Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Finnish education system

Britain's conservatives think it is a good model but would it work with large and disruptive "minority" populations dragging down the standards of government schools? The Conservatives are being Pollyannas

The success story of Finland’s schools has one overarching lesson for policymakers in Britain. It is that sustaining high standards requires stability and, eventually, consensus.

Since Finland embarked on its education reforms in 1967, it began with tight state controls over the school curriculum, but it has gradually ceded power to local authorities, schools and teachers.

But parallels with schools in Britain can be taken only so far. Finland is a tiny country of 5.3 million people, and beyond Helsinki, sparsely populated: good local schools are a practical necessity in rural areas, as are its free school meals. Strict controls on immigration mean that it is a much more homogeneous society, with fewer of the pressures faced by inner-city schools in Britain.

Finland, sometimes described as a “middle-class society”, also has fewer disparities in wealth, making comprehensive schools a simpler concept. Parents in Finland look puzzled when asked whether they considered private education.

Nevertheless, Finland’s reforms are remarkable. Fears that it lacked a sufficiently skilled workforce prompted the abandonment of a two-tier school system in the late 1960s. Lower-attaining children were given a more demanding education; some parents and politicians protested this was at a cost of lowering academic standards for brighter pupils. In 1985 came an even bolder step with the scrapping of streaming for under-16s was scrapped, creating a pure comprehensive model.

Some caution may be advisable when considering Finland’s stellar performances in OECD tables of educational performance, however. Finnish is a phonetic language, making reading — and arguably learning — simpler. And while Britain and Finland spend a similar proportion of GDP on education — 5.9 and 5.8 per cent respectively — Finland spends much more on those aged 12-15: $9,241 (£5,660) per pupil, compared with $8,868 in Britain. This is the group whose performance is measured in OECD tests, but evidence suggests that all ages have benefited.

Finland offers a second lesson, too, which is particularly apt for England. Central government prescription, national school inspections, tests and league tables are not the sole means to safeguard quality. Finland has prospered by taking a different path.


Class prejudice to be enshrined in Britain

Leftists usually say that it is wrong to discriminate against people just because of whom they are. So why is it bad to discriminate against Muslims, blacks and homosexuals but OK to discriminate against middle-class whites?

Middle-class students will have to pay more in tuition fees and win higher grades than the less well-off to get into university. Ministers announced yesterday that they are backing plans for a 'radical reshaping' of the fees system, aimed at targeting resources at poorer students. Universities will also face demands to widen the social mix of their students by accepting lower grades from those from deprived homes.

The proposals - buried in a Labour blueprint on social mobility - last night drew a furious response from the Conservatives and independent schools, who branded the scheme a 'travesty'. They claimed the measures sit uneasily with Gordon Brown's attempts to move away from Labour's 'core vote' election strategy and pose as a friend to the middle classes.

The Tories also pointed out that Labour had failed to close the gap between rich and poor students despite being in power for almost 13 years.

But the Prime Minister and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson insisted the plans would 'unleash aspiration' and allow those from poor backgrounds to get into top jobs. The blueprint comes after a report on social mobility, published last year by former health secretary Alan Milburn, called for an end to the middle classes' dominance of the professions.

Mr Brown said while society was 'already fairer': 'We can't be a truly aspirational society if some people are still denied the chance to get on. Although we have raised the glass ceiling, we have yet to break it.'

But the prospect of higher tuition fees will horrify students, already facing average debts of more than £20,000 to fund a three-year degree.

Ministers are to accept in full Mr Milburn's recommendation that higher fees for some could 'provide higher levels of financial support for students who need it most'. But with no extra funding available, it means that middle-class students are likely to be charged more to fund bursaries for the less well-off.

Universities would also be encouraged to accept lower grades from poor pupils. Lord Mandelson has suggested elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge would be made - possibly through financial incentives - to set targets to widen the social mix of students.

Yesterday's report was unveiled at St George's Medical School in London, which has been praised for increasing its proportion of state school students from 48 per cent in 1997 to 71.2 per cent last year. Its standard offer of three As can be dropped as low as two Bs and a C if candidates outperform others at their school and can demonstrate aptitude.

Although the report said universities were free to set their own admissions policies, it warned it was 'in every university's best interests to attract students with potential'.

The plans drew an angry reaction last night. David Hanson, of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, said: 'We should be asking why state schools cannot deliver the high standards of education we see from independent schools. 'It would be a political and economic travesty if we turn our backs on meritocracy and it is outrageous to jeopardise the future success of the UK because politicians won't admit the education system they have such a strong hand in is failing to deliver.'

