Finnish 15-year-olds still among top performers in reading literacy but growing proportion of low performers needs addressing

Current issues
OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey again ranked Finnish 15-year-olds among top performers in reading literacy in OECD countries. This time the focus in the PISA2018 survey, held every three years, was on reading literacy. Compared with 2015, Finnish pupils’ mathematical literacy also remained unchanged, but performance in science literacy declined.
Hands resting on an open textbook

In PISA 2018, Finnish pupils aged 15 were one of the best in reading literacy (mean score 520 points) in OECD countries together with Estonia (523), Canada (520), Ireland (518) and Korea (514). Finland’s mean score fell by 6 points compared with PISA 2015, but the change was not statistically significant.

Mathematical literacy (mean score 507 points) among Finnish 15-year-olds is still well above the OECD average. Finland’s ranking place was between 7 and 13 among OECD countries and between 12 and 18 among all participating countries and economies.

The performance of Finnish pupil in science literacy (mean score 522) ranked among the best in the OECD immediately after Estonia (530) and Japan (529). However, Finland's scores have fallen steadily, dropping by a total of 41 points since 2006 and by a statistically significant 9 points from 2015.

Differences between schools among the participating countries was smallest in Finland. The variation had not increased from the previous PISA survey. Regional variation also largely remained at the previous level.

Equality in learning needs improving

Despite the good results and small variation between schools and regions, there are signals of growing differences in reading proficiency between individual pupils. This is a worrying development that has also been apparent in national evaluations of learning outcome undertaken by the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC).

In PISA2018, the differences in reading proficiency among pupils were bigger than ever in the history of Finland’s participation in the PISA assessments. The percentage of Finnish pupils with excellent reading proficiency (14.5%) is roughly the same as in 2009 (15%). However, the percentage of low-performing readers has increased significantly. While 8.1% of students were below Level 2 in 2009, by 2018 the percentage had risen to 13.5% of all students.

Also the gender gap in reading literacy performance between Finnish girls and boys was one of the highest in the participating countries, much like in earlier surveys. In Finland, the difference in favour of girls was 52 points, compared with an average of 30 points in OECD countries. Among boys, the number of low-performing readers has increased since 2009.  

In Finland, more pupils than before reported a negative attitude to reading: the number of pupils who reported that one of their favourite hobbies was reading had decreased by nine percentage points since 2009. As many as 63% of Finnish boys agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I read only if I have to.”

Battling the polarisation development

As a reaction to the growing differences in reading proficiency between pupils, the government took a step already in 2017 to establish a national literacy forum to tackle the issue and provide suggestions for the decision-makers and other actors. Seeking solutions to developing young people’s literacy competence and interest in reading, the forum organizes a campaign to promote reading motivation at schools, by using all the best practices shared in the Forum (such as author visits and celebrities).

The main outcomes of the Forum are expected to be political guidelines comprising of proposals for battling the downward trend in the development of the interest in reading and literacy and for ensuring that all children and young people have a sufficient level of literacy for continuous learning and active life.

Also the challenges in boys’ learning outcomes and motivation have long been a cause for concern and public debate in Finland. In 2018, EDUFI organised a multisectoral workshop as part of a process to find solutions to the challenge. As school is not isolated from other parts of children’s lives, the idea was to involve in the process stakeholders from many fields, including for example social services, youth sector, sports organizations, the defence forces, universities and student organizations. As a result, a list of recommendations were proposed, varying from a developing public services and supporting a sense of community and belief in the future to supporting controlled digital gaming.

Finland only country to combine high performance with life satisfaction

PISA 2018 examines well-being as a whole, including material dimensions and those related to attitudes in students’ personal lives, their school environment and outside school.

With a mean score of 7.61 (on a scale of 1 to 10), students’ own assessment of their satisfaction with life is fairly high. When examining the relationship between life satisfaction and performance, Finland stood out from other countries and economies. Finland was the only country where both reading proficiency and satisfaction with life were at a high level.

Pupil wellbeing is a key aim in the Finnish school system:  according to the national core curriculum for basic education, the task of the school is to support the pupils’ learning, development and well-being in cooperation with the homes. Pupils’ welfare is supported by pupil support services, guidance and counselling.

Special focus was placed on wellbeing in 2016-2018 with a government key programme to address reform in child and family services. One of the four main themes in the programme was early childhood education, schools, educational institutions and learning communities strengthening the wellbeing, inclusion and community spirit of children and young persons. During the programme period, various models for operating were developed at a local and regional level and best practices were summarized in a report.