Raising the bar: How does Finland respond to the dual challenge of secondary education?

  • Pasi Sahlberg


Secondary education has been at the core of social policies and education system development in Finland during the last three decades. After creating a comprehensive nine-year comprehensive school that is same for all pupils in 1970s, education policy targets have regularly insisted that all basic school leavers have to have access to upper secondary education of their choice. Today, the Finnish education system is considered as an international benchmark of good quality combined with system-wide equity and access. In this article I analyze the twin challenge—that is quality of and access to secondary education—through three dimensions: transition rate from basic to upper secondary education, completion rates of secondary education, and student learning. I then argue that Finland has been able to create a secondary education system that performs well at reasonable cost by using education reform strategies that have relied on (1) long-term vision of good secondary education for all, (2) improving quality of primary education for all children, (3) designing a system of early intervention and educational counseling and guidance in primary and in secondary schools, (4) helping all students to be successful in transition from primary to secondary education and creating second chance paths to increase the rate of success, and (5) promoting lateral capacity building in which schools and municipalities learn from each other. The Finnish experience suggests that improving the quality of secondary education requires sustainable policies and leadership, cultivating professionalism and trust throughout the education system, and intelligent approaches to curriculum and accountability.


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