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date: 27 June 2017

Dynamics in Education Politics and the Finnish PISA Miracle

Summary and Keywords

The international debate on Finnish educational “success” had made relevant a cultural and historical analysis of Finnish education, with a focus on the effects of the ongoing preoccupation with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results on basic education. Such international comparisons demand a strong theoretical approach, in part because the contrastive analysis of empirical “facts” and “realities” requires that they be situated in relation to their local and, in this case, national systems and contexts. It may be assumed that the quantitative indicators agreed on in intergovernmental negotiations between senior bureaucrats do indeed provide valid comparisons of education systems, as is the conventional wisdom in the field of economics. Nevertheless, these remain value-loaded collections of indicators of development that offer at best parallel lines of comparative analysis. The Finnish case argues for strong theory-based conceptualizations as the basis for, first, complex comparison and, second, shared models of policy action and intervention.

The comparative education field faces four interlinked challenges. First, there is a lack of theory building and development in the field, where politically and ideologically motivated investigative large-scale assessment practices are defining the state of the art. Second, the focus of the studies tends to be on empirically measurable end products instead of documented processes, which makes it possible to generate competitive rankings but reveals little about specific and shared developmental processes in educational systems. Third, although complexity and contingency are widely accepted in the social world on the general level, they appear to seldom reach empirical studies; the vast majority of standard approaches still advocate simple explanatory models. Finally, and paradoxically enough, there is a form of intellectual nationalism that inhibits the conceptualization and understanding of the relationship between, for example, transnational processes and nation-states. In this regard, comparative education needs a strong and ambitious theory-based framework with the potential to incorporate sociohistorical complexity, cultural relationality, and sociological contingency. Without a strong theory-driven approach, it is hard to go beyond merely listing the similarities and differences that facilitate the rankings but blur the processes.

At the research unit for Sociology and Politics in Education (KUPOLI) at the University of Helsinki, a new conceptualization was formulated in early 2010s and an ambitious research plan, Comparative Analytics of Dynamics in Education Politics (CADEP), was launched. The thesis was that to progress beyond the state of the art and arrive at a comparative understanding of educational systems, it would be necessary to focus on dynamics, with a view to grasping the fluid and mobile nature of the subject. This heuristic starting point echoed relativistic dynamics in physics, characterized as a combination of relativistic and quantum theories to describe the relationships between the principal elements of a relativistic system and the forces acting on it. It is curious that, though on the conceptual level the dynamics of a system are constantly referred to as being among its key attributes, there has been little progress on the analytical level in the social sciences since the seminal work of Pitirim Sorokin in the 1950s. The CADEP develops conceptually the theoretical understanding of dynamics to resubmit a specific social field of education to scrutiny by analyzing the relations between the main actors and institutions and essential discursive formations and practices. It is assumed that given its connection with relations and movement, the concept of dynamics will not reduce a mobile and fluid subject of study to a stagnant and inanimate object. There are four constitutive dynamics that make the Finnish educational success story understandable. Success and failure in basic education seem to be relative, and to reflect intertwined dynamics in policymaking, governance, families’ educational strategies, and classroom cultures. The emphasis of the understanding is on the contingent, relational, and complex character of political history.

Keywords: dynamics in education politics, complexity, contingency, path dependency, paradox


“Facts” and “realities” may be seen as incomparable by definition. One may contrast them to highlight differences and similarities, but without due attention to historical, cultural, and political contexts such comparisons can lead to facile and spurious claims (Nóvoa & Yariv-Mashal, 2003). The new transnational policy practice is to assume that prolific quantitative indicators established via bureaucratic consensus between governments can suffice for the task of analysis. Nevertheless, value-loaded collections of development indicators will create, at best, parallels and juxtapositions. Therefore, this explanation of the Finnish Comprehensive School, Peruskoulu, as a national case in education politics, is theoretically based. The Finnish case can be analyzed comparatively in relation to other education systems, and indeed, only strong, theory-based conceptualizations constitute the very basis for, first, complex comparison, and second, a shared view on educational policy and change.1

The comparative education field faces four major challenges in the early 21st century. First, there is an overall lack of theoretical focus and debate in the field. In consequence, politically motivated investigative practices are influential in defining the state of the art.2 Second, the focus of the studies tends to be on end products rather than processes: hence, the focus is on competitive rankings of schools but far less focus on specific and shared developmental processes in educational systems.3 Third, although the problems of complexity in the social world are widely accepted on the general level, they appear seldom to factor into empirical studies.4 And finally, and paradoxically enough, there is a form of intellectual nationalism that inhibits the conceptualization and understanding of the relationship between transnational processes and nation-states.5

Therefore, comparative education needs a strong and ambitious theory-based framework with the potential to incorporate the sociohistorical complexity, relationality, and contingency of the research subject under examination. Without a strong theory-driven approach, it is hard to go beyond merely listing the similarities and differences that facilitate rankings but blur the processes and contexts. This can result in the problematic transplant and implementation of policy from one national or regional context to others.

At the Research Unit focusing on Sociology and Politics in Education ([KUPOLI], at the University of Helsinki, a new conceptualization was formulated, and the research plan Comparative Analytics of Dynamics in Education Politics (CADEP) was developed (see Simola, Kauko, Varjo, Kalalahti, & Sahlström, 2017). This work is based on the thesis that in order to progress beyond the state of the art and arrive at a comparative understanding of educational systems, it would be necessary to focus on dynamics with a view to grasping the complex, fluid, and mobile nature of the subject. On that definition, dynamics in the education politics of a certain social field is a formulation of constitutive regularities or principles in interaction with the actors, institutions, and discursive formations in the field.6

The heuristic starting point was relativistic dynamics in physics,7 a combination of relativistic and quantum theories to describe the relationships between the principal elements of a relativistic system and the forces acting on it. Actors, institutions, and discursive formations8 are defined as the equivalent principal elements; a policy field, as the relativistic system; and power, as the main influence. Actors may be both individual and collective. Despite the pressures on actors from structures and contingencies, there is always space for creative action. The institutions constitute the very basis of nondiscursive practices. (See e.g., Bourdieu, 1990; Jepperson, 2002; Meyer & Rowan, 2006; Meyer & Boli, 2009.)

Any meaningful research in comparative historical sociology and politics must be based on “the unique nature of a variety of situations in time and space, and the cultural resources available in these situations” (Hedström & Wittrock, 2009, p. 8). Three major dimensions structure the dynamics of all education politics (Table 1).

Table 1. A framework for the analysis of dynamics in politics38



The political situation

What is possible in a specific sociohistorical and transnational situation; the dimension of structural opportunity and change

The political possibilities

What is possible within the excising discursive formations; what is politicized and what is not; problématiques; the dimension of discursive conditions and resources

The political Spielraum

How the relevant actors act and react; how they capitalise on the existing situations and possibilities; space for “politicking”

The Case: The Transition from Agrarian to Postindustrial Society

Because of its geographical and geopolitical location, Finland has always been a border country between the West and the East. After being under the Swedish Crown for centuries, the Finnish national identity woke only under the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It is not an overstatement to say that eastern elements, though silent and repressed, are evident in Finland, everywhere and in every way, from its administrative traditions to its genetic heredity. The fact that Finnish social democracy retains an eastern authoritarian, even totalitarian, flavor compared with the social democracies in the other Nordic countries is but one indicator. In this regard, it is not necessarily an overstatement to state that Finland shares some history of autocratic governance with East Asian nations, such as Korea and Japan and their counterparts in international educational comparisons (cf. e.g., Lakaniemi et al., 1995; Siikala, 2002).

Another historical fact that differentiates Finland from its Nordic neighbors is that in the 20th century it went through several wars, including one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern European history. As the Russian grip loosened during the Russian revolutionary movements and the First World War, Finland declared independence in 1917. After a period of political turbulence, the radical left achieved ascendancy in the Finnish Social Democratic Party, and in January 1918, this faction “Reds” took power in Helsinki and southern Finland. The country was divided into right-wing Senate troops, “White”, and “Red” camps. After three months of battles, the Reds were beaten, and the “White General,” Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, rode to Helsinki, accompanied by a division of German troops. The civil war killed nearly 40,000 people in a nation of under three million inhabitants. Three quarters of total deaths were of the Reds, and three quarters of them had died not in battle but in prison camps or been executed or murdered. This remains Finland’s national “collective trauma” (Ylikangas, 2002), yet to be completely overcome. Nonetheless, two decades following the war the nation was able to establish a strong front against the Soviet offensive during the Winter War (1939–1940). From a psychohistorical perspective, the peculiarities of the Finnish drift toward social consensus may be understood by delving into these two aspects of the collective mentality: its sense of being a border country and the ongoing the trauma of civil war (and the celebrated consensus during the Winter War; cf. e.g., Alapuro, 1988; Klinge, 1997; Vehviläinen, 2002).

