When should schooling begin? Which formative paths will lead to a child’s academic success? The Finns would immediately and undoubtedly reply that schooling should start shortly after a child is born, and we should most definitely listen. Why? Because Finland since 2000 has been recognised as the best-performing country in Europe for education, topping the rankings after being assessed through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) devised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is carried out every three years to evaluate the effectiveness of the different education systems.
For the Finns, the most important time of a child’s formative path is the early childhood education period, from the early years up until the child turns 7, which translates into Finnish children not being taught literacy and numeracy until they have reached that age. It appears to be a winning strategy, as for the past 15 years Finnish students have been scoring top results in the literature, science and maths tests taken as part of the PISA assessment (the performance of Italian students on the other hand fell within or just below the European average).
According to the OECD report, Finland is the only country where the gap between males and females in regards to scientific knowledge is non-existent, as opposed to the rest of the world, where the gender gap normally favours the male population. The PISA assessment evaluates the education systems of every nation in the world with the assumption that the quality and effectiveness of teaching methods can be improved through mutual learning, in order to provide future generations with greater preparation and equal opportunities, regardless of their social status, financial situation and ethnicity.
In Finland academic achievements depend on the length and quality of the playtime of the early childhood years. From 0-3 and then up until 7 years old, children learn how to play, be independent, socialise. They develop the key concepts needed to live within a community, learning how to learn. The early childhood period is the time in which the Finns invest the most: 40 hours a week, with highly-skilled, highly-competent and highly-paid professionals who meticulously observe the children and their behaviour, guiding them through every moment of playtime.
The Government pays for the most disadvantaged families, while those who can afford it must contribute with a weekly fee of no more than €290. Regardless the recent and drastic cuts in public spending, investing in the early childhood period is still an absolute priority for Finland. By observing the way a 4-year-old child plays, one can get a glimpse of the kind of student the child will grow into 10 years down the line. The greater the time a child spends playing, the greater the child’s learning, problem-solving and focusing abilities will be.
A lot of emphasis is placed on creativity. The objective, as reported by the Guardian, rather that being academic achievement, is the personal development of the single individual, its sense of responsibility and level of independence. Experts in the sector seem to agree: through playtime, children learn to challenge themselves, reaching for increasingly more demanding goals. Playing as synonymous of learning.
In the last report, however, Finland seems to have lost a few points. Teachers are still well paid and respected, with parents still trustfully providing them with enough room for manoeuvre. So what does this slight decline refer to? It might be associated with the fact that Finland has now decided to introduce new fields of expertise: there will be more creativity, more new technology, more entrepreneurship. Besides science and maths, there will be more all-round zest for learning.