When the Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg went on a speaking tour around Australia last spring, he says he was left “heartbroken” by stories of young children cracking under the pressure of “stringent academic expectations”.
“I heard some teachers telling how children are experiencing stress-related crying, vomiting and sleeplessness over the high-stakes standardised tests,” Sahlberg tells Guardian Australia. “Play is being squeezed out of Australian schools as politicians force more stringent academic expectations upon younger and younger children.”
The former director general of the Finnish education system – and the author of Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? – Sahlberg is considered a leading expert on an education system that has become a byword for excellence.
By now, the story of Finland is well-trodden ground: at the turn of the century the OECD released its first Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which measured member countries on key education metrics such as literacy and numeracy.
To almost everyone’s surprise, the strongest performer was not some global superpower but Finland, a country of about 5 million that doesn’t introduce its children to formal schooling until the age of seven, requires its highly autonomous teachers to have master’s degrees and almost entirely rejects standardised testing.
In recent years those rankings have begun to slip, so that Finland is now ranked 12th in maths, fifth in science and fourth in reading. But its reputation as a utopia of progressive education policy remains intact.
Now, Sahlberg is coming to Australia. At the end of 2017 the University of NSW announced that he would join its new Gonski Institute for Education.
Headed by the former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli, the new institute has at its core a mission to address the wide and growing inequality gap in Australia’s education system, particularly in regional and remote parts of the country where disadvantage is highest.
But Sahlberg also believes that, in their pursuit for results, Australian politicians have placed too much emphasis on competition between schools and students, making education “too high stakes”.
“If the main goal is to raise Australian children’s scores in both Pisa tests and Naplan, more direct instruction has meant that play, and even subjects such as the arts, are not on the agenda as they used to be,” he says.
A central pillar of early education in Finland is the late start to schooling. Children receive no formal instruction until they are seven, and the focus in daycare centres is not formal education per se but creative play and the health and wellbeing of the student.
The emphasis on play is not trivial but a form of developmental learning. Research has demonstrated that play in the early stages of development can engage children in the process of learning and studies in New Zealand have found that by age 11 there was no difference in reading ability between students who began formal literacy instruction at age five or age seven.
Australian students start formal schooling earlier and spend longer in the classroom than most of their peers in developed nations. That’s one reason the federal government’s proposal to introduce a mandatory phonics check for year 1 students in Australia has failed to win Sahlberg over.
“I think what the government in Australia could do instead is before thinking about these sorts of things is to make sure every child has enough time to play before they come to school,” Sahlberg says. “Australia has one of the highest required compulsory instruction times for children in the entire world … that’s time that kids, including very young kids, are required to be in a formal instruction rather than playing and doing their own thing.”
Naplan and the role of testing
In 2012, the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced that she wanted Australia to be “back in top five schooling nations in the world” for reading, science and mathematics by 2025.
The current education minister, Simon Birmingham, has been less overtly driven by rankings, but he is still deeply aware of them. When the latest Pisa results were released in 2016, he said the results “continued to paint a worrying trend” about education standards in Australia.
It’s evidence, Sahlberg says, of a system that is too focused on results and that places teachers under “too much control”. He suggests Australia should look to New Zealand as a guide, where the new government has sought to improve flagging education standards by axing league tables, paring back testing and handing teachers more autonomy.
“Maybe the key for Australia is loosening up a little bit, less top down control and a bit more professional autonomy for teachers,” he says.
“One way to think about it is maybe, you have all these good things – funding, your economy, good teachers – but you’re not improving. Maybe the problem is that things are tied up in a system that is not able to be flexible enough for teachers.
“Maybe there is not enough trust in Australia in good teachers.”
Part of the problem, Sahlberg believes, is Naplan, often criticised by teachers as a way of putting students into league tables and an inaccurate reflection of educational improvement. This year’s Naplan results found that, a decade since testing began, the average reading and numeracy skills of Australian primary school students has improved only marginally, while writing skills went backwards.
Sahlberg doesn’t have a problem with standardised testing – he believes every country needs a way to measure student progress – but the problem is the way the test is conducted and the use of the data as a sort of school shopping guide for parents on the My School website.
“As I see it, when a standardised test like Naplan becomes high-stakes, it’s likely to change the purpose of the schools and what the teachers do in schools,” he says. “I’ve met thousands of teachers in Australia and, whenever I start a conversation about Naplan, people go bananas. They say the whole purpose of what teachers do is to make sure everybody gets good Naplan results.
“The problem is that wherever standardised tests are running the show it narrows the curriculum and it kind of changes the whole role and meaning of going to school from general useful learning into doing well in two or three subjects. And it often makes teaching and learning very boring when the purpose is to figure out the right answer to a test.”
He says there is “nothing wrong with the test itself”, but Australia could “probably do with less standardised testing” and Naplan could be changed to a sample-based rather than census test.
The gap in equity
In the northern winter of 2014 Piccoli, then the NSW education minister, was touring a school outside Helsinki when he was told that a news photographer was waiting outside.
With the head of Finland’s education department and the school’s principal, he peeked outside. Sure enough, there she was, standing on the school’s driveway in jeans and a light parka in minus 18C.
The photographer had been sent from London with a reporter by the Sydney Daily Telegraph, intent on getting a shot of Piccoli. He left the school via a back entrance and left the photographer waiting in the cold.
The newspaper had been critical of the cost of Piccoli’s trip, and he had a history of criticising New Corp, but the stake-out was part of a wider campaign.
Piccoli was a National party MP but his early support for Gillard’s Gonski funding arrangements and public criticism of Christopher Pyne’s attempts as federal education minister to introduce independent public schools made him a target for the conservative right. In his valedictory speech in the NSW parliament he listed Alan Jones, Miranda Devine, Mark Latham and Ray Hadley as “enemies”.
Piccoli has since returned to Finland for inspiration as the head of the Gonski Institute.
He is adamant that he didn’t bring Sahlberg to Australia “just because he’s from Finland” but it is no coincidence that he has looked there, rather than to another famously high-performing nation such as Singapore.
“I don’t think Australians want an education system like Singapore’s,” Piccoli says. “It’s stressful, high pressure, and yeah they do well in international testing but I’ve got two kids of my own and I don’t know that I’d want them in a system like that.”
Piccoli agrees with Sahlberg that after a decade it “might be time for a review” of Gonski, and says he’s “not particularly fond” of the government’s proposal of a mandatory phonics check for year 1 students, saying “nothing I’ve seen suggests it’s effective”.
But he’s more focused on something else: equity.
In 2016 Piccoli invited Sahlberg on a tour of severely disadvantaged schools in NSW, all part of the state’s Connected Communities, which pumped extra funding into schools in places such as Walgett and Moree and gave teachers greater autonomy in an effort to lift standards.
So far the program has had mixed results but both men want to use the Gonski Institute to dig further into how to address the equity gap in Australia’s education system.
“The key thing is that gap in equity between low socioeconomic status and high,” Piccoli says. “Part of that is demographics, but I want to know what we can do to bridge that gap. It’s more pronounced here than in other countries, so why? It’s one thing to say SES is a strong predictor, but it doesn’t tell you what to do about it.”
For Sahlberg, coming from a country in which there is no private funding of schools, at least some of the reasons for Australia’s inequity seem obvious. But he says visiting some of the rural communities inspired him to want to grapple with the unique questions raised by Australia’s geography and demographics.
“My visits in the rural parts of NSW really made me think: what could we do more?” he says. “What kind of policy and thinking is required … to rethink and redesign education policies, and certainly funding, to make sure everybody will benefit?”