The third social fact not to be underestimated in the dialogue on schooling in Finland is that the country belongs to the group of European nations that have most recently left behind their agrarian societies and lifestyles. Despite its Nordic roots, Finland was before WWII economically similar to an East European agrarian state, together with Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Rumania.9 The late process of industrialization in decades ending the 19th century and the simultaneous growth of the service sector set the stage for rapid structural change. Here Finland clearly also diverges from all other late modernizers in Europe, such as Portugal and Greece. The transitions from an agricultural to an industrial society and further to a postindustrial society took place in such a short period of time that one could almost say that these societies currently coexist. The Finnish welfare state may be seen as a product of these historical disturbances: on the one hand, industrial and individualist; on the other, agrarian and collectivist.10

In education, too, the Finnish case can be seen as historically accelerated, a compressed version of the global evolutionary development of mass schooling (e.g., Meyer et al., 1992; Simola, 1993). Finland was among the last countries in Europe to establish compulsory education for all. Six-year elementary education was made compulsory by law only in 1921, the same year as in Thailand; whereas the equivalent legislation was in force in Denmark in 1814, in Sweden in 1842, and in Norway in 1848. Moreover, primary-school expansion was slow even after the law came into force, and compulsory education was not fully functional and did not cover all children across the whole country and all social groups until just before WWII (Rinne, 1984; Ramirez & Boli-Bennett, 1982; Rinne & Salmi, 1998, p. 27; Simola, 2015, pp. 252–272.) Due to the long transition periods and the popular formats of itinerant and reduced schools in the countryside—only in 1957 did every child go to the primary school. The division between education for the common people and the gentry was strongest in the Nordic countries: While Finland had the highest proportion of students in secondary school, the general level of education was the lowest (Rahikainen, 2011; Tuomaala, 2011). The change in access to schooling since the 1960s has therefore been dramatic: Whereas today almost 70% of the younger generation aims to obtain a higher education degree, among their grandparents about the same proportion received the full elementary school certificate.

The focal period of basic education reform in Finland was the 1970s, sometimes characterized as the Golden Era of Educational Reforms (Simola, 2015, pp. 3–26). Three major reforms were carried out. First, comprehensive school reform (1972–1977) replaced the dual-track school system of eight years of compulsory schooling and parallel academically-inclined grammar school with the single, mixed-ability comprehensive school in which all pupils are schooled for nine years. Second, teacher education reform was put into practice from 1973 to 1979 and radically changed the training of primary-school teachers (those who teach at the lower level, Grades 1 to 6, in a comprehensive school). Their training was removed from teacher training colleges and small-town “teacher preparation seminaries” to new university faculties of education that were established as part of the reform and raised to the level of master’s degree in 1979. This dramatically increased the role of educational studies in teacher training, and education as an academic discipline expanded rapidly. Third, the General Syllabus and Degree Reform in Higher Education (1977–1980) abolished the bachelor’s degree: after 1977, all those wishing to become teachers had to earn a master’s degree (Simola, 1993).

It is not possible here to go into the cultural and mental differences between Finnish, Nordic and European people in detail. The point is that these residual traditions of authoritarianism, revolution, and conflict still inform key elements of the Finnish culture and mentality. The spirit of collectivism permeates Finnish schooling culture. But the flip side of this coin has been the very rapid and fundamental change in postindustrial and late-modern culture that is especially apparent in society, science, and technology (Simola, 2005; Simola, 2015, pp. 209–210).

Success and failure in basic education seem to be relative and to reflect intertwined dynamics on four dimensions: policymaking, governance, families’ educational strategies, and classroom culture, emphasizing the contingent, relational, and complex character of political history.

Dynamics in Policymaking: Embedded Equality Meets Traveling Equity

The core policymaking tensions in Finnish basic schooling are found in area of equality policy. Finnish policymaking dynamics operate between the social-democratic agrarian tradition of equality and the market-liberalist version of equity that emerged in Finland in the late 1980s. The former emphasizes the similarity of students and everybody’s right to receive decent schooling, and is based on the belief that it is possible to run schooling that is “good enough” for everybody. Here, it is an absolute value to have common compulsory schooling for the offspring of people from every sociocultural stratum of society. The latter emphasizes the differences among students and everybody’s right to receive schooling that fits his or her capacities, needs, and individuality. It is no longer assumed that one and the same school is good for everybody. This discourse is similar to the one prevailing before the pre-comprehensive era, used to legitimize parallel schools .

Embedded Equalitarianism of Workers and Peasants

After decades of struggles, the 1970s ushered in a period of apparent consensus in the comprehensive school discussion that continued until the early 1990s. The then general director of the National Board of Education (NBE), who was a member of the conservative Coalition Party, Vilho Hirvi, stated in 1998 that though the comprehensive-school reform had been an initiative of the Left and the Centre, “all the brainy people did c[o]me gradually along.” This unanimity culminated in the early 1980s, when it was decided to eliminate streaming from the just established Peruskoulu. Only five Members of Parliament voted against the reform of the law. Since that time, equality (tasa-arvo) or, more precisely, equality of opportunity, has been cemented as a sacred foundation and aim of Finnish education policy.11

This policy consensus has been, however, ostensible and fragile. Along with consensual education policymaking have been moves to establish alternative pedagogies and alternative curricula for talented and special groups of students and different kinds of private and specialized schools (Numminen, 1994, pp. 143–150). Yet there is little evidence that these current policies have in any way altered tenacious patterns in the reproduction of sociocultural capital, positions, and power (Rinne ja Vuorio-Lehti, 1996, p. 161).

This history in part explains how Finland can be considered a late participant in mainstream liberal and liberal economic discourses. Finland’s position between the East and the West framed and restricted international cooperation of the country until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of socialism in Europe in the 1990s. In particular, because of its geopolitical position after WWII, Finland’s relations with the neighboring USSR framed all of its international cooperation until the collapse of the socialist camp in Europe in the early 1990s. During the Cold War, the most important international cooperative direction in official Finnish education policy, realized by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) and the NBE, was first, toward other Nordic countries and second, toward the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In fact, Finland joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) only in 1969, the last of the Nordic countries to do so, and it took several years before Finnish participation grew beyond diplomatic representation.

Traveling Liberalist “Equitarianism”

The Finnish political initiative shifted clearly to the right as early as in 1987, when the conservative National Coalition Party became the prime ministerial party after election victory following a long period on the sidelines. Changes affecting the growing interest in evaluation policies in education were realized in the context of the changing political atmosphere and the deep economic recession of 1991–1993. In 1987, prime minister Harri Holkeri’s right–left coalition cabinet aimed to bring about an essential change in Finnish politics. As far as education was concerned, this marked the end of the deal between the Central and Social Democratic parties in the MEC and the NBE, and the right wing was set to dominate state educational discourse. The posts of the ministers of education also fell to right-wing ministers for more than a decade.

In a high-profile address in 1987 to mark the beginning of the new era, Prime Minister Holkeri redefined the central concept of Finnish education policy. In this vocabulary, people were different in terms of capacity, and “equality” meant the right of every pupil to receive education that corresponded to his or her prerequisites and expectations, rather than the delivery of universal Bildung for everybody regardless of his or her sociocultural background. It was clear that this definition referred to equity rather than to equality. As a symptom of the symbolic power of equality in Finnish educational discourse, there is no analogous concept for equity, even though there is available terminology (oikeus “right”, oikeudenmukaisuus “justice” or “legality”, reiluus, “fairness”).

Thus the concept of equality was used in two potentially contrasting ways. These two conceptions were connected in a curious formulation in the first document published by the newly established (in 2003) Educational Evaluation Council:

The economic and social welfare of Finnish society is based on an egalitarian public system of schooling. Its mission is to guarantee for every citizen both [emphasis added] educational opportunities of good quality regardless of his/her sex, dwelling place, age, mother tongue and economic position [equality] and [emphasis added] the right to tuition accordant with his/her capabilities and special needs and his/her self-development [equity].

(FEEC, 2004, p. 5)

One may claim that this formulation crystallizes one of the strengths of the Finnish basic education policy: The Red Soil (social democratic and agrarian parties) equality and (usually Conservative) market-liberalist equity are not necessarily seen antagonistic but rather complementary.

Recession and PISA Strengthens Equalitarianism

Something unexpected and dramatic happened in Finland in the early 1990s. The recession of 1991–1993 heralded the deepest peacetime crisis the country had ever experienced. The international economic recession, an overheated national economy, the collapse of trade with the Soviet Union, the unsuccessful and badly-timed inauguration of the monetary policy, and, finally, a grave bank crisis all coincided to bring about an economic crash comparable only to the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to many indicators, the Finnish crisis was the sharpest and deepest among the advanced liberal countries facing economic problems during the 1990s (Kiander & Virtanen, 2002; Rinne et al., 2002; Simola, Rinne, & Kivirauma, 2002).

