Finland vs UK Education System: Which Model Is Better?

Finland vs UK

Education systems around the world utilize different philosophies and approaches. Two countries that take divergent approaches are Finland and the United Kingdom. While both European nations, Finland and the UK have key differences in how they educate children.

In the UK, schools tend to focus more on standardized testing, assessments, and academic rigor. The national curriculum is quite structured and schools have little autonomy over what gets taught.

Meanwhile, Finland takes a more holistic approach that focuses on the whole child. Schools emphasize creativity, collaboration, and hands-on learning. Teachers have significant flexibility over curriculum and assessments are rare.

The philosophies behind each country’s education model lead to structural variances as well. This includes differences in school facilities, classroom sizes, subjects taught, and more. Teachers also receive divergent training and support.

With opposing philosophies and systems, it begs the question: which country has the better model overall? By comparing factors like test scores, student happiness, classroom environments, and curriculum focus, we can analyze the pros and cons of the Finnish and UK education systems.

Finland’s Education System Philosophy

Finland’s education system philosophy differs greatly from the UK’s focus on assessments and accountability. Finnish schools emphasize equality, creativity, teacher autonomy, and a more relaxed learning environment.

Equality and Equity

A core tenet of Finland’s model is ensuring equal opportunities for all students regardless of socioeconomic background or geographic location. Resources are distributed equally so that rural schools possess the same materials and facilities as urban ones.

There are also no elite private schools. Instead, everyone attends free, public learning institutions. This egalitarian approach differs greatly from the UK’s model which features more division between public and private schools.

Creativity and Hands-On Learning

Finnish schools also concentrate more on unleashing creativity and crafting hands-on, collaborative learning experiences. Teachers receive flexibility in curriculum design so they can promote unique skills like art, music, and physical education.

Standardized testing rarely occurs so students focus less on prepping for exams. Without the continual pressure of assessments, children enjoy the process of discovery and creative problem-solving.

Teacher Autonomy

In addition to curriculum flexibility, Finnish teachers receive significant autonomy and respect. Rather than dictating strict standards, the government empowers teachers to mold lessons based on student interests and needs.

This distinction gives teachers more control and allows them to act as professionals. By putting trust in teachers, it provides greater work satisfaction as well.

UK’s Education System Philosophy

The UK takes a more centralized, standards-driven approach to education compared to Finland’s flexibility. There is greater emphasis on assessments, academic rigor, and school choice.

Testing and Assessments

A defining feature of the UK system is its reliance on testing and qualifications. National standardized tests take place for primary and secondary students to assess nationwide progress.

Examples like A Levels and GCSEs dominate how schools design curriculum and measure advancement. Students must perform well on these external exams to have a chance at university.

This high degree of assessments differs enormously from Finland’s model which focuses less on testing success and more on actual learning outcomes.

School Choice and Specialization

The UK also enables more school choice and specialization based on interests and strengths. Many secondary schools focus on specific areas like business, math, arts, or technology allowing customization.

However, critics argue this leads to greater inequality since prestigious schools secure more funding and higher achieving students. It also segregates students earlier on based on test performance.

Centralized Curriculum

Unlike Finland’s decentralized system, the UK Department of Education institutes a national curriculum that dictates what subjects schools teach. While some flexibility exists, the standardization restricts teacher autonomy.

Finland vs UK – Classroom Environments

Beyond policy and governance, the divergent philosophies manifest in on-the-ground classroom environments as well. Finland and the UK differ significantly in areas like class sizes, school architecture, and technology use.

Class Sizes

Finnish schools typically have smaller class sizes with the average hovering between 15 to 25 students per classroom teacher. This facilitates more personalized instruction and development of critical thinking skills.

Meanwhile, UK state schools have larger class sizes averaging around 27 but figures can reach up to 35 students per teacher especially in disadvantaged communities. The larger sizes originate from budget constraints but clearly inhibit personalized learning.

School Buildings

Finland also emphasizes school architecture featuring innovative, modern buildings with creative layouts and ample communal spaces. Bright colors, big windows, flexible furniture, and areas to collaborate facilitate engaged learning.

UK schools on the opposite range in design and condition with many—especially ones built decades ago—featuring outdated facilities. However, newer academies established over the past 20 years integrate more innovative features.

Use of Technology

While Finland dominated innovative school architecture trends earlier on, the UK has been catching up in classroom technology integration. Smartboards, laptop carts, and apps for learning are more ubiquitous in British schools.

As Finland plays catch up in edtech, the UK continues rolling out cutting-edge pilots. For example, virtual reality curriculum and artificial intelligence programs get tested for statewide adoption.

Finland vs UK – Teachers

Teachers represent the lifeblood of any education system. Finland and the UK take very different approaches to teacher training, support, salaries, and retention.

Teacher Training

In Finland, teacher training programs are extremely selective with only 10% of applicants accepted. Candidates possess bachelor’s degrees and complete a 2-3 year master’s program focused on pedagogical theory and teaching methods .

The UK has lower barrriers to entry for teacher training but salaries, retention, and prestige lag behind Finland. High turnover rates persist too.

