Education Backgrounder

Data shows that education, cognitive skills, and social and emotional skills all play a role in increasing health outcomes, income, and life satisfaction (OECD).  As New Zealanders we have a lot to be proud of when it comes to our education system and the way it contributes to our society. The Ministry of Education overview and OECD tell us that:

  • “New-Zealand is a top-performing country in terms of the quality of its educational system,” according to the 2013 Better Life index.
  • We are first in the world for education and fifth most prosperous country according to London-based think tank, The Legatum Institute
  • We invest 5.2% of our GDP in education – which is 17.8% of all public spending – this is above the OECD average of 4.8% as well as above Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Ireland.
  • All eight New Zealand universities feature in the top 500

However, two issues are emerging. First is a recent drop in education system performance according to international tests (OECD). Second, much like our the rest of our society, below the surface lies an undercurrent of social disadvantage where kids from poor socio-economic backgrounds are performing at rates well below their wealthy peers.

Compulsory education

The PISA report (Policies and Practises for Successful Schools) is an OECD program to provide an international comparison of students that assesses and compares how well countries are preparing their 15-year-old students to meet real-life opportunities and challenges. It allows us some interesting insights into how New Zealand is performing on the international stage.

  • We have one of the highest proportions of top performers in science and reading across the OECD countries in the study
  • A relatively high proportion of our students are top performers in at least one subject area (20%) compared to the OECD average of 15%.
  • Around 6% of New Zealand students are top performer 'all rounders', who score at the highest levels in all three subjects (compared with the OECD average of 4%).
  • New Zealand students scored above the OECD average in science, reading and mathematics.
  • PISA scores indicate that around 83% of New Zealand students can do basic science and reading tasks expected for their age. This is larger than the OECD proportions of 79% (science) and 80% (reading).
  • Overall, New Zealand is a country characterised by relatively high achievement when compared to the OECD average and considering the amount we invest ( PISA, 2015). 

Using international data to peg our performance is helpful but can also be misleading. As an example our relative overall standing among all countries in the study has improved since PISA 2012 however these changes are mainly due to performance decreases for some countries that were previously ranked higher than, or similar to, New Zealand.

While international comparisons are less reliable, the trends in New Zealand’s scores is considered a reliable indicator of performance over time.  Our average level of performance has been steadily decreasing since 2006, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to be left behind. 


Source OECD

In Summary:

  • Between 2009 and 2012 performance in mathematics, reading and science declined, while remaining above the OECD average.
  • Performance has remained stable since this decline but has shown no signs of gaining back the lost ground.
  • New Zealand is counted among the 10 PISA countries and economies with the widest spread of achievement in science literacy. There is a wider gap between the top ten percent and bottom ten percent of our students than in most other OECD countries.
  • Socio-economic advantage has a stronger impact on achievement in New Zealand than many OECD countries. There is a larger difference in achievement between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in New Zealand compared to the OECD average.
  • Overall European/Pākehā and Asian students scored above the OECD average in science, reading and mathematics. Māori and Pasifika students scored below the OECD average in all three subjects.

We will first look at the issue of poverty/ inequality before turning to general school performance.

Poverty/ Inequality

That such inequality exists within our school system is unacceptable and has a significant impact on the overall performance of our school system. While inequality exists across all ethnicities in our society data shows that: 

  • Secondary school retention rates (to age 17) for Māori students is 50.6% (75.4% for non-Māori)
  • The unemployment rate for Māori youth is 25.7% (14.2% for non-Māori)
  • School leavers achieving University Entrance standard (NCEA Level 2) for Māori Youth of 25% (47.9% for non-Māori)
  • Māori youth not in education or employment or training at a rate of 22.4% (9.1 per cent for the non-Māori population)
  • Māori and Pacific ethnic groups typically have poverty rates that are around double those of the European/Pakeha ethnic group
  • 9.1% of Maori children and 13.3% of Pacific children do not attend early childhood education prior to starting school. This is compared to 2% for non-Maori. 