The recession not only speeded up market-liberalist changes but also strengthened the Nordic egalitarian ethos. Sirkka Ahonen (2003), for example, has argued that the recession changed the political atmosphere against market liberalism and back to traditional Nordic welfare values, and thus common comprehensive schooling. Ahonen’s argument is plausible in the context of the then current national plan to restructure the education system. The deep economic recession had made the value of the safety nets clear even to the middle classes. No political actors in the late 1990s were willing to question the rhetoric of the “equality in education” discourse (Grek, Lawn, Lingard, & Varjo, 2009, p. 12; see also Kallo & Rinne, 2006; Patomäki, 2007; Simola et al., 2002). Similarly, no political actors among research interviewees in the late 1990s and early 2000s were willing to accept neoliberalism as an emblematic concept for Finnish policymaking (Rinne et al., 2002; Simola et al., 2002).

In the context of a major economic recession, the Finnish success in the PISA studies was unexpected. Finland had previously done well in traditional school-performance assessments, such as those run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), but was never a top performer. It is curious and also symptomatic that nobody in Finland predicted the Finnish success before publication of the PISA studies. Until the 2000s, the great majority of both research and policy specialists and the public thought that Peruskoulu worked reasonably well on a good average level, as evidenced in various international school attainment comparisons. Among parents, elites, and the media, it was largely considered good enough, but far from excellent.

A vocal minority, however, viewed the Finnish school system as a catastrophe. Just two weeks before the publication of the first PISA 2000 report, on November 24, 2001, the influential and powerful Confederation of Finnish Industries and Employers (CIE), which had been fiercely criticizing Peruskoulu since the early 1980s, organized an autumn seminar at one of Helsinki’s main conference venues, Finlandia Hall.12 Key players in business and industry once again criticized Finnish comprehensive schools for their mediocrity and ineffectiveness, citing international evaluations of their quality and efficiency. This time they argued in particular for more competition and better conditions for private schools. Following the first PISA report, published on December 7, 2001, the CIE became completely mute about Peruskoulu.

Contrary to the critical campaign of the CIE, Peruskoulu apparently enjoys the trust of the general public and also of the political and even economic elite, which is not the case in many countries. Before the first PISA reports, the leading business magazine in Finland (Talouselämä 3/2001) published a cover-page article on comprehensive schools in 2001 advocating the need for more resources to protect the Finnish school system from serious deterioration in quality. Similarly, one of the leading periodicals in Finland (Suomen Kuvalehti 34/2001) made clear in its cover-page article entitled “On the Strong Pupil’s Terms” that recent market- and competition-oriented school reforms had meant “increasing differences, leaving the weak in the shadow of and in competition with the well-off.”

In 2008, the global financial crisis again pushed the Finnish governments to start austerity politics and all the way until 2016 cuts and savings touched also the education sector.

Conclusion: Buffering Embedded Egalitarianism

Three distinctive elements of Finnish society explain how egalitarianism is embedded in Finnish institutions and culture. First, key elements of modernity that developed successively in European countries developed relatively later in Finnish history, during the 1960s, which saw expansions in popular education, industrialization, and the construction of the welfare state. This unique conjunction created a strong collective experience of causality between the extension of formal education and simultaneous social advancement; hence the strong Finnish belief in schooling as the vehicle for social ascent.

Second, the late but rapid move from an agricultural to a postindustrial society set a foundation of social-democratic-agrarian egalitarianism. It seems plausible, however, that this egalitarianism would not have withstood the challenge of market liberalism if two contingent events had not provided a buffer: the revival of trust in the egalitarian Peruskoulu among the middle classes following the deep recession of 1991–1993, and the unanticipated PISA success since 2001.

Third, even though Finnish educationalists have been very open to pedagogical influences, especially from the Anglo-American world, there is still ample evidence of a stubborn sense of national exclusivity, especially in relation to social egalitarianism. One could also say that Peruskoulu took pleasure in its self-confident and visionary but sustainable leadership from the 1960s until the mid-1990s. Up until the early 21st century, embedded egalitarianism has had the edge over the emergence of market-liberalism as a dominant educational and political ideology, largely due to its buffering not least from the PISA success.

To sum up, Finnish policymaking has oscillated between the social-democratic agrarian tradition of equality and the market-liberal approach to equity that emerged in the late 1980s, with the latter increasing in political force. The dynamics that are created in interaction between these two discursive formations could be characterized as embedded egalitarianism buffering against the new transnational policies of market liberalism supported by the OECD.

Dynamics in Governance: The Radical Municipal Autonomy Intertwined with Evaluation for Development

In Finnish basic education, evaluation policy has been a key element of the system since the early 1990s. Its adoption marked a shift in Finnish governance, from one of the most centralized governments in Europe to one of the least centralized. Coinciding with radical moves toward municipal and local school autonomy, the affiliated “soft” implementation of evaluation was part of a larger “culture of trust” that emerged in the 1990s. This was partly a deliberate policy move, but also one characterized by a series of historical coincidences.

From Strict Centered Tradition to Radical Decentralization

The tradition of strong centralization is a peculiarity of Finnish political culture. It has its historical roots in the traditional position under the rule of Swedish Crown (1249–1809) and the Russian Tsar (1809–1917). This relation between the strong state and a weak civil society prevailed for centuries and continued during the later nation‑ and state‑building processes in independent Finland. It has left relatively limited space for any “free” civic society. However, from the 19th century onward, civic movements and the state have evolved, working together toward common aims, rather than as rivals in contradictory positions (Alapuro & Stenius, 1987). Nordic state-centered tradition with certain eastern flavors has always dominated the Finnish administrative culture, and still does.13

The new administrative landscape in the early 1990s differed radically from the old one. Normative, centralized government control over schools and teachers was replaced with a management-by-results approach and information steering and evaluation (Laukkanen, 1994, 1997, 1998). As Hirvi, as new director general of the NBE, put it:

Genuine management by results in the educational sector has two fundamental elements: first, a steering unit that sets the goals and gives resources, and second, a level that creates the products and services, i.e., the schools…. The National Curriculum Framework sets the central objectives for learning and education that define the teaching objectives for obligatory, optional and elective subjects, etc. The municipal or school-based curriculum, in turn, expresses how these objectives are to be achieved…. The evaluation of efficiency means assessing how the main idea and the main objectives in the area in question have been realized.

(Hirvi, 1991)

By the early 1990s, all traditional forms of control over the teacher’s work, such as school inspections, the imposition of a detailed national curriculum, officially approved teaching materials, weekly timetables based on the subjects taught, and class diaries in which the teacher had to record what was taught each hour had been eliminated. The only remaining control mechanism is a set minimum numbers of lessons to be taught in each subject in each school. The School inspectors, traditionally hated by teachers and municipalities, opposed the idea of local freedom. All these traditional means of control were to be replaced by evaluations, carried out by municipal and national authorities.

The recession of 1991–1993 called for some creative responses to the economic changes. It is widely accepted that without shifting decision-making to the local level, the municipalities could not have been made to reduce spending as much as they did during the recession. Thus, the new decentralized and deregulated mode of governance was melded into the economic principles of savings and cutbacks. The 1992 Central Government Acts and the 1995 Local Government Act14 radically increased local autonomy and strengthened the judicial position of the municipalities. Hirvi noted in in 1998 that autonomy was the only way the make the necessary cuts during the recession.15

The essential role of evaluation was legitimized in the 1999 Basic Education Act. A statutory evaluation system was considered necessary in the move from norm steering to the control and evaluation of outcomes. The new purpose of evaluation was said to be “to support the development of education and improve conditions of learning.” Guided by the Ministry of Education, the NBE decided on the means by which to accomplish the evaluation procedures. The organizers (mainly the municipalities) were obligated to evaluate the education they provided and to submit to external evaluations of their operations. Moreover, the act stipulated a common but vaguely articulated norm requiring that the results be made public: “The main results of evaluations shall be published.”16

During the1990s, there were clear attempts to create both a final examination for the comprehensive school and comparative league tables. However, only the Confederation of Finnish Industries and Employers (CIE) openly supported the ranking of schools. If the final examination had been realized (as proposed some key actors of the field17), publication of the lists would have been inevitable. In that light, the decision to base the evaluation on the national, sample-based, learning-result assessment was historically decisive.18

The early 2000s was a rather busy period in the pursuit of school-based ranking. The stand against publishing the reports taken by virtually all education authorities was tested in court in two separate appeals, in 2000 and 2003, to regional administrative courts challenging municipal education authorities’ decisions not to publish school-specific information on the comprehensive schools (Simola, 2006). Research interviews by Ozga, Dahler-Larsen, Segerholm, and Simola (2011)19 featured some vivid descriptions of the shock, on both the central and the municipal level, this decision produced. Despite the 2005 court order only a couple of provincial newspapers have published school-specific evaluation results or taken any actions in that direction. The silence here was indicative of the Finnish egalitarian ethos concerning league tables and school-specific evaluation results in general. Many municipalities were in strong agreement on not evaluating schools in such a way that the results could be used to produce ranking lists.

