by Gaynor Chapman

I believe a great opportunity to discuss NZ’s horrible educational standards and look at what Finland does differently to achieve its high standards was missed with the visit here of the Finnish Prime Minister last month. When considering Finland’s superior education system, it is important to identify those aspects which have the greatest impact on students’ performance. Since it interests me, although I am not an expert on Finnish education, I have picked out those aspects that coincide with New Zealand education when it was also top of international test scores in 1970.

Like Finland now, we believed in the many decades prior to 1970 basic education should be an instrument to balance out social inequality and the potential of each pupil should be maximised. We have sadly lost this philosophy. Today in NZ’s schooling system the biggest problems are very poor literacy and numeracy scores resulting from too little direct instruction and too much child-led learning. There is inadequate phonic instruction and endless experimentation with untested ideas like the numeracy project, and open classrooms. Skills are prioritised over a rich knowledge-based curriculum.

Finland has none of these issues. It is true, Finnish language having a very regular written system is much easier to learn to read than English, which is the most difficult language of all to learn to read. Finnish children mostly arrive at school as seven year olds already reading their 100% phonic language. But other European countries with a similar transparent written language still do not have the high standards on international tests.

My conclusion is that Finnish education has judiciously combined the best of traditional education with some modern trends. This is what did not happen in NZ. There is no reason why the traditional liberal NZ education of the earlier 20th century period given time, would not have done the same – absorbed with time some modern teaching ideas. Very unfortunately there was then and still is that nihilistic mindset of progressive reformers who will tolerate nothing of the past. There would not be reinvention of the wheel as we have now in reading instruction, and continue to do so. There never was any good reason for selectively cutting intensive phonics out in 1950.