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What Makes the Finnish Education System a Model for Excellence?

One of the interesting features of Finnish education is that children do not start school until they are aged 7. This contrasts with almost all other education systems where the usual starting age is around 5 or 6 years old. Finland is always at or near the top of the international rankings for educational systems. How is this achieved?  What are the special characteristics of the Finnish education system? It is of particular interest that in 2016 the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture will release a new basic education core curriculum where the focus is based on the conception that positive emotional experiences, collaborative learning, active engagement, social sharing and creativity. There is no mention of tests and examinations, a huge distinction with almost all other educational systems.

 A quick appraisal of the Finnish education environment reveals the following features.


  1. Students are not measured or assessed at all for the first six years of their education.

  2. There is only one mandatory standardised school assessment exam in Finland, taken when children graduate from high school.

  3. All students are taught in non-streamed classes.

  4. Finland spends around 30% less per student than the United States and considerably less than many other European countries.

  5. About 30% of Finnish students receive extra help during their first nine years of school.

  6. 66% of Finnish students go to university or poly-technical colleges.

  7. Science classes are capped at 16 students so that they may perform practical experiments during most class.

  8. 43% of Finnish high-school graduates go onto vocational institutions rather than university or directly entering the workforce.

  9. Elementary Finnish school students get 75 minutes of recess a day as compared to an average of 27 minutes in the United States.

  10. The Finnish school system is 100% funded using contributions from the federal government and local suburban councils.

  11. All teachers in Finland must have a masters degree, which is fully subsidized.

  12. The national curriculum contains only broad guidelines.

  13. Teachers are selected from the top 10% of graduates.

  14. There is no merit pay for teachers.

  15. Teachers are given the same status as doctors and lawyers.

It is clear that there are strong principles that underpin the foundation of the Finnish education system. By identifying and exploring these principles, other less successful educational systems can address their own weaknesses and move towards developing more inclusive, economical, harmonious and globally orientated systems, where the central focus is on preparing students for a rapidly changing world and being balanced and confident citizens with highly developed critical thinking skills, as opposed to narrowly focusing on students achieving high formal assessment results that is so evident in many other systems of education. Anecdotal evidence also reveals that Finnish children generally appear to be amongst the happiest, most balanced, well-adjusted and socially successful in the world.

Presented below are many of the principles, characteristics and traits of the Finnish education system that ensures its continual success, on-going sustainability and evolution responding to the requirements of the work place.


1. Education is free at all levels.

In Finland education is free at all levels from pre-primary to higher education. In pre-primary and basic education, the textbooks, daily meal and transportation for students living further away from the school are free for the parents. At secondary level and in higher education the students themselves or their parents purchase their own books. Also at the secondary level the students have the right to a free meal and in higher education meals are subsidised by the state. There are only a few private fee paying schools in Finland, a significant contrast to countries such as England Australia where approximately 25% of schools are private fee paying institutions.


Adult education is the only form of education that may require payment. To promote opportunities to study there is a well-developed system of study grants and loans. Financial aid for students from low income homes is regularly awarded for full-time study in an upper secondary school, vocational institution or institution of higher education.


2. The potential of every individual should be maximised.

Finnish schools strongly endorse the principle that the potential of each pupil should be maximised.  Extensive guidance and counselling provision is available and aims to support, help and guide students so that they can all perform as well as possible in their studies and be able to make appropriate decisions concerning their education and careers. Guidance and counselling is seen as the work of all education personnel working in schools rather than highly trained specialists.  


3. Special needs education is generally provided in conjunction with mainstream education.

In Finland special needs education primarily occurs in mainstream classrooms.  If a student cannot be taught in a regular teaching group, he or she must be admitted to and receive educational support. The aim is to prevent existing problems from becoming more serious. If students cannot adequately cope with mainstream education in spite of general or intensified provision of support, rather than be left behind, they must be given additional special support from highly trained specialists. The main purpose of additional special support is to provide pupils with systematic help so that they can complete compulsory education and be eligible for upper secondary education. This is a basic and common right for all Finnish students.


Special needs support is also provided in upper secondary and vocational education and training. For students in need they are provided with a detailed individual education plan developed by their teachers. This plan is collaboratively designed and must set out details of the qualification to be completed, the requirements observed and support measures provided for the student.