At the national level, the Quality Assurance and Evaluation (QAE) discourse has at least four specific characteristics. First, at the most general level, since the middle of the 1990s official texts have repeatedly stated that the evaluation is “for developing educational services and not an instrument of administrative control” (e.g., ME, 1995, p. 55, 1996, p. 85). Second, the information produced through evaluation serves the administrative bodies and the schools rather than the public or families. Third, practically no education official or politician has supported the provision of ranking lists or making schools transparent in competition by comparing them in terms of average performance indicators. Finally, Finland has not followed the Anglo-Saxon accountability movement in education, which advocates making schools and teachers accountable for learning results. The only standardized, high-stakes assessment is the matriculation examination at the end of upper-secondary school before students enroll in tertiary education. Prior to this, no external national tests or exams are required (Aho et al., 2006, p. 12).

It can be concluded that, until now, the Finnish antipathy toward ranking, combined with a bureaucratic tradition and a developmental approach to QAE strengthened by radical municipal autonomy, have represented two national and local embedded policies that have been effective in resisting a transnational policy of testing and ranking. It is significant, however, that both of these are curious combinations of conscious, unintended, and contingent factors.

A Culture of Trust?

In a curious and ambitious publication, three ex-officials of the NBE attempted to find explanations for the Finnish success in education surveys such as the PISA. They call the new period of education policy in Finland since the early 1990s “the era of trust” (Aho et al., 2006, p. 12). In research interviews with state-level politicians conducted by Rinne et al. (2002) and Simola et al. (2002) in the late 1990s, there was a unanimity about the superiority of local decision-making. According to the interviewees, expertise rested in the municipalities and in the schools, and it could only be drawn on if decision-making power was at the local level. This was a remarkable contrast to the international discourse on neo-liberal education. While in many countries the motives inspiring market-driven accountability policies were based on distrust, in Finland the same ideology was motivated by trust.

One should not overstate the rhetoric of trust, however. The basic idea was clearly expressed by then secretary general of the Ministry of Education: Evaluation is a pivotal element in the new steering system since it “replaces the tasks of the old normative steering, control and inspection system” (Hirvi, 1996, p. 93).

Since the 1990s attempts have been made by many national institutional actors to push through evaluation in educational and governing discourses. In summing up the administrative reforms of the 1990s, however, the evaluation group for educational administration in Finland stated:

One of the most serious institutional issues in our educational system is the unsatisfactory relation between the State and the municipalities…. The decentralization level of the educational administration in Finland is one of the highest in Europe, according to the information of the OECD

(Temmes et al., 2002, pp. 92, 129, emphasis in original)

At the same time, a European Commission study on the evaluation of schools providing compulsory education in Europe stated that Finland is one of the few European countries—the others being Italy and Norway—in which there is no direct control from the national to the school level (Eurydice, 2004)

It seems evident that the local autonomy and trust in the education administration was only partly conscious. On the one hand, there had been a decade-long plans to ventilation of necessity to decentralize and to deregulate school administration. The recession provided an opportunity but also a compulsion to execute it without resistance. Some education officials and policymakers did trust the Finnish schools and their teachers, and some others did not. In sum, the 1990s yielded a situation where nearly all traditional means of control were abolished, and from the point of central government the new means did not work due to the municipal autonomy.

Conclusion: Redistributive but Punctuated Trust

The extremely detailed and centralized governance by norms culminated in the mid-1980s and succumbed to the New Public Management wave in the 1990s. The 1991–1993 recession stirred up the discussion, and in the mid-1990s Finland moved from extreme centralism and regulation to the opposite. All the ante norm mechanisms were abolished in the early 1990s, to be replaced with post quality assurance and evaluation (QAE).

However, in the mid-1990s radical municipal autonomy led unexpectedly to the conclusion that nobody on the national level had the legal right to prescribe norms on how the municipalities should run their schools. Deregulation and decentralization reduced governance to parliamentary legislation covering basic education and the distribution of classroom hours, and the NBE’s national Curriculum Framework. Even though there was a conscious preference among policymakers for a soft and developing QAE model instead of a hard and controlling system, this kind of freedom was nobody’s conscious aim but was rather a contingent result of the three coincidences referred to earlier—the radicalizing great recession, the revival of trust in Peruskoulu, and the PISA success—all of which politically buffered the decisions made.

As a result, the Finnish school system became the most decentralized and deregulated in Europe. What emerged was a unique culture of trust in basic schooling. Despite the new public management rhetoric, however, the effects of the QAE practices on the local level have been only moderate. The new balance in central–local relations and the overall constitutive dynamics in governance can also be characterized as “punctuated trust,” which gave a strong redistributive impetus to municipal school authorities and teachers—not just to survive the budget cuts and reductions of the 1990s recession, but also to capitalize on the new freedom to develop distinctive local policies and practices in terms of both pedagogy and the provision of basic education.

Families’ Educational Strategies: Trust Peruskoulu but Put My Offspring First

Dynamics in families’ educational strategies especially since the 1990s appears to be based on a tension between strong social trust in the Peruskoulu model and the universal pursuit of distinction among the middle classes. The result is a curious national hybrid in which a kind of rustic modesty and egalitarianism sit alongside the recognition of the legitimacy of parental aspirations for their offspring.

Trust to Peruskoulu Meets the New Social Space for School Choice

As to the state and society in general, trust in social institutions, including Peruskoulu, is exceptionally high in Finland.20 A Finnish researcher launched a survey research project in 1995 concerning parental attitudes toward comprehensive schools (Räty, Snellman, Mäntysaari-Hetekorpi, & Vornanen, 1995). The results showed that parents of comprehensive-school pupils were quite satisfied. The respondents were most satisfied with the teaching (86%), cooperation (74%), and assessment (71%), although over 60% of them also positively assessed issues to do with equality and representation. Even on the subject of individuality, on which attitudes were most negative, more parents were satisfied (48%) than dissatisfied (28%). Finnish parents felt also strongly about equality, and did not support the tenets of market-oriented schooling or the ideology of competition and giftedness. On the contrary, they were worried about the inequality of educational opportunities. It is symptomatic and significant, however, that parents from the upper-level employee strata were more apt to criticize the school system for overlooking differences in giftedness; whereas the attitudes of working-class parents toward the system were generally more favorable.21

This conclusion was supported by the comparative survey Nordisk Skolbarometer (“Nordic School Barometer”; 2001). Respondents comprising a sample of the overall population and of parents with school-aged children in the Nordic countries were asked what they thought about contemporary schooling. The Finns were clearly most satisfied with their schools, especially with how they had been able to provide their offspring with knowledge and skills in different subjects. They were not in agreement with their Nordic neighbors that the academic requirements at school were too low, for example.

As a cornerstone of the continuity and consensus in Finnish educational policy, belief in education as an agent for social equality has remained stronger than in many other advanced liberal countries. There are various reasons for the durability of that belief. Both the educational authorities and the political parties have strongly committed themselves to the aim of educational equality. Furthermore, the educational administration and its staff were molded in the “golden age” of equal opportunity on the policy level. Finally, quite apart from the traditional social-democratic thinking on equality, there has been a strong rural tradition since the nineteenth century to regard education as an important channel for upward mobility in society (Antikainen, 1990, p. 79). Research interviews with school-level actors have provided evidence of this (Simola & Hakala, 2001; Simola, 2002, 2015, pp. 73–74).

Until the 1990s, the Finnish comprehensive school was rather rigid and uniform. Only exceptions were selective classes for music, rare languages, and, curiously enough, schools based on the Waldorf (called Steiner schools in Finland) and Montessori pedagogies. There were also a few elite schools, especially in Helsinki, but in general the Finnish school was uniform with no specialties or streaming. The proportion of the private schools has been less than 3 percent; in Helsinki, however, a fifth of the pupils go to the private and non-city schools, which makes those schools essential players in the local policymaking.22

Abolishment of the formal school districts and intake areas in the mid-1990s freed the municipalities to decide how to organize their schools. This culminated in the Basic Education Law in 1998, which created a space for soft school-choice policies. It is noteworthy that refraining from final testing and ranking prevented the establishment of a strong competition discourse for families. The Finnish schools still officially, but also publicly, appeared equal and of uniform quality (Rinne, Carrasco, & Flores, 2015).

Besides opening the school-choice option, the Basic Education Law in 1998 created another essential novelty to differentiate the Finnish comprehensive school. Called “emphasized tuition” (painotettu opetus) it was an option to add to the school-based curriculum some extra hours of teaching in whatever subjects or themes. When the law was being drafted, emphasized tuition was not problematized at all because the tuition was thought to mean for the pupils only part-time diversification (based on the subject that was emphasised), rather than establishing totally elective classes. However, in highly autonomous municipalities, especially in cities but also the bigger towns, the emphasized tuition, and particularly selective classes, became a key factor in school choice for the parents. And teachers quickly discovered that the emphasized classes were a way to teach selected groups of students (Seppänen et al., 2015; Simola et al., 2015).