Not only is this sort of disparity concerning in its own right, it is a potential breach of our Treaty obligations. Overall inequality is seriously impacting all kiwi kids.

  • 17 per cent of Kiwi children were missing at least four necessities that most people would consider a given, such as a bed, clothing, shoes, a warm and dry house, food on the table and school supplies.
  • About 40,000 children are admitted to hospital every year with conditions related to poverty that are preventable (Otago University, 2016).

While inequality and education are separate issues it is hard to see them as mutually exclusive as poverty has a large statistical impact on a child’s education. In all, out-of-school factors explain 80% of education outcomes (Waters, Marzano & McNulty).

  • Many of these children in poverty begin school around two years behind in basic literacy, numeracy, and readiness to learn
  • New Zealand children from poor families are over six times more likely to do badly at maths than children from well-off families.

The problem itself is no simple matter. With respect to their learning, children do not start school on equal terms. They arrive with differences of many sorts, physically and mentally. These differences can be attributed to a range of different things, such as neural processing of information, family experiences, social activity etc. This is to be expected given all that happens to them in the five years before they begin school. Children growing up in more affluent households tend to have a greater richness of experience, such as parents that spend time talking and reading to them. Parents in less affluent households don’t always have the time or skills to do this.

What turns learning differences into inequality is the manner in which the differences are distributed across social criteria such as gender, ethnicity and social class. The data tells us that on average Pākehā children come out on top as the highest achieving cohort of students followed in descending order by Asian, then Māori, and finally Pasifika students (Haque).

Poor performance at school has long-term consequences, both for the individual and the rest of society. Reducing the number of low-performing students is not only a goal in its own right but also an effective way to improve an education system’s overall performance – and reduce inequality, since low performers are disproportionately from socio-economically disadvantaged families (OECD, 2016).

As changes in an education system are only seen in the future it is possible to underestimate the value and the importance of improvements.

A report from the OECD explains that if our PISA scores increased by an average 25 points over the next 20 years – this is less than most steadily improving systems in the OECD – there would be an aggregate gain of of USD 338 billion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010 (as evaluated at the start of reform in terms of real present value of future improvements in GDP). If we caught up to the average performance of Finland, the best preforming system in the OECD according to PISA, this would result in gains in the order of USD 258 billion which is 204% of our current GDP (OECD, 2010).

While these figures are difficult to quantify due to the nature of the data, the underlying economic benefits are clear; as are the impacts and costs of a deteriorating system.  

The impacts of poverty

321,000 children now live in families with incomes below 60% of the median income (classified as low income households - Victoria University). Research is pointing to a consistent achievement gap between children in lower and higher decile primary schools. It is important here however to make the distinction that this is not due to the quality of the schools.

As stated, on average a child living in poverty begins school roughly two years behind in literacy, numeracy, and readiness to learn. Despite the best efforts of our teachers (who are generally rated highly) statistics show that these students continue to lag behind the more affluent sector of society (Haque).  


Most of the solutions to these problems lie outside the school gate. However, by understanding the underlying problems our schooling system faces, we can begin to develop ways to reverse both inequality and poor performance.

Importance of Early childhood funding

If we are truly interested in giving all children and young people a fair start in life, then the early years are the most crucial.

The OECD listed that the most important indicators of learning gaps at age 15 was in order:

  • number of books in the home,
  • mother’s educational achievement
  • father’s educational achievement
  • and amount spent on schooling (to a certain point. There is no evidence that above a set level increased funding promotes learning (Hattie)).

While the educational achievements of parents are fixed, international evidence suggests that the most cost effective way to create equitable opportunities for children is to provide more resources to parents during the first 3 years (Heckman, LaFontaine).

Returns per Unit Dollar Invested 


Source: Heckman, LaFontaine 

There are three main rationale for investing in Early Childhood Education (ECE).