Other measures in the report include moves to make the professions subsidise work experience and internships for those from poorer backgrounds.

Ministers will also use the new Equality Bill to allow the civil service and local authorities to discriminate against middle-class job applicants.

David Cameron sought to hit back against 'class war' attacks on his party yesterday by unveiling plans to make 'good education the right of the many and not the privilege of a few' by allowing parents, businesses and charities to run their own schools using state funding.

David Willetts, Tory universities spokesman, said: 'The poorest and most fragile families have fallen further behind. 'Ministers claim they are concerned about mobility but after 13 years they are still only dealing with the symptoms.'


NY: Pols’ plan blasted as a charter killer

Assembly leaders are set to cut off new efforts to set up charter schools in New York with an onerous plan to give the Legislature total control over where they're set up and how they're run that could cost the state $700 million in federal money, charter-school proponents say. Facing a deadline Tuesday to grab a chunk of the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" educational-aid program, an Assembly draft of the bill obtained by The Post plays power politics by handing legislators greater control of the system.

The Legislature's instrument of control would be the state Board of Regents, whose members are picked by leaders of the Assembly and Senate. The system is now jointly overseen by the Regents and State University trustees, who are largely controlled by the governor. The Assembly plan would also eliminate local influence over how charter schools are run.

"If anything close to this bill would pass, it would guarantee the end of the charter-school movement as we know it," said Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York Charter Schools Association. "The whole point was to have the community, the parents, pick. Now the Regents will handpick where they want a school. "Clearly, this is a bill to stop charter schools in their tracks and all but guarantee that New York state doesn't get a dime" from the Race to the Top program," Murphy said. "I think this reflects the teachers unions' interest."

Teachers unions have long been wary of the state's charter push, fearing the schools, very few of which are unionized, would diminish their own influence. The AFL-CIO has been using its muscle in Albany to thwart efforts to expand the number of charter schools. United Federation of Teachers spokesman Dick Riley declined to comment on the draft, saying he had not seen a copy of it.

Murphy and other charter-school proponents say the draft shows how Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his Democratic majority are backing the unions and tossing a wrench into efforts to get more federal funding for the schools. But Silver spokesman Dan Weiller said the draft obtained by The Post is not the last word, and that the bill could be revised significantly. The draft does not "reflect the Assembly's position, because there have been subsequent drafts," Weiller said. The subsequent drafts have not been released.

The Senate and Assembly were negotiating last night on a combined draft bill that was expected to be introduced before midnight. But a spokesman for Senate President Malcom Smith, Austin Shafran, couldn't say early this morning if the joint bill had been introduced.

Weiller said that New York won't miss out on the federal money if Silver has his way. "Speaker Silver will take whatever steps are required to ensure that the state qualifies for the Race to the Top funding," he said.

In order to boost the chances that New York will be one of the six states selected for a piece of the $4.35 billion federal school-funding windfall, the state needs to pass a law greatly boosting the number of charter schools. As required to get its $700 million cut of the cash, the bill increases the number of schools to 400 -- a compromise between Silver's wish to have 350 schools and Paterson's to have 460. But the more crucial issue to proponents is who oversees the establishment and operation of the schools -- and what rules schools must follow.

The state's current system in which oversight of the schools is shared between SUNY trustees and the Regents has worked well and is hailed as a "national model," charter advocates say. But the Assembly proposal would nix that system -- and also eliminate city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein's ability to endorse school applications.

Murphy said eliminating city government's role in the school-establishment process would be devastating. "It's very top down," he said. "It takes away from the grass-roots communities and turns it on its head." The Assembly proposal is "a step backward if it eliminates the ability of the State University of New York and the New York City chancellor to approve and monitor charter schools," said Greg Richmond, head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. "The Legislature is moving the state in the wrong direction."

Classroom rules

In addition to doubling the number of charter schools to 400, the Assembly's proposed bill would:

* Consolidate control with the state Board of Regents, which is appointed by the Legislature. The Regents and the SUNY Board of Trustees currently share oversight of charter schools.

* Nix Schools Chancellor Joel Klein's authority to recommend new schools for authorization.

* Require schools to meet "rigorous" enrollment and retention targets, including serving more students with disabilities, with difficulty speaking English, or who come from poor households.

* Force new schools to comply with more stringent state education building codes.

* Require charter schools looking to move into occupied public-school buildings to get prior approval from parents of students in those buildings.


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