The radical municipal autonomy, created during and in response to the recession in 1991–1993, therefore, set the grounds for a laboratory of different municipal policymaking in schooling (Varjo, Kalalahti, & Silvennoinen, 2015). As a result, Finland, in less than a decade, turned from being one of the most centralized European nations to one of the most decentralized in basic education policy. Decentralization together with the free-school-choice policy led to situation in which municipalities became diverged in terms of option for school choice. As a result some municipalities expanded their school-choice policies. Seppänen et al. (2015) examined parental choice policy in the five biggest cities in Finland. The share of pupils in selective emphasized classes (erikoisluokat) varied from city to city by 10% to nearly 40%. While taking into account the portion of the special education (erityisopetus), in the most extreme case, only half of pupils studied in a “normal,” nonselected class, while another half were moved into a selected class.

The conclusions of that major study (Seppänen et al., 2015) are as follows: First, if the city actively offers options for parental school choice, an substantial number of families tend to capitalize on those. If there is virtually no space for school choice, the great majority of parents accept this. In this regard, school choice is based on supply rather than on demand. Second, the uniform and equal comprehensive school system is supported by a great majority of parents: only 14 percent of the families wished there were more private schools, and 27 percent welcomed bringing more diversification to the comprehensive school. Third, according to the hypothesis of the study, parental choice created a conflict between good parenthood and good citizenship among the parents. This tension appeared most clearly among parents supporting the Greens in Finland but also among many well-educated parents, especially if they workeding in the public sector. These parents strongly supported the uniform and equal comprehensive school but, at the same time, most often put their offspring to other than a neighborhood school or into an emphasized class. Finally, the interest in school choice and the final decision to use it did not match but were instead mediated by educational, social, and economic capitals. While the Greens were at one end of the continuum here, the supporters of the right-wing populist Finns Party were at another: they wished for ranking lists and absolutely free school choice, but they rarely exercised that choice.

Teachers are also divided on emphasized tuition. According to a study done by the Trade Union of Education in Finland (Opetusalan Ammattijärjestö, OAJ), “teachers are split in this question quite clearly in two parts. Some think it is a very good policy that the schools may be specialized. The others think that emphasized tuition is exactly the issue that produces inequality” (Silvander, 2012, September 7). The disagreement seems to follow the historical division among Finnish comprehensive school teachers.23 On the one side are the lower secondary school teachers, the subject teachers who identify themselves as socially higher and tend to support “market schools” and privatization. On another side are the primary-school teachers, that is, the classroom teachers who identify as socially lower and worry about inequality and dividing the comprehensive school.

In 2017, public emotion run high in the discussions of emphasized tuition. Critics of the program view emphasized tuition vehicle for social segregation (Kosunen et al., 2016; Kosunen, 2016). Yet the right to select the classmates of your offspring will be extremely difficult to reverse once implemented; the middle classes will not easily relinquish these practical means to increase their status through education.24

Conclusion: Diverging but (Still) Civic Parenthood

The social contract between the middle and other classes that led to the establishment of the comprehensive school system in the 1970s began to lose strength during the 1990s, a decade later than it did in other European countries. More choice was allowed in the national curriculum; schools were encouraged to “profile” themselves; and a parental school choice policy was implemented. Although Finland’s national housing policy has traditionally aimed to distribute social groups evenly across neighborhoods, the social and ethnic composition in public schools located in less advantaged urban areas created problems for the realization of the educational expectations of many parents in Finland, too.25

In the post-recession hype of Peruskoulu rehabilitation, the political reaction to these middle-class pressures emphasized the principles of neighborhood schooling and a fully comprehensive system in the late 1990s: the former stating the absolute right (and duty) of every pupil to get into their neighborhood school, and the latter abolishing the historical division between the lower level (i.e., primary school, taught by classroom teachers) and the upper level (the three classes, i.e., the lower-secondary level, taught by subject teachers).

Municipal autonomy has thus turned Finland into an education-policy laboratory, and there are drastic differences in parental school-choice policies between neighboring cities. One of the biggest cities, Vantaa, has created a model in concord with the current legislation: there is virtually no parental choice but pupil-intake areas are flexible and drawn so that the schools will be filled with neighborhood pupils. What is remarkable here is that the parents have not strongly criticized the Vantaa model26; and even more significantly, the Vantaa model is essentially cheaper than the models encouraging parental school choice.

The constitutive dynamics at the level of families’ educational strategies emerged between the trust in Peruskoulu felt by Finnish families and the universal middle-class pursuit of distinction and privileged social status that began to spark public discussion only in the 1990s. There is a curious paradox in the Finnish family view of schooling. On the one hand, Finns share a strong belief in schooling as a means for social advancement. On the other hand, basic schooling was long seen to be much like military service for all: an obligation rather than a right. Traditionally, parents rarely challenge teachers on their treatment of their children; rather they think of school as a gateway to society and just keep their fingers crossed for the supported and successful emergence of their offspring. At the same time, parental trust in Peruskoulu seemed to be rather high by international comparison.

The dynamics between families and the discourses of Finnish school choice policy thus may be characterized as diverging but (still) civic parenthood in two senses. First, the term civic particularizes the specific property, and second, the verb (diverging) refers to the main effect of the specific dynamics. This, then, is a way of describing constitutive relations between human actors and educational institutions. It tells us that some dynamics are defensive or preventive, while others are offensive or forward oriented.

Dynamics in Classroom Cultures: A Paradoxical Hybrid of Old and New

Dynamics in classroom culture appears to be based in Finland on two strong and conflicting but also interweaving discourses, a tradition of formal and social pedagogy and a top-down implemented individualist didactics of Peruskoulu.

Conflicting and Interweaving Discursive Practices

Pedagogical individualism entered into Finnish educational discourse quite late, compared to the country’s Nordic neighbors. In fact, the principle of individualized teaching was not part of the Finnish pedagogical vocabulary before the 1960s. Linked with the moral and civic curriculum codes, keywords even in the Finnish new school movement in the 1930s had been Die Arbeitschule (the workplace), that is, workbooks and social education rather than child-centered individualism. The strong Herbart-Zillerian27 tradition in Finnish teacher training was phased out only in the late 1940s through the introduction of a new textbook of didactics for teacher training. It was written by Matti Koskenniemi, a leading academic in Finnish education throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and strongly influenced by a social education mission (Simola, 1998). Koskenniemi based his textbook on the social psychology of the classroom, permeated by the ethos of social education. The school context with its historically formed, compulsory, and mass character is explicitly present and is tuned to molding the institutional life of a group of future citizens. Therefore, one may claim that child-centered progressivism came into Finnish schooling from the top and through reform. In 1970, the massive two-volume National Curriculum became the “Peruskoulu Bible.” Thereafter, the reform discourse was dominated by the view that feudal field teachers represented obstacles to reform; therefore, reforming teacher training was very high on the political agenda.28

Individualist rhetoric in education-policy documents of the late 1980s and early 1990s was strong. These pursuits materialized as enthusiasm for so-called non-graded tuition (vuosiluokkiin sitomaton opetus [VSOP]) throughout the education system, from preschool to vocational education. VSOP was officially seen as “one stage of development in moving toward non-graded comprehensive schooling” and fully individualized tuition (Apajalahti & Kartovaara, 1995; Merimaa, 1996). In 1994 extensive experiments organized by the National Board of Education (NBE), were launched for developing VSOP (Hellström, 2004; Mehtäläinen, 1997; Merimaa, 1996).

During the late 1990s, however, one sees a clear move from “free choice” to the “prevention of exclusion” in the rhetoric. In 1991, the social problems caused by the recession were apparent to everybody. This new social reality dampened the enthusiasm for individualized and flexible tuition. The focus of the education discussion moved to dangers of exclusion and to the pupils having problems in school. A developmental project under way does capture well the recent emphasis in its title: “Different Learners—Common School” (2004). The social had its comeback as communitarian formulations of learning in the 2004 Curriculum Framework but now it was stronger than ever and flavored with ideas of entrepreneurship.

Interestingly enough, there is very limited research evidence on what really happened in the Finnish classrooms. The little there is, however, offers no support to broad prevalence of individualizing practices. From the late 1980s, empirical research (Leiwo et al., 1987) based on videotaped lessons concluded that the model of verbal interaction in classrooms seems to have remained the same: the teacher talks more than two thirds of the time, and the pupils give short responses. The final characterization of the Finnish comprehensive school classroom was crushing: a “wasteland not only of intelligence but also of emotions.”

Nearly 10 years later, in 1996, a British evaluation team reported on their empirical excursion to Finnish classrooms. The team visited, observed, and interviewed principals, teachers, and students in 50 schools that were selected because they were pilot schools or otherwise interested in the then curriculum reform. What is essential here is that they were clearly examples of the so-called good and innovative schools in Finland. The report, which showed how poorly the curriculum reform was being realized at the school level, was a scandal and a disappointment to its subscribers. It can be said, however, that the most interesting notions and observations in the report concerned the pedagogical practices of Finnish comprehensive schools:

Whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher. Rows and rows of children all doing the same thing in the same way whether it be art, mathematics or geography. We have moved from school to school and seen almost identical lessons, you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference….

