PISA results reflect broader changes in Finnish society

International comparison Basic education
The latest PISA results indicate that Finnish 15-year-olds’ competence in mathematics, literacy and natural sciences alike have deteriorated. On the other hand, Finland still is above the average of the 38 OECD countries in all subjects. A decline compared to the top results of 2006 is, however, a fact that the Finnish National Agency for Education takes very seriously, even if this is a trend that all Western countries have shared in recent years.

Minna Kelhä

Director General Minna Kelhä, The Finnish National Agency for Education

We at the Finnish National Agency for Education see the reasons for the deteriorating learning outcomes: numerous changes in the operating environment of Finnish society. They include increasing socio-economic inequalities between families, the level of resources allocated to education, polarisation in children’s and young people's literacy, lack of motivation, loss of faith in education, pull of the social media, and mental health problems. The effectiveness of the comprehensive school system should also be examined critically. We at the Finnish National Agency for Education should assess the contents of the national core curricula, for instance, and consider how we could lend municipalities and education providers better support in their local application.

The Finnish school has been changed by broader changes in society. This change has not been very radical, however, and individual factors that are relatively insignificant in the big picture often come up in public debate: for example, the modern open school facilities which spark a lot of discussion, or ‘open-plan office schools’ in the language of the media, only account for 1.5% of all teaching facilities in schools.

Inequalities increase in the shadow of crises

Especially in recent years, crises have also cast a shadow over children's and young people's lives: shortly before the PISA tests of spring 2022, the war in Ukraine followed hot on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impacts of the pandemic period are also reflected in the results of many other countries participating in the PISA tests. The threat of climate change has been lurking in the background for even longer. Right now the situation in Israel and Gaza is a cause for concern, and in today’s world of conventional and social media, our children also come face to face with these harsh realities. 

No wonder that many young people’s faith in future – including faith in education – is put to the test. As part of learning, the professionals working in schools create faith in the future and education in daily encounters.

Differences arising from the socio-economic backgrounds of pupils' homes have increased and are also reflected in learning outcomes.  

Increasing inequalities in our society are also a fact: those who are doing well are faring better than ever, while those with poor starting points are doing worse. Differences arising from the socio-economic backgrounds of pupils' homes have increased and are also reflected in learning outcomes. 

In the past, comprehensive school was more successful in levelling out the effect of students’ backgrounds. The recent results confirm that this is no longer the case: differences within and even between schools have increased. On the other hand, differences between schools are still small in Finland: only 9%, compared to the OECD average of around 30%.

Clarification of learning support and additional resources

Inclusion must not be used as an excuse for saving money. Inclusive principles comprise equal rights for all students, equality, equity, non-discrimination, appreciation of diversity as well as social inclusion and togetherness. Inclusiveness is a broad concept and should be seen as a principle, value and holistic way of thinking that applies to all children in the provision of basic education. The objectives of inclusion also include guaranteeing that each child receives sufficient support for their learning and school attendance.

If children with special needs study in large classes, the support and resources must go with them. Consequently, adequate resources and sufficiently small teaching groups are needed in order for inclusion to work. Small groups are still permitted if a child’s best interests so require. Today, sufficient resources for inclusion are not available everywhere, and for this situation actors at all levels may be criticised, including the central government and municipalities.

Instruction is not differentiated sufficiently for the pupils’ needs, and there is also scope for improvement in differentiating it upwards to meet the most talented pupils’ needs.

Support will be upgraded and basic skills strengthened

The Finnish National Agency for Education and the Ministry of Education and Culture have launched efforts to turn the learning outcomes around. 

A reform of learning support at all levels from early childhood education and care to secondary education is about to begin. The key objective is to guarantee timely support for each child. Another goal is cutting back on pedagogical documents the teachers have to fill in, leaving them more time to spend with their pupils.  

As stated in the Government Programme, the pupils’ basic knowledge and skills will also be strengthened – allocation of additional annual weekly lessons to mathematics as well as mother tongue and literature is currently being prepared. The learning of literacy, natural sciences and mathematics will be supported systematically within programmes focusing on these skills.