  • It has significant economic and social payoffs
  • It supports parents and boosts female employment
  • It is a social responsibility to educate children and to help overcome educational disadvantage (i.e. providing equality of opportunity)

PISA scores across the OECD show that students who attended pre-school for one year or more scored more than 30 points higher in reading than those who did not, which equates to around an extra one year of schooling by the age of 15. Researchers have found that pre-school had almost as much impact on a child’s education achievement at age 11 as school did – even though children had spent more years in school than in preschool (OECD, 2011).  


Source: High/Scope

All children gain from attending high quality ECE but disadvantaged children have the greatest potential to benefit because their abilities are less developed when they start school (OECD, 2011). 

Current system and reforms.

To begin to reverse these trends we must focus on the dynamics of our schooling.

Generally school reforms can be placed in three groups – resource (more money) structure (changing the way schools operate or creating new schools) and process (changing the way teachers instruct and principals lead).  Consultants McKinsey & Co found that most of the public debate is about the first two changes, while the most effective changes tend to be process based. In other words, for whatever reason we tend to focus on the wrong stuff. 

  • School Choice
  • More money 
  • Small Class Size
  • Achievement standards
  • Achievement tests

These responses argues Hattie - backed up by extensive research -, are fixes that fail to address the important questions and are unlikely to make a significant difference, despite costing billions of dollars.

School choice’ and ‘more money’ are discussed in the following section while ‘class size’, ‘achievement standards’, and ‘achievement tests’ are discussed in the section ‘further distractions’.

School choice:

We insist on building new schools as a solution to those that are ‘failing’ and continue to pull more students away from ones that are government funded. The OECD average is 82% of students attend Government funded schools, and this figure is dropping.  What is overlooked is that the variance in student achievement between schools is small relative to variance within schools. In other words performance from school to school is not significantly different, it is the performance between students from the same school that are the most polarised. This is illustrated in the graph below, which shows that New Zealand has one of the lowest between school variances, and one of the highest within school variances. So to believe that the solution lies in creating new and different schools, or sending children to private or ‘better’ schools, flies in the face of rational thinking (Hattie). 


Source: Hattie

The current competitive environment between schools in New Zealand (brought about by publishing results, and staging schools against one another ) can result in misleading conclusions being drawn by government, educators , and parents. Statistically schools that draw from lower socio-economic areas have a higher number of kids growing up in poverty. As we touched on, these kids start further behind their more affluent peers which is in turn reflected in their NCEA results. Having these shared publicly can result conclusions being drawn about the actual quality of some teachers and schools that do not reflect that actually quality of the learning opportunities provided.

The main mechanism we have in place to reduce the impact of social class is the decile system. The system exists to distribute funds to different groups based on a selection of socioeconomic characteristics of the students that attend each school around New Zealand, essentially distributing more money to poorer schools. However there are a number of concerns over the mechanisms that control this distribution.

The main issue is that the deciles are not averages, it simply calculates the portion of students who classify into particular socio-economic areas using specific indicators and bases funding off these indicators. The system does not consider anything other than the defined indicators, this can result in some schools, for example gaining a significant amount of funding compared to others, when both actually have similar socio economic status (Haque).

The formula is being reviewed and our education minister has described  it as “well-intentioned but not very well targeted”. This comment is reflected in a NZEI survey of principals, which showed:

  • more than 80 percent of respondents supported an increase in targeted equity funding.
  • More than 75 percent wanted to see a more finely grained decile system to reflect an even stronger link to socio-economic factors. 
  • Around 70 percent of principals supported improved funding to Maori and Pasifika learners
  • 98 percent wanted to see improved funding for learners with special needs

It is encouraging to see that the issue has now been at least mooted and especially that many school leaders around the country recognise the need for change. However there are now growing signs that this system combined with the competition between schools has begun to manifest other issues as parents see the decile system as a proxy for quality. This has resulted in a “white flight” where wealthy parents send their (predominantly white) children to higher decile schools and poorer students become concentrated in low decile schools (Haque).