… In both the lower and upper comprehensive school, we did not see much evidence of, for example, student-centered learning or independent learning.

(Norris et al., 1996, pp. 29, 85)

There is contradictory information on the implementation of individualizing pedagogy, such as VSOP. On the one hand, it is mentioned and explained in a half page of the brand new national Framework Curriculum from 2016, and it is mentioned in the home sites of various cities and municipalities. On the other hand, the latest large-scale evaluation report of the Centre for Educational Assessment (Atjonen et al., 2008) on the pedagogical practices in basic schooling does not mention it at all.

However, in two studies Simola and Hakala (2001) and Simola (2002) saw the changes in schools during the 1990s as progress. Phenomena that were most frequently and positively mentioned by interviewees, almost without any negative connotations, included increasing autonomy in schools, increasing cooperation among teachers (and also with other professionals and agencies), discussions on basic values and the tasks of the school (which took place in teachers’ lounges during the implementation of the school-based curriculum), an emphasis on the needs and interests of individual pupils, the opening of the school to society (and also opening classroom doors), bringing the teacher out of the classroom, and offering broader choice for parents and pupils. Nevertheless, the comments were almost always accompanied by strong reservations. The main changes had been carried out in the early 1990s, during the recession, which had resulted in considerable cuts in school budgets.

A few studies on Finnish teachers from the 2000s have given a clear picture of a profession that is committed to its traditional work in the classroom but resists and strongly criticizes the innovation wave. According to a survey conducted by Santavirta et al. (2001; see also Virta & Kurikka, 2001), eight out of ten Finnish teachers see their work as rewarding, like it, and are strongly involved in it. What appears to stress them the most is the “extra work” they are required to do, meetings, planning, and reporting, for example, not the basic classroom work. Syrjäläinen (2002) interviewed teachers about their experiences of and attitudes toward recent school reforms and innovations. She summarized their critical thinking as follows: Reforms mean too heavy a work load; teachers have no say in the innovations; the development work is too often chaotic, the sphere of teachers’ responsibilities has been extended too far; only lip service is paid to professional responsibility and competence; and there is too much unrealistic and even dangerous development work (pp. 90–100).

Traditional teaching seems to be alive and well in the early 21st century. According to a recent comparative TALIS study (Taajamo et al., 2014, pp. 40–41), the Finnish lower secondary teachers gave less than in other participating 34 countries different tasks to different students (37% and 44%, respectively); prefer less group work (34% and 47%, respectively); refer less often to everyday problems in teaching (64% and 68%, respectively) and give less literal feedback to students (25% and 54%, respectively). It is obvious that these findings do not provide evidence of student-centered constructive pedagogy but rather the contrary.

There is a curious paradox in the latest large-scale evaluation report of the Centre for Educational Assessment (Atjonen et al., 2008) on the pedagogical culture of Finnish schools. The report makes an optimistic conclusion though the evidence is based on a covering survey and visits (interviews, discussions, and around 50 classroom observations) in 12 schools.

On the one hand, the evaluation group found a very positive development in student centeredness in teachers’ attitudes and rhetoric. The report concludes that the pedagogical pursuits and attitudes of “the big part of teachers” are student centered and that their starting point in decisions of individualization of teaching is based on listening, supporting, and encouraging the students (Atjonen et al., 2008, p. 142). The school-based curricula was student centered and the visits in schools evidenced this in practice, too (p. 141). There seem to have been positive developments, they say, since the Norris study in the 1990s but not as fast as desired (p. 122). On the other hand, teacher-centered methods seemed still to dominate (pp. 121–122), and the evaluators also noticed resistance against those (p. 136; see also Heinonen, 2005; Kankainen, 2001; Kupari & Reinikainen, 2004; Reinikainen, 2007; Virta & Kurikka, 2001). Two thirds of teachers said that they emphasize individualizing and differentiating teaching only a little or not at all when choosing their methods in classroom. The evaluators state that this was also evident in school visits (p. 199). Thus it seems that the most of the teachers—nine out of ten (p. 194)—adopted individualizing rhetoric, but just a minority—one third (p. 199)—seemed to be able or even willing to put it into the practice.

A further interesting finding of the Atjonen et al. (2008) report had to do with the relationship between parents and the school.

The most important outside quarter of the school are the guardians of the students. Nine out of the ten teachers announce, however, that while planning their teaching they take the expectations of the guardians into account only slightly or not at all. It is possible to interpret this that teachers pursuit to possess their expertise in teaching in their own hands and separated from the parenting tasks of the parents.

(p. 204)

This notion confirms the persistence of a characteristic that rather sharply distinguished Finnish teachers from their Nordic colleagues in the turn of the millennium comparative study (Klette et al., 2002; Simola, 2002; Simola & Hakala, 2001):

The teachers rarely mentioned the forging of close relationships with families and parents as a basic task. Although new forms of verbal evaluation and increased choice entailed more frequent communication with families, they seemed to be quite happy with the traditional relations. Without asking for much individual treatment, families are supposed to leave their children at school, which is seen as a legitimate representative of society.

(Simola, 2015, p. 164)

It is tempting to think that at least some of the authority of Finnish teachers is based on their relatively strong professional identity, which enables them to season their traditional teaching with innovation. It is also tempting to think that at least some of the obedience of Finnish students stems from a natural acceptance of authority and an ethos of respect for teachers. Some of the observations of the British evaluation group appear to support this positive interpretation:

Without exception the schools appeared as calm, secure places for pupils to work. Finnish pupils seemed generally well behaved; problems of order and discipline were few and confined to individuals or small groups…. There appeared to be concern for others, and respect for property. Teachers’ relationships with pupils generally demonstrated caring and mutual respect, and there was little sense of teachers needing to exercise strict discipline or authority….

… These [observation] examples were deliberately drawn from the whole range of schools, and include examples of teaching in both upper and lower comprehensives. No doubt some of them reflected high-quality teaching and considerable professional skill within the formal whole-class instructional tradition, and there is little doubt that in the best cases, the pupils enjoyed the lessons enormously and probably learned a lot.

(Norris et al., 1996, pp. 39, 62)

The findings of Simola et al. (2015)29 support the conclusion that Finnish comprehensive school pedagogy in practice appears to be a curious combination of traditional, teacher-centered tuition and progressive, student-centered caring. The Local Education Authority of Helsinki has collected dense longitudinal data on both socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds of students and the learning results of its schools. This data shows clearly the strong and internationally well-known connection between those things. Simola et al. focused on three primary schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Helsinki. Those schools clearly achieved better learning results on nationally standardized tests than was statistically predicted by the economic, social, and cultural factors of the schools’ catchment area; that is, the schools outperformed other schools in similarly disadvantaged neighborhoods. Following a year-long field study that included observations, discussions, and interviews in these schools, the authors concluded the following: (a) there was a strong caring and demanding ethos in these schools; (b) the teachers clearly saw themselves as adults and as collectively responsible for the life of the school; and (c) the pedagogical culture of the schools was mostly very traditional, though in all the schools some experiments were also supported.

Conclusion: Consolidating but Paternalistic Progressivism

The dynamics on the level of classroom cultures combine two discourses: a strong Finnish paternalistic pedagogic tradition and pupil-centered progressivism that has mainly been a top-down process, emanating from the national curriculum and teacher education for the comprehensive school system. Even though Finnish teachers appreciate their required master’s degree, they still strongly doubt the “ecological validity” (cf. Neisser, 1976) of educational theories in the reality of the classroom. While the street credibility of child-centered progressivism is not high, the official ideology of academic teacher education has veered toward a curious Finnish Peruskoulu pedagogy that could be characterized as “paternalistic progressivism.”

The Finnish classroom pedagogy seems to be paternalistic in the sense that teachers see themselves as adults keeping a professional distance from pupils and parents; it is progressive in its heavy commitment to the inclusive ideology that is strongly supported in state educational discourse, the efficient special-education and remedial teaching systems, school healthcare and other welfare services, and free school meals for all pupils.

This paternalistic progressivism appears to have had a strongly intensifying effect on everyday schooling. This works well with compulsory schooling—as long as teachers believe in their traditional role and pupils accept their traditional position. Thus paternalistic progressivism functions both reproductively and progressively, as does the schooling system itself: It tends to keep things as they were, but still opens up niches for new practices.

The dynamics at the classroom level could be characterized as paternalistic progressivism, which appears to have had a strongly consolidating effect on everyday schooling. This works well in compulsory schooling—as long as teachers believe in their traditional role and pupils accept their traditional position. Thus paternalistic progressivism functions both reproductively and progressively, as does the schooling itself: it tends to keep things as they were, but still opens up niches for new practices.