4. Efforts are made for supporting language minorities and migrants.

Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Approximately five per cent of students in basic and upper secondary education attend a school where Swedish is the language of instruction. Both language groups have their own institutions at the higher education level. Furthermore, there are educational institutions where all or at least some instruction is provided in a foreign language, most commonly in English. Local authorities are also required to organize education in the Sami language in the Samis speaking areas of Lapland. Care is taken to ensure educational opportunities for Roma and other minorities such as Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as well as for people who use sign language.


Education providers can apply for additional funding for organising instruction in the official national languages for Roma, Sami and migrant children and for instruction in the pupil’s mother tongue. Education providers also organise preparatory education for immigrants to enable them to enter basic or upper secondary education.


5. Life-long learning in promoted.

Finland views education as a life-long process where opportunities are regularly provided for adult and elderly citizens to pursue educational opportunities. The participation rate is very high when compared with most other countries.


Educational institutions organise courses and training intended for adults of all abilities and previous history of education. Efforts have been made to make the provision as flexible as possible in order to enable adults to study whilst undertaking fulltime or part-time work.  There are also comprehensive training opportunities available for unemployed citizens.


6. Liberal non-formal educational tradition.

Liberal education offers non-formal studies for people to pursue.  It promotes personal growth, health and well-being by offering courses relating to citizenship skills and society and in different crafts and subjects on a recreational basis. Finland has a long tradition of promoting traditional arts and crafts and they are widely popular amongst elderly citizens.


7.  Most education is publicly funded.

Most institutions providing basic and upper secondary level education are maintained by local authorities or joint municipal boards. Responsibility for educational funding is divided between the State and the local authorities. Most private institutions do not differ from those that are publicly maintained. They follow the national core curricula and qualification requirements. They also receive public funding. Pre-primary and basic education is part of the municipal basic services that receive statutory government transfers. The statutory government transfer is based on the number of 6–15 year olds living in the municipality and the special conditions of the municipality. This funding is not ear-marked and the municipality can decide for itself how it allocates this funding.


The funding for upper secondary education and vocational education and training is based on the number of students reported by the school to the Ministry of Education and Culture.


For the funding of poly-technics the State allocates resources in the form of core funding, which is based on unit costs per student, project funding and performance-based funding. For example, completed degrees are part of performance-based funding. Poly-technics also have external sources of funding. Both in vocational training and in the funding of polytechnics the education providers are encouraged to improve their results through performance based funding.


Finnish universities are independent corporations under public law or foundations under private law. Each university and the Ministry of Education and Culture set operational and qualitative targets for the university and determine the resources required every three years. The agreement also defines how these targets are monitored and evaluated. Universities receive funding from the state but they are also expected to raise external funding.


8. Local administration and educational institutions play a key role.

The national education administration is organised at two levels. Education policy is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Culture. A national agency, the Finnish National Board of Education, is responsible for the implementation of the policy aims. It works with the Ministry to develop educational objectives, content and methods for early childhood, pre-primary, basic, upper secondary and adult education. Local administration is the responsibility of local authorities, most commonly municipalities or joint municipal authorities. These make the decisions on allocation of funding, local curricula, recruitment of personnel. The municipalities have also the autonomy to delegate the decision-making power to the schools. Usually principals recruit the staff of their schools and placement is a highly competitive process with many highly qualified applicants applying for a smallish pool of available positions.


9. Educational autonomy is high at all levels.

Education providers are responsible for practical teaching arrangements as well as the effectiveness and quality of its education. There are no regulations governing class size and education providers and schools are free to determine how to group students. Local authorities determine how much autonomy is passed on to schools. The schools have the right to provide educational services according to their own administrative arrangements and visions, as long as the basic functions, determined by law, are carried out. In many cases the budget management, acquisitions and recruitment is the responsibility of the schools.


Teachers have complete pedagogical autonomy. They can decide themselves the methods of teaching as well as textbooks and materials.


Poly-technics and universities also enjoy extensive autonomy.  They organise their own administration, decide on student admission and design the contents of degree outlines.


