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Trust the Teacher. Anticipate the Future - Vocational Education in Finland

In a busy commercial hair salon within Tredu Vocational College, the main provider of vocational education in Tampere, two hours North-West of Helsinki, we are introduced to the Head of Department. Discussing her early career she tells me how she worked in a number of different businesses before starting her own successful hairdressing chain in the city.

When I ask her why she wanted to become a tutor, she looks confused. I ask the question again but get the same reaction, so try in Finnish through the attentive and trilingual College Director. No, she explains, she understood the question in both languages, she just couldn’t fathom why I was asking it. Of course she wanted to become a tutor – it’s a highly respected and competitive profession, an opportunity to train the next generation and to be paid well for the privilege.

Welcome to the parallel universe that is the Finnish education system. It has been so praised within international circles that it is a must see for any education researcher, but it is rare that the reality lives up so well to the expectations.

Skilled and valued teachers and tutors are one of the key ingredients of success that everyone from the National Agency to the frontline points to. Teachers of vocational education and training (VET) must have a Masters Degree in their own discipline as well as at least three years of experience working in the field. Teacher pay is higher in Finland than most OECD countries and VET teachers are paid more than their peers in recognition of their experience.

But what really attracts them to the job is the level of trust and autonomy that is invested in them. As one of the Counsellors of Education at the National Agency tells us, ‘We do not tell teachers from a national level at all how they should teach. There are many routes to achieve occupational competence’. Even within individual institutions like Tredu, it is up to tutors how they cover the curriculum, helping people prepare for public demonstrations of competence.

These demonstrations are entered by young people and adults alike, a chance to validate skills no matter how they were gained – through a mixture of classroom and workplace tuition, over years of employment or even through volunteering or extra-curricular activity. Together with further education and employment destinations, these are the main measures of success within the system rather than high stakes tests.

When individuals arrive at a training provider like Tredu, their first task is to assess what skills and knowledge they already have, on the principal that it is a waste of time and resources to teach them something they already know. Through flexible group tuition and a personalised learning plan, individuals build up the missing skills largely through support in the workplace and sign each module off through a demonstration of competence to achieve their final qualification.

There is no time limit on this process. We met young people keen to make rapid progress in their careers undertaking extra work during the summer break to make quicker progress through the modules to full competence. Mid-career changers can spread their training over a number of years whilst working, or dip in at different points in their career to top up their skills or add a module in a different area to broaden their base. All of this, at any age, is completely free at point of source, providing a useful reference point for Labour’s consultation on their proposals for a National Education Service.

Tampere is also home to one of almost 30 Universities of Applied Science, or Polytechnics, in Finland. These have developed their own unique identity quite separate from the traditional research-intensive Universities, focusing first and foremost on preparation for work. As we tour the vast campus for 8,000 students, our guide points out the very small careers office. She explains that it gets hardly any business – students here are already clear on their pathway and companies work with them during their studies to secure their future workforce. More than 80% already have job offers in their final year, rising to 100% in many courses like computer science.

These Polytechnics provide a clear and aspirational route to progression for students who choose the VET track at the age of 15, so it is no wonder that more than 40% to do and that this figure has risen by almost 10% over the last decade.

One final aspect of the Finnish system that sits in stark comparison to our own – a strong culture of anticipation or forecasting right from the top of government. The Prime Minister’s Office oversees the National Foresight Network, which in the education space is led through a Skills Anticipation Forum. Groups of experts and employers in each of the main sectors of the economy are supported through a series of workshops to consider how technology and working practices are changing and how this will impact the skills required in future. This in turn feeds directly into places planning and the development of new modules and qualifications, helping to minimise the kinds of skills shortages that our recent Bulletin shows are so common in the UK economy.

 

Olly Newton

June 2018