move education systems toward the Finnish model, public education policies have to tackle the material and cultural difference.

For example, the material conditions of teachers and students have to be improved. The former requires better starting wages for educators and fewer students per teacher, especially in systems as the Colombian and Chilean. The latter requires complementary measures to respond to poor material conditions of students, such as providing free or reduced-fee meals, free transportation and free school materials for students.

In addition, public policies must promote trust between the various stakeholders in the education system (educators, administrators, local education authorities), and these policies must emphasize good performance and better communication channels for all parties involved. Policies should highlight the aspects of the system that work well, which have been shown to promote reciprocity. In countries such as Colombia where people do not believe in public institution or in their fellow citizens, this type of policy must be encouraged.

It is only through such policies that an institutional system with meaningful benefits, such as the one in Finland, can be achieved and autonomy be granted, in different and transitional ways, to local authorities and schools. And only then can education be desegregated and serve as a means to achieve equality of opportunities.


*Nicolás Torres Echeverry is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).