The Constitutive Dynamics in Finnish Politics in Basic Schooling

Four constitutive dynamics in Finnish basic schooling have been outlined here: buffering and embedded egalitarianism in policymaking, redistributing but punctuated trust in governance, diverging but (still) civic parenthood in families’ educational strategies and consolidating but paternalistic progressivism in classroom culture (Table 2)

Table 2. Four constitutive discursive principles in our three-dimensional analytical framework

Politicking: The art of playing with contingency Effects

The political situation: Structural frameworks for action Properties

Political Possibilities: discursive capacities enabling action Subjects



and embedded




but punctuated


Families’ Educational Strategies


but civic


Classroom cultures


but paternalistic


It is noteworthy that all the nouns (i.e., egalitarianism, trust, parenthood, and progressivism) referring to dynamics are doubly attributed: first with a term (i.e., embedded, punctuated, civic, and paternalistic) particularizing specific properties, and second, with a verb form (buffering, redistributing, diverging, and consolidating) referring to the main effect of the specific dynamics. These attributions, referring to the actors and institutions, make the main discursive formations dynamic. They reveal, interestingly enough, that some discursive dynamics are defensive, or preventive, whereas others are offensive, or forward oriented, which could have strong implications for the future.

The Finnish experience reflects the extreme difficulty of consciously creating a policy that goes against the grain, against transnational truths, against global consensus. At the same time, Finland has been the model pupil of the OECD and an obdurate defender of worker-peasant egalitarianism. In military language, it could indeed be characterized as a “victory” for prevention that resembles the Finnish combination of wishful thinking and stubborn resistance in the desperate battles against an overpowering enemy in the Second World War: If we can stand just one more day, maybe the world will change and we will be saved. The Finnish “model” of QAE, based on mute consensus rather than a well-articulated political program, reflects the same argumentation. However, it is possible to see that it also includes universal, positive, and offensive elements. It is hard to believe that humankind would survive without such notions as equality, trust, and progress.

Wherever a Finnish educationalist has gone during the last decade, and whatever he or she has been talking about, questions from the audience invariably touch on the Finnish PISA success and the implications of Finnish experiences in education politics. Although there is not yet (and may never will be) a definitive answer, it is safe to refer here to Pasi Sahlberg, who published the first Finnish monograph and international bestseller on this subject (2012, 2014). Written specifically for American markets and from the point of view of policymaking and consultancy, it tells the great success story of sustainable leadership. Nevertheless, its three final conclusions have merit. First, successful basic schooling must depend on those who implement every school reform, in other words, teachers. From this perspective, humiliating school inspections, standardized curricula, and naming-and-shaming ranking lists are more than questionable. Second, efforts must be made to preserve a relaxed and fear-free learning environment for students by keeping testing to the absolute minimum. Third, enhancing trust within educational systems is de rigueur for sustainable success. This means putting responsibility before accountability and “good enough” before excellence, and coming up with an adept combination of embedded national traditions and international insights.

The Future?

On the basis of this analysis of historical and contemporary policy in the Finnish cultural and political context, what are the possible futures related to the four constitutive dynamics in Finnish schooling?

In the dynamics of policymaking, one may perceive a clear pursuit of balance between social and individual equality. This effort has imperiled questions of school choice and emphasized tuition. In different municipalities there are very different policies on these issues. Parents in some cities are encouraged to choose another school than the local school and to find emphasized tuition for their offspring; in other cities, student’s intake areas are drawn so that the school will be filled with the local students, leaving no space for school choice, and emphasized tuition is mainly organized in nonpermanent classes. Examples in various countries show how difficult it is politically withdraw instruments for distinction in public schooling once permitted.

Simola et al. (2015) on school choice distinguished between three conceptualizations of equality in Finnish basic education policy: first, social equality as worker-peasant equality of possibilities of different social groups appeared since the WWII; second, individual equality as liberal view of equity introduced in the late 1980s; and third, inclusive equality as right of challenged and other new groups such as incomers to full-fledged education in conventional schooling arriving in Finland only in the 2000s. It seems focal that social equality should be seen in relation to other dimension of equality as fundamental. Without social equality individual or even inclusive freedoms will not be real freedoms but rather a turn to the privileges of the few.

At the level of dynamics in governance it should find a new kind of balance between centralized and decentralized governance. However, the historically unique experience of vital importance of autonomy and trust is crucial. In recent history of Finland there have been two internationally well-known success stories: Nokia, the multinational communications technology giant, and Peruskoulu. In both cases, success seemed to be based on demolishing hierarchies, on cutting down on controls and thus freeing and encouraging creativity and pleasure to work at the shop-floor level.30 At least in societies with high social trust such as Finland, there is no danger that employees will abuse their freedom but rather to do the same as earlier, just a bit inventively and joyously. It remains to be seen what direction the Finnish education policy will take; in the early 21st century it seems that the dominant discourse is rather that of cutting and saving. The foci for redemptive innovations in Finland appear to be on digitalization rather than politically un-attractive openings, such as supporting the school and classroom creation and experiments.

The dynamics in families’ educational strategies seem clearly to be in state of change in Finland. There is no reason to assume that the increasingly prolific social differentiation and segregation together with free school choice would not produce similar divide in schooling. The tendencies are clear: The number of private schools is increasing slowly but consistently, especially in the Helsinki metropolitan area; the middle and upper classes, including both parents and teachers, are fiercely defending free school choice, emphasized tuition, and selective classes against all the initiatives to limit or even to organize those more reasonably.

However, the fight against segregation is far from hopeless in Finland. What is vital for the equal schooling policy is that first, the great majority of Finns, including the upper and middle classes, do support the equal and uniform quality comprehensive schools (Seppänen et al., 2015). Secondly, Finland has a successful and consensual urban-planning tradition of mixing owner-occupied, rented, and municipality-supported flats in all neighborhoods. Third, in basic education policy Finland also has consensual alignments from the 1998 Basic Education Law for emphasizing, on the one hand, the basic right of every student to have access to a neighborhood school, and on the other, on seeing comprehensive school as a whole, rather than divided into primary schools with class teachers and lower secondary school with subject teachers. These principles mean and have meant that since the 2000, there has established nearly 600 full comprehensive schools (i.e., Grades 1 to 9) have been established, amounting to a fifth of all the basic schools in Finland.31 Fourth, Finland’s internationally unique and obligatory master’s-level teacher education makes it possible for classroom teachers to have a major in teaching subjects and thus to teach also in upper comprehensive level (i.e., Grades 7 to 9). The high-quality pedagogical training of subject teachers allows them to also teach in lower comprehensive level (i.e., Grades 1 to 6). These unique Finnish qualities make the pedagogical organization of a full comprehensive school flexible and teacher friendly: ideally, teachers can capitalize on their specialties in their teaching work.

What about the dynamics in classroom culture? Paradoxically, a qualified answer comes from the U.K.’s Centre of Policy Studies. In spite its neutral-sounding name, the center is one of the oldest right-wing think tanks in Britain, established by Margaret Thatcher herself. It published, in 2015, a 66-page pamphlet Real Finnish Lesson32 by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, research director of the Centre of the Study of Market Reform of Education and a doctoral student. The title openly challenged Pasi Sahlberg’s (2011) best-seller Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?33

Sahlgren opens his book promisingly with a wide sociohistorical retrospective34 but concludes with a series of overstated ideological claims. Nevertheless, one may make two deductions from his pamphlet that can be seen as vital for both the present and the future of the Finnish schooling. First, Sahlgren claims that the main explanation of the Finnish downward results in PISA is simply that Finland is speedily becoming similar to other advanced liberal countries. Secondly, he states that if teacher authority and structured teaching are given up, learning results will inevitably and unavoidably decline. The central premise, then, is that the Finnish school has maintained teacher authority and structured teaching because of its essential cultural conservatism and its delay in taking up both progressive and market-liberal reform.

Sahlgren might be partly correct. Successful learning in school does indeed require some kind of teacher authority and some kind of structured teaching. However, what used to be known as teacher authority and structured teaching might be problematic in late-modern schooling. A vital question, then, is what kind of authority and what kind of structured teaching a successful late-modern school should apply. In Simola’s (2015) latest Finnish book, he makes a policy recommendation of experiment and development for a “neo-structural school” (pp. 106–138). By this he means that we should realistically take the structural issues as starting points for reforms rather than as normative models to be retained (cf. Simola, 2015, pp. 3–26).

In a school of immersion, there should be about the half of the lessons of today: another half of the school day should be dedicated to projects and individual work related to the lessons. The teacher authority should be based on dialectics of respect and demand. Paradoxally enough, this idea is in debt to an eminent Soviet educator, Anton Makarenko (1939). His formulation was simply captured by saying that “we respect you because we demand you and vice versa.” This idea is well known today for example in cognitive psychotherapy, especially in dialectic behavioral therapy.35

In an immersion school structured teaching should be based on pedagogical unities that fulfill three challenging but not impossible demands: pedagogical unites should be, first, significant for the society; second, meaningful for the individual student; and finally, justified by scientific or artistic knowledge. Paradoxically, as with teacher authority, the inspiration for this notion also comes from the former Soviet Union, from the so-called cultural-historical school (e.g., Vygotsky, Galperin, Leontiev). On this basis, it has been successfully developed pedagogical approaches that would suit to an immersion school.36

These ideas are far from the current popular slogans about digitalization or personalized learning. The school of immersion would, however, have a great advantage on its side: it would work, or a bit more cautiously, it could work in an obligatory, mass-formed, and selection-responsible institution. Yet the “societal framework of schooling”37 (see Simola et al., 2015), universally seems to cause a kind of amnesia among teachers who close the classroom door and move on to higher tasks in universities, teacher education, ministry, local educational authority, and educational planning.