Studies show that school systems with low levels of competition among schools often have high levels of social inclusion, meaning that students from diverse social backgrounds attend the same schools. In contrast, in systems where parents can choose schools (I.e New Zealand), and schools compete for enrolment, schools are often more socially segregated (OECD, 2014).

As a result of families choosing to ‘up’, socially and economically, the schools serving New Zealand’s poorest communities are now, on average, 2.5 times smaller than those serving our richest communities. 


Source: Haque

Note: MELA = Middle eastern, Latin American and African; Fees = International fee paying students; n/d no decile ( private schools are not assigned a decile ). 

We know that SES (Socio economic status) and ethnicity are conflated: many Maori and Pasifika students have low SES. What this means is we live in a highly stratified country which operates what can only be described as a form of “educational apartheid” (Haque), particularly when we compare decile 1 and decile 10 schools. Statistics point that many Maori and Pasifika students live in poor, ghettoised communities and attend increasingly stressed and ghettoised schools, while rich European/Pakeha and Asian students live in separate, well off communities and attend privileged schools (Haque)

More money:

A common response to our issues is that more money can solve the problem. This has brought about frequent debate on our levels of investment in education. There is no real evidence however that New Zealand’s education system is underfunded:

  • 17.8% of our total public expenditure went towards education; as a portion of GDP (5.7%) this investment is above the OECD average of 4.8%.
  • Primary spending was US$7069 per child, below the OECD average of US$8247 (OECD). The reason for the difference is that NZ’s income is below average OECD levels. 

Annual expenditure by primary and secondary educational institutions per student (2013)



Source: Educationcounts.

Regardless of which way you look at our investment statistics, research shows that the level of funding is not the issue, but rather the distribution of this funding. We know decile and student achievement are related, but we also know that up to a certain level additional funding does not result in better education (Haque, Hattie). The misconception is that more money can buy a better education. In most Western countries it is hard to find evidence that more money makes much of a difference; above a certain level of funding, there is little relation between more money and increased achievement. For countries with middle to high GDP’s like New Zealand, there is no relationship between expenditure and performance in education (Hattie) (as base levels of investment are generally high compared to lower GDP countries). 

Spending and outcomes in the OECD


Source: SMHC

Unfortunately one of the issues with using trend data is that subsets can often get lost. We have a relatively well preforming education system that is well funded, however it is also clear that it is failing some sectors of our society. Given the results above there still may be a need for targeted funding where we can achieve the best marginal benefit for each dollar spent and ensure that each school reaches the level of investment where other factors such as the way we teach play a more important role.

Further Distractions

While analysis points to several factors that have a real influence on our education it is still often the case that governments can focus on policies which are politically attractive but which have been shown to have little effect on improving student learning.

Polices such as reducing  class size have been frequently mooted, most recently by the Labour Party at a cost of around $350million over the next three years. While intentions may be good, there is significant evidence that this has a negligible effect on learning performance. 

Average 2012 PISA scores (average of reading, numeracy, and science), arrayed by average class size


Souce: OECD

Reducing class sizes as a measure is certainly a way to appease parents, teachers, and school leaders. Parents see reducing class size as a proxy for more attention being paid to their children. School leaders see it as a proxy for more resources (since salaries are more than 80% of most budgets, more staff automatically means more money) (Hattie), and teachers argue it is less stressful and more effective to deal with fewer students.

While these are all understandable assumptions the evidence shows there is little obvious relation between class size and performance, and that there are much more worthy cases for investment.


Academic testing and targets are another area that produces significant debate and there are several different schools of thought regarding how they should be implemented.  

The standard Anglo-American model follows a consistent pattern in announcing ambitious student achievement targets publicly, conducting regular testing to assess performance against these targets, and then making assessment results visible to stimulate school motivation and discussion on how to improve.

These targets help to align stakeholders on a small set of priorities, and gave a simple metric regarding progress in making improvements that could be easily communicated and understood by the public.