10. Quality assurance is based on trust instead of controlling.

In Finland school inspections were abolished in the early 1990s. The current system relies on the proficiency of teachers and other personnel. There is strong focus on both self-evaluation of schools. This system demonstrates that teachers are highly respected and are in the best position to ensure quality assurance in their own schools rather than relying on an outside inspection process.


11.  Early childhood education supports children’s development and learning.

Early childhood education comprises care, education and teaching to support children’s balanced growth, development and learning. Every child has a right to attend early childhood education if their parents wish. It can take place at kindergartens or smaller family day-care groups in private homes. The fees are moderate and are based on parental income. Pre-primary education is compulsory for children of the age of six, although this may comprise of children attending a pre-primary provider for just a few hours each week. Pre-primary is provided both in day-care centres and in schools. At pre-primary children the focus is on promoting social skills rather than an early literacy and numeracy academic focus.


12. Basic education is provided within a single structure.

Basic education starts in the year when a child turns seven and lasts nine years. Local authorities assign a school place to each child close to their homes, but parents are generally free to choose the comprehensive school of their preference. Basic education is provided within a single structure, that is, there is no division into primary and lower secondary education. Instruction is usually given by the same class teacher in most subjects in the first six year-classes and by subject specialists in the last three years.


13. School year is the same everywhere but timetables are local.

The school year comprises 190 days between mid-August and the beginning of June. Schools are open five days a week, and the minimum number of lessons per week varies from 19 to 30, depending on the level and number of optional subjects taken. Daily and weekly timetables are decided in the schools. In addition, there is local autonomy concerning extra holidays.


14. National core curriculum leaves room for local variations.

The national core curriculum for basic education is determined by the Finnish National Board of Education. It formulates the objectives and core contents of different subjects, as well as the principles of pupil assessment, special needs education and pupil welfare. The common goals of a good learning environment, working approaches as well as the key concepts of learning are also addressed in the core curriculum. The national core curriculum is renewed approximately every ten years. Individual schools draw up their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum and there is considerable freedom for local or regional differentiation. All local curricula must, however, define the values, underlying principles, as well as general educational and teaching objectives. Also questions such as the language programme and the local lesson-hour distribution must be addressed. Further, cooperation with homes and instruction of pupils requiring special support or belonging to different language and cultural groups should be defined.


15. Assessment is part of daily schoolwork.

In Finland the main type of student assessment is continuous assessment during the course of studies.  Continuous assessment guides and helps students in their learning process. Each student receives a report at least once every school year. There are no national tests for students in basic education in Finland. Instead, teachers are responsible for the assessment in their respective subjects on the basis of the objectives written into the curriculum. Grades in the basic education certificate, the final certificate given at the end of year 9, are given by the teachers. 


16. Most students continue their studies after basic education.

Students who have successfully completed compulsory education are eligible for general and vocational upper secondary education and training. Student selection to upper secondary schools is mainly based on the students’ grades in their basic education certificate. The selection criteria used by vocational institutions often includes work experience. General and vocational pathways at upper secondary may also involve students completing an entrance or aptitude test. Completion of upper secondary education, both general and vocational, gives students eligibility to continue to higher education.


17. General upper secondary education is flexibly organised.

The syllabus of general upper secondary education is designed to last three years, but students may complete it in 2 to 4 years depending on their academic abilities. Instruction is organised in modular form not tied to year classes and students can decide on their individual study schedules. Each course is assessed on completion and when a student has completed the required number of courses, which include compulsory and elective studies, he or she receives a general upper secondary school certificate.


The Finnish National Board of Education decides on the objectives and learning outcomes of the different subjects and study modules for general upper secondary education. Based on the national core curriculum, each education provider then prepares the local curriculum. Due to the modular structure of upper secondary education, students may combine studies from both general education and vocational education and training.


18. First national examination at the end of general upper secondary education.

General upper secondary education ends with a national matriculation examination, which comprises four compulsory tests: mother tongue and, according to each candidate’s choice, three of the following: the second national language, a foreign language, mathematics or one subject in general studies, such as humanities and natural sciences. Having completed the matriculation examination and the entire upper secondary school syllabus, students are awarded a separate certificate that shows details of the examinations passed and the levels and grades achieved.


