Experimental policy design in Finland.


Anneli Rautiainen, Head of Innovation Unit, Finnish National Agency for Education.



The pioneer

Anneli is head of the newly formed Innovation Unit at the Finnish National Agency for Education.

She was previously the Counsellor of Education at the National Agency for Education and served as the Head of Department for Basic Education and Early Childhood Education. Her duties included renewing the national core curriculum for pre-primary and basic education, and the development of early childhood, pre-primary and basic education.

“A decentralised system already exists in Finland, but we want to go one step further by removing hierarchical barriers and working collaboratively with stakeholders who can help find solutions to a problem.”

The Big Change

For more than a decade, Finland’s education system has been a poster child for many education experts and policymakers around the world.

This reputation stems from the country’s outstanding performance in international tests such as achieving top positions in literacy, numeracy and science in consecutive PISA studies.

Finland’s journey has been slow and steady, focusing primarily on raising the quality of teaching and improving the prestige of the profession, then shifting towards a more radical reform agenda involving significant decentralisation and a high level of trust in schools and educators. Key features of Finland’s education system include:

  • Education is free at all levels – from pre-primary to higher education – and every student has the right to educational support.
  • Only core curricula is designed for nationwide application – leaving the freedom for local education authorities to organise teaching that is best suited to local context.
  • Lifelong learning in focus.
  • Educational autonomy is high at all levels – there are no school ranking lists and no inspection systems.
  • Standardised testing is broadly absent – assessment is part of daily school work.

Today, Finland continues to reform their education system through ongoing experimentation.

The ambition for changes

The big vision for Finland’s education system is: to provide all citizens with equal opportunities to receive high quality education.

This is being achieved through ongoing experimentation around how best to provide general knowledge, information and skills that will help individuals act and impact society.

A shift in direction

In the postwar decades, the finnish parliament created three successive reform commissions…

Each of which made recommendations that helped build public support and political will to create an education system that would be more responsive to the growing demand for more equitable educational opportunities for all young people in Finland.

Prior to the reforms, Finland’s education system was considered inequitable, run by top-down testing, extensive tracking and highly variable teachers.

Making change happen

1: The start point

Aligning the system to a new philosophy

Comprehensive education gained widespread public support and in 1968, parliament passed legislation to build a common, comprehensive schooling system. This structural reform was not just about how schooling was organised but an embodiment of a new philosophy of education and deep set of societal values about what each and every child in Finland needed and deserved.

“If we have a very conservative and very firm education system that is not flexible to the changes in the surrounding world, learning cannot take place at its best and provide opportunities for young people to grow.”

2: Taking off

A relentless focus on equity

The reform agenda has been consistently driven by a desire to create equal opportunities, raise quality, and increase participation within all educational levels across Finnish society. The consensus was that Finland needed a school system that could serve all students equally well, regardless of family background.

“The purpose of education is to give equal opportunities for high quality education. Everyone has a right and a need to reach their potential in learning and in life.”

Building a high quality workforce

Policy makers in Finland realised that to deliver on their ambitious reform agenda, a very different level of knowledge and expertise was needed from each and every teacher. Over a 10 year period, reforms to teacher education led to the development of a highly prestigious profession capable of taking on a great deal of responsibility over what and how they teach.

Decentralising power and authority

As the teaching profession became better equipped to take on great autonomy, policy makers were also working towards greater decentralisation and increased freedom for municipalities and schools themselves. Over another slow and steady period of reform, the National Board of Education designed a national core curriculum which gave only broad aims and content guidelines for teaching and the municipalities and schools set up their own local curricula. Inspections ceased to exist as of 1991.

3: Keeping going

Being on an experimental footing

Despite years of globally renowned success particularly since the introduction of PISA tests in 2001, Finnish policy makers recognised the need for continuous reform that responded to the ever-changing world. In 2015 the Finnish Government took a combined systems and design thinking approach, building the capacity to carry out experiments in central government and at a municipal level. The newly formed Innovation Unit at the Finnish National Agency for Education established an Innovation Centre and began working with a broader group of stakeholders on key issues the system faced.

“Education systems cannot remain isolated from the world and that rapid change is taking place. In order to provide equal opportunities for everyone, we have to be on the move all of the time.”

Listening to a broad group of stakeholders

Anneli and her Innovation Unit team recognised that the problems arising in the system could not be solved by educators alone. They met with people from a range of sectors, breaking out of the silos that educators had been working in for years. They simply asked questions and listened to the answers, helping them to form an analysis of the current system.

“We need a whole system transformation. That requires going through each part: Government, Municipal, school, students, parents, anyone with an opinion. It’s a great challenge to collaborate and co-create together, but you need to define everyone’s role and listen to their concerns about how the system is functioning at the moment.”

Mobilising coalitions of the willing

Anneli recognises that to achieve their goal of systemic change through ongoing experimentation, they needed to find those who were willing to work with them and start experimenting. They reached out to municipalities who were interested in trying something different and travelling a journey with them, without knowing where they’ll end up.

“You have to be able to collaborate and take the people with you and be brave enough to break the hierarchical system step by step with others and by discovering things together.”

“We’re in the process of working with twelve municipalities in this one year project. A change programme will be developed from research in addition to some narratives from each municipality.”

Conditions for success

Cross-party consensus

The slow and steady progress seen in Finland has in part been possible because of a broad and consistent political consensus over a period of 50 years. The vision for education reform has remained intact across numerous changes of government and is widely seen as a critical condition for the country’s long term educational success.

“We decided together, as a nation, that education is to build a nation – that it goes beyond the politics and the political powers – it’s kind of a common theme and common understanding … committed to this main idea of providing a good education, publicly financed education, for every single child.” – Pasi Sahlberg

Policy platform

The launch of the Innovation Unit within the Finnish National Agency for Education was the result of an authorising policy platform. It was stated in this government programme that the innovation centre had a mandate to pursue experimental policy design in the way they are until 2020. Anneli argues that it would be very difficult to do this work without that cover. They are an experiment in themselves.

“In education we are quite used to making plans, setting goals and reaching the goals we have set. It’s a totally different mindset, that’s sometimes difficult because it’s difficult to change people’s mindset.”

The impact of change

System impact

  • 99% of students in the ideal age group in Finland successfully complete compulsory basic education.
  • Roughly 95% continue to be educated in secondary schools; of those, 93% complete their courses.
  • More than 60% enroll in higher education.
  • All education in that country, from preschool to post-graduation, is completely tuition-free for all students.

Learner impact

  • In science literacy, the main topic of PISA 2015, 15-year-olds in Finland score 531 points compared to an average of 493 points in OECD countries (ranked 3rd).
  • On average, 15-year-olds score 511 points in mathematics compared to an average of 490 points in OECD countries (ranked 13th).
  • The average performance in reading of 15-year-olds is 526 points, compared to an average of 493 points in OECD countries (ranked 2nd).
  • In Collaborative problem-solving, 15-year-olds in Finland scored 534 points compared to an average of 504 points in OECD countries (ranked 5th).

99% of students in the ideal age group in finland successfully complete compulsory basic education