Standard Asian and Eastern European systems operate on the opposite end of the scale, “We have never used targets... No good for our students could ever come from making school data public and embarrassing our educators,” says one Asian system leader (McKinsey & Co).

The main rationale voiced by leaders of this system is a belief that top-down target-setting is at odds with developing holistic school capacity; they view this as a trade-off between their desired focus on processes (e.g. school excellence, teaching and learning practices) and that on targets. “We want our schools to focus on getting the process right. If they follow the process, they will get good results. But if they focus on targets, they can end up taking shortcuts in the process.” (McKinsey).

There is little evidence that creating more achievement tests is beneficial (NRC) and further research outlines some of the major issues related to excessive assessment testing and target setting.

Learning only what is required to pass

Relating especially to a competitive schooling environment where students and teachers know what is required to pass and do not engage in any deeper learning or promote the knowledge, skills and habits needed for success in college or skilled work (Especially detrimental when test scores are used to evaluate teachers). (NRC)

Narrowing the curriculum

Standardized exam results have become one of the most important indicators of school performance. As a result, teachers and administrators feel enormous pressure to ensure that test scores consistently rise. Schools narrow and manipulate the curriculum to match the test, while teachers tend to cover only what is likely to be on the next exam (NRC). It is also very difficult to design tests to cover some important skills (such as the 4Cs which will be discussed later).

Undermining student engagement and school climate.

Schools are now increasingly stratified, and even within schools, students get stratified into streams and ability groups. This doesn’t help the good students, but hugely dents the performance of poor kids (Hattie). Recent research shows children perform according to expectation – a major reason children from poor backgrounds perform poorly is because no one expects them to do well (Stipek). By stratifying schools and classes we rob poor performers of positive role models, and leave teachers as the sole vehicle for increasing expectations. This undermines the performance of poor kids, poor schools, and our entire education system


Poor information only informs poor decisions and using testing as a yardstick for performance, especially across schools and to compare teachers only accentuates this. Student tests cannot reliably, validly, and fairly be used to judge educators. Researchers looked at popular value-added methods of teacher evaluation and found them fraught with errors and unreliable (EPI). The negative consequences for teaching and learning will only intensify when educators are judged “in significant part” by student test scores. One study found:

  • Among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%.
  • The study also found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4% to 16% of the variation in such ratings in the following year (EPI).
  • A separate study showed that the teacher drives just 13% of a student outcome (Marzano).

This is not to say that the quality of the teacher does not matter, quite the opposite, it is rather to say that as a it is unwise to use student test scores as single metric to determine teacher quality.

Aside from educational factors the logistics of testing also require significant resources with substantial amounts of time and money invested into preparing, administrating, marketing etc (AFT). Studies across the US show that students in some districts in grades 6-11 devoted up to 55 hours per year simply to taking tests (about two full weeks of the school year - AFT). There is no similar information for New Zealand. 

UK and US Case studies on using testing to manage school and teacher performance

To give some context to these examples we can examine what has been happening recently in the UK and US.  Monitoring of A level results through a government target saw a considerable rise in student pass rates; while over the related period PISA results fell. 


Pass levels increased from around 70% to 98% and PISA results fell from 529 (9th position) in 2000 to 494 (26th) in 2012. When looking at this grade inflation there are a number of potential factors that could have influence on these scores, however the results are in line with evidence provided by Hattie, McKinsey and others around the effects of monitoring and result targeting.

One of the biggest issues with this grade inflation is that it is often seen as a success, when the reality is it is undermining how students learn. After analysing these statistics policy makers in the UK proceeded to overhaul their system and students will now be tested at the end of two years – with no exams in the first 12 months – to stop courses being broken down into bite-sized chunks that encourage a “formulaic approach” to education.

