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Posted 25/01/2011

David Cameron is in Helsinki this week and one of the three themes he is discussing with Finnish leaders is education performance; Finland scores the highest marks in the PISA scores.

It is at times like this that category mistakes are easily made. A Pizza is what you buy in Italy for buttons and it tastes of heaven and it’s what you buy in Scotland and wonder why you bothered. A Pisa score measures a large sample of 16 year olds in different countries in science, maths and literacy. Every 4 years the exercise is carried out, and every 4 years, Finland comes out on top. If not top in all three it may dip for one measure or for one cycle of tests into second place. It is very impressive for what has been in post war terms a poor country.

At a reception in Helsinki last week I got talking to the UK Ambassador. He asked me what I thought of the success of the Finnish education system?

I paused and then explained that the educational tourism that has beset Finnish schools, good though they are, is misplaced.  It is like someone who did not know about gardening being taken round carefully nurtured flowerbeds and shrubs and then stopping in front of stomping great sunflowers and saying; “ You must have watered these flowers a lot this morning”.

Instead of looking at schools where they do the counting and screening and yes teaching, look at what the Finnish gardeners have been doing for the past 40 to 50 years.

A universal free health care system provides very regular health and counselling sessions for mothers and fathers during pregnancy. Three or four days are spent in hospital at birth, letting the mother rest but also supporting her in breast feeding and looking after the baby. Once out of hospital and up to the age of six there are a comprehensive set of visits to the, “Well Child Clinic”. Nine visits in the first year would be normal.

What happens is more than a long line of technical checks, though these do take place. And it is more than a service - a relationship is formed with the nurse you first met when you were pregnant and she sees you and your children through to school age at six.  Are you coping as a mum and dad? Do you need extra help? How is your marriage? From sleeping to potty training to behaviours to speech to age-appropriate development goals: are all tested and discussed. Behind the nurse and the doctor at the centre comes easy and rapid access to speech therapists, psychologists and the like. Prevention and putting it right is the order of the day.

From 10 months to 6 years of age every Finnish child has the entitlement to attend a day care centre from 7am to 5pm, for seven days of the week, or whatever hours suit the parents. Most Finnish mums and dads work fulltime.

In the day centre the big, big emphasis is on supported play. A lot of the play even in the snow and ice of January is outside.  Inside the centres are warm, well organised, relaxed, pleasant and homely, the kind of place where you want to take your shoes off and wander around in your socks. Staff are a mixture of the mature and the young but all share the same high educational standard being school graduates that have completed three years of a college education.

Have you been to a Scottish nursery? Physically they are usually OK, the staff try hard but in general it is minimum wage and perhaps a little more and most of the workers are young girls who did not do well at school.

Finnish parents and children happily tell you about their pleasure and satisfaction with the centres. Quite how comprehensive and accommodating the offer of day care is, was demonstrated to me in a town called Tampere where I visited one centre that was open 7 days a week for 24 hours a day to support the children and parents of shift workers in hospitals, factories, ships and airlines.

At 7 years of age the children go to school and even then for the first two years they go for only about 4 hours a day.

Finnish success does not come from hot housing or forced feeding.  It comes from lots of municipal health and development and day care support for all parents. This is not big brother the state taking over. If you want to stay at home and look after your own child a small monthly grant is available to support you in that route.

Missing in Finland is that long tail of educational failure that we know so well and the tragedy of so many teenage mums. Finland is not the Garden of Eden it is too cold for one thing and too much booze is drunk.

So if you or David Cameron want to understand why Finnish children do so well, are arguably across the board the best-educated children on earth, look to the gardener. The gardener knows when to plant and where, will chose the right soil mix, keep pests at bay and over time support the plant in doing what the plant does best – that is, to grow.

If that lesson is lost on David Cameron, I hope he at least enjoys the pickled fish.

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