The eminent Swedish sociologist of education Ulf P. Lundgren (1991) once wrote about the function of this amnesia: it reduces educational problems to psychological ones, and it reduces the task of curricular planning to a focus on the individual learner, “without any basic social theory or any theory on the constraints of teaching, the researcher can define himself or herself as an innovator” (pp. 48, 49). The current “map of the territory” for research and reforms thus remains, unfortunately, primitive, and many policymakers and educational leaders are unaware of vital social, institutional, and cultural frames that constrain and, ultimately, limit the ecological validity of proposed reforms.


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(1.) In total 13 700w; Introduction 2300w; 1. Dynamics in policy-making 2100w; 2. Dynamics in governance 2100w; 3. Educational family strategies 2100w; 4. Dynamics in classroom cultures 2600w; 5. The constitutive dynamics in Finnish politics in basic schooling 2300w.

(2.) See e.g., Schriewer (2006); Cowen (2000, 2009); Steiner-Khamsi (2010); and Munck and Snyder (2007).

(3.) See e.g., Mulford (2002); Goldstein (2004); and Schriewer (2000).

(4.) See e.g., Emirbayer (1997); Scheurich (1997); Nóvoa et al. (2003); Biesta (2010); and Dahler-Larsen (2012).

(5.) See e.g., Dale (2009); Kettunen (2011); Conrad (2006); Dale (2009); Werner and Zimmermann (2006); Held et al. (1999); and Nóvoa and Lawn (2002).

(6.) Simola (2015); Kauko (2014, 2013, 2011); and Kauko, Simola, Varjo, and Kalalahti (2012).

(7.) Relativistic Dynamics (RD) in physics, see e.g., Fanchi (2005); and Laudissa and Rovelli (2008).

(8.) We used the concept “policy threads,” referring to the thematic formation to be content analyzed. Policy-thread analysis is thus a first step towards the discursive formations that will be reconstructed through socio-historical discourse analysis in a Foucauldian sense.

(38.) The basic idea owes to the eminent Finnish researcher of politics, Kari Palonen (2006); see also Ozga, Dahler-Larsen, Segerholm, and Simola (2011); and Kauko, Simola, Varjo, and Kalalahti (2012).

(9.) Feinstein, Temin, and Toniolo (2008).

(10.) In the mental history of Finland as a lately, quickly, and somehow involuntarily modernized nation, there might be found something parallel with the colonized people outlined by Franz Fanon (1925–1961), the famous Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher, and freedom fighter when he spoke about “broken time” in his book The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press 2004). The colonizer “broke the time” by coercing forcefully the colonized to his time and therefore among the people many archaic times survived non-articulated and mute.

(11.) Hirvi joked about the consensus in a parliamentary discussion in the early 1990s: “The parts of the addresses concerning education policy, and its importance and needs for development, could be written by one and the same person” (Hirvi, 1996, p. 42).

(12.) Curiously enough again, it is hard to find any references on the Internet to this seminar at which even ex-president Martti Ahtisaari was present. It seems to have disappeared from the history (Cf. Uusikylä, 2003, p. 54).

(13.) Simola (2015, pp. 48–66); Tiihonen (2004); and Pekonen (1995, 2005).

(14.) More precisely, this legislation includes Law 705/1992, Law 707/1992, Law 365/1995, in above presented order.

(15.) Hirvi was interviewed for the EGSIE -project project. See Simola et al. (2001).

(16.) Law 628/1998, sect. 21.

(17.) These key players in their time were the highest official of the Ministry of Education, the Head of Office, Jaakko Numminen 1973–1994 and the Director General of the NBE, Timo Lankinen 2008–2011.

(18.) In his excellent master’s thesis Pekka Syrjänen (2013) examined the records of two committees that created the national sample-based learning-result assessment and interviewed the main actors, including Ritva Jakku-Sihvonen, then head of Quality Assurance and Evaluation at the NBE, who can be seen as the “founding mother” of the model. Syrjänen concluded that the role of Jakku-Sihvonen essential as the very initiator of idea and the head of the both committees that accepted the model unanimously, as did also the management of the NBE. There were no dissenting opinions in the discussion at all. There was also a favorable political situation for the proposal, backed by the embedded egalitarianism. Secondly the model was much more inexpensive than the final examination model would have been. Finally, the NBE did have rich and good experience of implementation of the model.

(19.) This refers to fabricating Quality project, Ozga, J., Dahler-Larsen, P. & Simola, H. (Eds.) (2011), Fabricating quality in education: Data and governance in Europe. London: Routledge, interviewees 10 and 3 from 2007.

(20.) According to the Standard Eurobarometer, institutional confidence, including the press, political parties, national governments, the EU and the UN, is highest in Finland compared with the average in the EU and the Nordic countries. For instance, 62% of Finns were found to trust their national government, against an average 27% in the EU, 31% in Iceland, 42% in Denmark, and 59% in Sweden. See European Commission, November 2012. Retrieved from

(21.) Räty et al. (1995).

(22.) The authorization for a new private school must be accepted in the Government. Nearly all of the private schools in Helsinki do have an agreement and position of a “compensatory school,” which means that the City buys their schooling services and they form part of the public school net. The City school office have had constant problems with these schools while they increasingly emphasize their autonomy.

(23.) This is a division Räty et al. (1997) empirically showed in his study on teacher’s attitude to comprehensive school policy in Finland.

(24.) Here the reference isto Germany, e.g., where it seems impossible to reorganize the parallel school system and to Sweden where holding the free school system back appears politically inconceivable, too.

(25.) Cf. van Zanten (2003); Butler and van Zanten (2007); and Raveaud and van Zanten (2007).

(26.) The highest share (7%) of parents moving their offspring to a school in a neighboring city can be seen as reaction to this policy, however.

(27.) When the florescence of the pedagogy founded by the famous Swiss philosopher Johan Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841) was over in the rest of Europe, at the end of the 19th century, it arrived in Finland. Although Herbartianism in academic pedagogy was passé by the 1920s, the only textbook of didactics that was taught in all teacher seminaries until the Second World War was the Herbart-Zillerian one (Isosaari, 1966, p. 216; Lahdes, 1969, p. 21). Tuiskon Ziller (1817–1882), was a leading and ruling Herbartian in Germany, founder and president of the Association of Scientific Pedagogy (1868–ca. 1927).

(28.) Simola (1995) went through all the state educational discourse from the establishment of primary schooling in Finland in 1863 until 1995. With just two minor exceptions, the author could not find any trace of trust or appreciation for the work of classroom teachers between the 1960s and 1990s.

(29.) Vartiainen (2014, 2015, 2016).

(30.) In the case of NOKIA, see, e.g., Castells & Himanen (2002); Häikiö (2001); and of Peruskoulu, e.g., Simola (2015); and Rinne et al. (2011), 351–352.

(31.) There were 28, 028 comprehensive schools in 2012 in Finland, including lower comprehensives schools (i.e., primary schools, Grades 1 to 6), upper comprehensive schools (i.e., lower secondary schools, Grades 7 to 9) and full comprehensive schools (Grades 1 to 9). Curiously enough, there is no official information of the share of the full comprehensive schools in Finland. The most recent statistical books did not give any data of this. The Network of Full Comprehensives ( says 106 are member schools, but Wikipedia claims that their number would be 400 ( News from the public Finnish Broadcasting Company states in 2015 that there were more than 600 full comprehensives in the country.

(33.) The book (Sahlberg, 2011) has been translated into over 20 languages and sold over 100,000 copies. Its updated version, Finnish Lessons 2.0, was published in 2015. Curiously enough, the book was translated into Finnish only in 2015.

(34.) I must say so because I am the researcher whose texts he refers most to.

(35.) See e.g., Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson (1999); Kohlenberg, Kanter, and Bolling (2004); Linehan (1993); and Robins and Chapman (2004).

(36.) See e.g., Engeström (2014); Alheit, Bruner, Elkjaer, Engeström, Gardner, Heron et al. (2009); and Daniels, Edwards, Engeström, Gallagher, and Ludvigsen (2010).

(37.) The “societal framework of schooling” refers to studies focusing on “systems of time, space and rituals of schooling” (Rinne, 1987) or on basic functions of schooling (Simola, 1995). The literature refers here also to the “hidden curriculum” (Jackson, 1968; Broady, 1987) or the “grammar of schooling” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).