We are also working to support the linguistic development of pupils with migrant background and to restrict the disruptive use of smartphones in schools. 

EDUFI has already published assessment criteria for basic education to help teachers decide when a pupil's basic skills have advanced to a level at which the pupil can be transferred to the next grade.

Next week, we will obtain in-depth information on knowledge and skills in mathematics in the final stage of basic education, their changes and the underlying causes of the changes as the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre FINEEC publishes its report.

Multidisciplinary cooperation to support young people and their families

I believe that expanding and stepping up multidisciplinary cooperation is one solution to the challenging situation. Children and young people need the help of student welfare psychologists, school social workers, school nurses and physicians without delay, for example when encountering mental health challenges. 

It is important to hear young people about the type of support they need and to systematically build cooperation between schools and student welfare services, which have been taken over by the wellbeing services counties, but also to work together with the sports and youth services offered by municipalities and NGOs. 

We need a broad, evidence-based understanding of how young people are doing and how we can support them. The recent results of the School Health Promotion Study lay a good foundation for this. Grades 7 to 9 are a stage when segregation between young people often tends to exacerbate and school attachment suffers. Consequently, this particular age group’s need of having a sufficient number of adults around it is critical.

Families also need stronger support and help. There is certainly scope for stepping up cooperation between the home and the school. 

The pull of social media and gaming takes up time from reading

Previously, the popularity of reading as a pastime bolstered learning outcomes in Finland. Fluent and versatile literacy is the key to all learning. This is why the deterioration of literacy skills must also be seen as a key indicator for the across-the-board decline in PISA results. 

Fluent and versatile literacy is the key to all learning. This is why the deterioration of literacy skills must also be seen as a key indicator for the across-the-board decline in PISA results. 

Schools should do more to promote language aware instruction, which means understanding that each teacher also teaches the language of their subject.

While reading used to be a popular pastime in Finland, especially the pull of the social media and gaming now takes up young people's time. This additionally affects their motivation for studying and concentration: in the PISA study, 41% of Finnish young people found that the use of digital devices disrupts their concentration on studying.

On the other hand, digital skills are vital in today's society with its digital transformation, and moderate use of digital devices is linked to better learning outcomes than fully abstaining from their use. The purpose for which digital devices are used, and the time spent using them, are consequently the key. 

Research evidence shows that the use of digital devices in teaching improves learning outcomes, whereas their excessive use for entertainment has the opposite effect. In the latest PISA study, for example, the more pupils said they used digital devices, the better their competence in mathematics was, as long as they did not spend more than six hours a day on their devices.

Dialogue is needed to support decisions

In the big picture, we should remember that our basic education has a lot going for it today. The PISA results, too, show that Finnish children enjoy going to school more than their peers in many other countries. Finnish pupils display the lowest level of mathematical anxiety. The basic premise in Finland is that the school is an important part of children's lives, however not the be-all and end-all; the life of a growing child should not consist exclusively of school work.

It is important that skilled professionals, and also children and young people, can make their voices heard more clearly to underpin decision-making. 

The best way to improve learning outcomes is doing it together. We engage in active dialogue with education providers, principals, teachers and other school staff. It is important that skilled professionals, and also children and young people, can make their voices heard more clearly to underpin decision-making. 

Cooperation between the home and the school is also needed to promote children’s learning and wellbeing. Parents can support their children by being interested in what happens at school, by helping them to remember their homework, and by encouraging them to also read and be physically active during their leisure time. Ensuring adequate nutrition and sleep as well as moderate use of digital devices in leisure time is also up to the homes.

Right now, many children and young people are writing their wish lists, and adults are deciding what they should give their child. My wish for everyone in Finland is this: fill Santa’s sack with books. If a physical book does not do it, perhaps the child or young person might like a subscription to an e-book service? Of if you are on a tight budget, could you give them a trip to the nearest library together?


Blog author

Minna Kelhä
Minna Kelhä
Director General, the Finnish National Agency for Education