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Other education systems come before the Finnish

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Friday, 5 October 2012

The topic for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas forum last Saturday at the Sydney Opera House was Abolish Private Schools and Pasi Sahlberg from Finland was one of the keynote speakers.

Having a speaker from Finland shouldn't surprise. Within cultural-left circles the Finnish education system is the flavour of the month and regularly praised by non-government school critics such as the Australian Education Union and Richard Teese from the University of Melbourne.

Critics argue that Australia should follow the Finnish example as it has top ranking in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment maths and science tests, and forsake high-risk tests such as Australia's National Assessment Program -- Literacy and Numeracy.


If only it were that simple. While it's true that Finland was at the top of the PISA table in the 2006 tests, ranking first in maths, science and reading, since that time the country's results have gone backwards.

In the 2009 PISA test Finland dropped to sixth in maths, second in science and third in reading. In the 2009 test not only did Shanghai rank No 1 in the three areas but most of the other top performing education systems also were in the East Asian region.

It also needs to be noted that in the other more academically based and credible international test, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the last time the two countries met Australia outperformed Finland.

In Year 8 maths and Year 8 science Australia was ranked 13th and seventh, while Finland was placed 14th and 10th.

While those opposed to high-risk tests point to Finland to argue there is no value or benefit in high-risk tests and failing students, what is conveniently ignored is that the more successful East Asian countries have education systems that are highly competitive, where students are pressured to succeed and often streamed in terms of ability.

Cultural-left academics and professional associations also like to use the example of Finland to argue Australia's non-government system should not be funded. Unlike Australia, where about 36 per cent of students attend Catholic and independent schools, the supposedly world's best Finnish system is government funded and there are no private schools.


Best illustrated by comments made by Sahlberg on Channel 7's Weekend Sunrise, the argument is that countries can achieve outstanding results without the presence of non-government schools. Abolishing non-government schools is also beneficial, according to Sahlberg, as such schools do well only because they enrol privileged students and they are guilty of reinforcing inequality.

Once again, such arguments lack credibility. As proven by research carried out by Melbourne-based academic Gary Marks, non-government schools outperform government schools even after adjusting for students' socioeconomic status.

OECD commissioned research noted the impact of SES on student and school performance is calculated at between 20 per cent and 35 per cent.

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This article was first published in The Australian on October 4, 2012.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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