19. Vocational education and training in cooperation with the world of work.

Vocational education and training covers eight fields of education and there are over fifty vocational qualifications. The duration of a vocational qualifications is usually three years of study and each qualification includes at least half a year of on-the-job learning in workplaces. Vocational education and training can be completed in the form of school-based training or apprenticeship training.


The national qualification requirements have been based on a learning-outcome approach from the early 1990s. Consequently, close co-operation with employers has been essential. This is done in order to ensure that the qualifications support flexible and efficient transition into the labour market as well as occupational development and career change. In addition to the needs of the ever changing world of work due to technological innovations, development of vocational education and training and qualifications takes into account the consolidation of lifelong learning skills as well as the individuals’ needs and opportunities to complete qualifications flexibly to suit their own circumstances. The studies are based on individual study plans, comprising both compulsory and optional study modules. The students’ learning and competences acquired are assessed throughout the period of study. The assessment is based on criteria defined in the national qualification requirements. One of the main assessment methods is vocational skills demonstrations.


20. Competence-based qualifications offer a way to demonstrate prior learning.

Competence-based qualifications provide adults a flexible way to enhance and maintain their vocational skills. A specific benefit of this system is that it makes it possible to recognise an individual’s vocational competences regardless of whether they have been acquired through work experience, studies or other activities. Representatives of the world of work play an important role in planning, implementing and assessing these competence-based qualifications.


An individual study plan is prepared for each student taking a competence-based qualification. The candidates demonstrate their skills in competence tests, which are assessed by training experts and representatives from enterprises together with the candidates themselves.


21. Vocational studies take into account individual needs and circumstances.

Higher education is offered by universities and poly-technics. Universities emphasise scientific research and instruction. Poly-technics, also known as universities of applied sciences, adopt a more practical approach. There is restricted entry to all fields of study. As applicant volumes outweigh the number of places available, universities and poly-technics use different kinds of student selection criteria. Most commonly these include success in matriculation examination and entrance tests.


22. Most university students aim for a Master’s degree.

The Finnish Matriculation Examination provides general eligibility for higher education.  Universities may also admit applicants, who are otherwise considered to have the necessary skills and knowledge to complete the studies. At universities students can study for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and scientific or artistic postgraduate degrees, which are known as Licentiate and Doctorate degrees. Students first complete a Bachelor’s degree, after which they may go for a Master’s degree. Most students are admitted to study for the Master’s degree. The target time for taking a Master’s degree is generally 5 years. The average time for taking a Master’s degree in Finland is, however, six years.


23. Polytechnic degrees provide students with practical professional skills.

The general requirement for admission to poly-technics is completion of general upper secondary education or vocational education and training. Student selection to poly-technics is mainly based on entrance examinations, school achievement and work experience. Poly-technics may also admit applicants who are otherwise considered to have the necessary skills and knowledge to complete poly-technic studies. Degree studies at poly-technics give a higher education qualification and practical professional skills. They comprise core and professional studies, elective studies and a final project. All degree studies include practical on-the-job learning. The duration of poly-technic degree studies is 3 to 4 years of full-time study. It is further possible to take a poly-technic Master’s degree after acquiring a minimum of three years’ work experience. The poly-technic Master’s takes 1.5–2 years, and is equivalent to a university Master’s degree.


24. The most common pre-service requirement to work as a teacher is a Master’s degree.

Teaching is an attractive career choice in Finland. Thus the teacher education institutions can select the applicants most suitable for the teaching profession. For example, the intake into class teacher education is about 10 per cent of all applicants. In subject teacher education the intake varies from 10 to 50 per cent depending on the subject. In vocational teacher education the intake is about 30 per cent of the applicants.


25. Continuing teacher education is encouraged.

At most levels of education teachers are required to participate in in-service training every year as part of their agreement on salaries. Finnish teachers consider in-service training as a privilege and therefore participate actively. The State also provides in-service training programmes, primarily in areas important for implementing education policy and reforms. The education providers can also apply for funding to improve the professional competence of their teaching personnel. Teachers are recognised as keys to quality in education.



1 Finnish Education System in a Nutshell

2) Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture



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