Finns are probably some of the best informed people in the world on global current affairs. Their newspapers are very objective, placing emphasis on fact and evidence far more than on emotive headlines. A large proportion of television programmes are highly educational (or focus on the national obsession of sport). The Finns are world leaders in literacy, mathematics and science.
Finland has repeatedly been rated top of the class in international comparisons of educational standards, even though spending on education is low and Finnish children spend much less time in school than children in other countries. In terms of average PISA scores (organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to compare educational standards), Finland rates highest overall among a group of well-performing countries, including the other Nordic countries, Japan, Korea, Belgium, Holland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Foreign educationalists are particularly interested because Finland’s success does not seem to be related to money: OECD statistics show that Finland spends just 6.1 per cent of its gross domestic product on education, significantly below the OECD average of 6.3 per cent, and well below spending levels in many similarly wealthy countries. A surprising factor is the amount of time children spend in the classroom. Finnish children move on from the kindergarten playtime to primary school at age seven. Their schooldays remain short, often ending as early as 12:00 or 1:00 pm. They have a 10–11 week summer holiday, which surely must be the envy of children all over the world. Also, Finnish pupils spend an OECD record low total of some 5,523 hours at their desks, compared to an average of 6,847 hours. In Holland, children spend 8,000 hours in the classroom. Surveys also suggest that Finnish children spend less time doing homework than schoolchildren in many other countries.
The results of Finland’s brightest students are not significantly above those from other successful countries, but where Finland really shines is in the scores of the lowest performing students. This means that very few Finnish schoolchildren are falling foul of the educational system. The Finnish system is designed along egalitarian principles, with few fee-paying private schools and very little streaming of pupils into different schools or classes according to their exam results. Schools were originally set up as part of efforts to form an autonomous Finnish nation, with no regard for any social class system. The whole of society participated in building the schools, including villagers and farmers, and public schools have always been equally intended for everybody. This kind of equality is perpetuated by the homogeneity of Finnish society and the absence of any major immigrant communities or socially deprived groups who could easily be marginalised educationally. It is true that children from better-off socio-economic backgrounds generally do better at school than children from poorer families, as is found in other countries, but such differences are not very pronounced in Finland.