Retention and Turnover

Relatedly, Finland suffers little from teacher shortages which enables continuity of quality instruction. Teachers rarely leave the profession.

However, UK schools confront chronic shortfalls in recruitment and retention, especially in disadvantaged communities. The demanding workload and low pay dissuade college graduates.

The higher pay enables Finland to attract and retain talent. It also professionalizes teaching and lifts prestige.

Finland vs UK – Students

Beyond policies and teachers, the experiences and outcomes for students diverge between Finland and the UK as well. From time spent in school to happiness, the countries contrast.

Time Spent in School

Students in Finland sit in classrooms for fewer total hours and attend an average of 190 days per year. Brevity enables more time for play and exploration.

Meanwhile, UK law mandates schools hold sessions for 190 discretionary days plus 5 mandatory in-service days for staff. Students receive more total instructional hours.

Testing Frequency

Reflecting overall philosophies, Finnish pupils face almost no standardized tests besides one exam at age 16 comparing basic competency nationally.

UK students sit for assessments like SATS in primary school all the way up through GCSEs, AS/A-Levels, and beyond. The continual testing places more pressure.

Student Happiness

With less testing and creative approaches, Finland ranks at the top for student happiness surveys. UK satisfaction lags but remains above average globally.

Strict discipline and high-pressure assessments in the UK counterbalance student sentiments versus Finland’s flexibility.

PISA Scores Comparison

One objective way policymakers analyze the efficacy of education systems involves looking at achievement on the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The exam assesses 15-year-old pupils in mathematics, science, and reading every 3 years.

By comparing Finland and the UK’s PISA scores over time, we can gauge strengths and weaknesses. Note that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland get reported separately by the OECD.

Overall Achievement

Since 2000, Finnish students consistently scored near the top in all PISA subjects outranking most countries. Between 2003 and 2015, Finland placed in the top 5 countries worldwide.

The UK with differences by country showed more variance but still ranked above average. England performed the best while Scotland lagged.

Subject Breakdown

Looking deeper at disciplines, Finland showed greatest strengths in science and reading. In 2012, Finland placed 2nd internationally in science. Reading still topped rankings but dipped slightly in recent years.

Mathematics proves Finland’s relative weakness compared to the UK. In 2012, Finland ranked 12th compared to the UK’s 26th showing.

Pros and Cons of Each System

Based on the policy contrasts and student outcomes, Finland and the UK naturally have strengths and weaknesses embedded within their models.

Pros of Finland’s System

Pros of Finland’s education approach include:

  • Equality and access for all students
  • Creativity and hands-on learning
  • Teacher autonomy and professionalization
  • Less standardized testing leading to less stress
  • High marks in student satisfaction surveys
  • Consistent excellence demonstrated on PISA

However, there remain some disadvantages:

  • Teacher training is restrictive and bars candidates
  • Salaries for senior teachers run high and strain budgets
  • Focus on playtime over academics could reduce rigor

Pros of UK’s Model

The UK system also maintains benefits such as:

  • School specialization allows customization
  • National curriculum ensures standardization
  • Accountability through continual assessments
  • High PISA performance in mathematics
  • Good technology integration and innovation

But weaknesses persist around:

  • Test pressure and lack of creativity
  • Teacher shortages and high turnover
  • Stark inequality of resource allocation
  • Class sizes continue increasing


When analyzing Finland versus the United Kingdom’s education models, there exist notable trade-offs. Finland focuses more on equality, creativity, and teacher professionalization over accountability and assessments. The UK meanwhile drives standards through continual testing and qualifications.

Overall, Finland appears to edge out the UK in several categories by setting up a positive environment for students to learn and teachers to deliver creative instruction. The model enables more freedom that cultivates success on global assessments.

However, the UK system allows for more specialization, technology integration, and accountability measures increasing over recent decades. So while Finland outpaces on PISA today, the UK continues evolving in ways that may reshape outcomes.

At the end of the day, both systems have merits and deficiencies. By learning from each other’s innovations, both Finland and the UK can continue enhancing education to better prepare the next generation.


Q: Why does Finland perform better on PISA exams?

A: Finland outpaces most countries on the PISA assessments because its system cultivates creativity, equality, and less standardized test-taking skills. With low-pressure environments focused on hands-on learning, students retain more knowledge in a stress-free climate.

Meanwhile, the UK’s rigorous testing regime often hinders lasting comprehension and outcomes.

Q: Does the UK education system need reform?

A: The UK Department of Education instituted sweeping reforms with the Education Reform Act 1988. Additional standards and accountability heightened with the Education Act 2002.

However, issues around inequality, teacher shortages, and leaving ages persist with many experts advocating for another wave of upgrades. Changes like curriculum flexibility, facility funding equity, and teacher pay could help strengthen the system.

Q: What makes teachers different in Finland?

A: Finland requires teachers to complete masters-level training meaning candidates already obtain deep expertise within their subject prior to entering classrooms. Rigorous pedagogical coursework then builds instructional skills.

These high initial barriers and ongoing autonomy allow Finland to cultivate highly professionalized teachers. Their expertise and creativity shine given decentralization and trust within the system to guide learning.

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