Similar sentiments are being felt over in the US with organisations such as the American Federation of Teachers, and “learning is more than a test score” campaigns, attempting to restore the balance between teaching and testing. These organisations hold a similar view to the research stated in this document, maintaining that the current test-and-punish accountability system has squeezed out vital parts of the curriculum that are not subjected to accountability testing, sacrificed student learning time for testing and test preparation, and forced teachers—particularly those teaching our most vulnerable students—to focus their attention on students achieving just below the passing score. This last phenomenon means that while one group of students get more help our best and worst performing students are left with less teacher input, solely to increase the level of students that pass.  

Many stakeholders within the US have voiced their concerns about the impact of standardized tests and have acted to curtail over testing and its consequences.

  • In Texas, lawmakers cut the number of high school end-of-course exams required for graduation from 15 to five, and eliminated the requirement that results would count for 15 percent of a student’s overall grade.
  • The Orchard Park Central School District Board of Education in New York took a stand with a resolution proposing that this year’s state assessments be used for “measuring the state’s progress in introducing the Common Core Learning Standards rather than for measuring student performance or educator effectiveness.”

Overall the major purpose of assessment in schools should be to provide interpretative information to teachers and school leaders about their impact so that they have the best information possible about where to go next in the teaching process (AFT).   

The current structure of schooling, and changing learning requirements

Up until now we have concentrated predominantly on the impacts inequality has had on our educational performance, but even when we separate the two issues the trends in our educational performance still track down (OECD). The organic nature of education means there is not a silver bullet to right these trends however there are a number of extensively researched studies that show successful interventions can be made to increase performance in a relatively short period of time.

Researchers and consultants McKinsey & Co hypothesize that there are two main education techniques. ‘Rote learning’ which is based around a centralised curriculum applied by teachers backed up by strong testing and accountability. This system is very cost effective, efficient in terms of developing resources, and requires a lower relative skill set to teach. The second is an ‘Inquiry approach’, which encourages the teachers to explore what works best for children, where teachers are effectively making up their resources as they go along, trying to find subjects that will inspire their children and help them learn. This requires skill and time.

 The differences in the two techniques are summarised below.


Rote Learning

Inquiry Based Learning


Low skilled

Highly skilled


Central administration

Decentralised Administration


Heavily dictated








Good For

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic

Thinking & soft skills


Ranking children

Getting best out of each child





The New Zealand education system has aspects of both approaches, and seems to be struggling. Which way should we head?

We often forget the organic nature of our children when it comes to schooling, and therefore to defer to a cardinal numbers regime of scores to say which technique is ‘best’ is difficult. A onesize-fits-all approach does not work and the art of teaching is to balance the need for both, using appropriate proportions of surface and inquiry in any series of lessons and knowing when to move from learning more ideas to relating and extending these ideas (Hattie).

The way we teach.

This new integrated school of thought requires an overhaul of current techniques and places the teacher and curriculum at the centre, while disregarding what is seen as unnecessary testing and heavy handed government control of practises.

Central to this new learning is what has been labelled “21st century” skills which revolve around soft skills like communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking (the 4Cs), alongside the traditional skills, reading, writing, and arithmetic ( the 3Rs). 

If we look back these two approaches are indistinguishable in terms of outcomes. Looking forward, however – in this world of rapid change, no more jobs for life, and casualization of work - it is the 4Cs that are increasingly prized by employers. Therefore this points to the importance of an inquiry based approach for our education system.

Developing these new systems requires a cohesive effort between teachers, leaders ( principals), and government.

An extensive study from McKinsey & Co gives us insights into how some of these learning techniques have been applied in practise over the course of several decades. The study consisted of 20 entire school systems, the earliest of which began in 1979, from different parts of the world, and from an array of starting points, it shows schools that have registered significant, sustained, and widespread student outcome gains, and examines why what they have done has succeeded where so many others failed.  The sections below summarise the results.


The study shows there is a strong, correlation between a school system’s improvement and the tightness of central control over the individual schools activities and performance. Once a system has reached a benchmark of performance the core driver for systems moving forward is characterized by higher skill educators, providing only loose, central guidelines for teaching and learning processes, in order to encourage peer led creativity and innovation inside schools.

Teachers and leaders.

Having this autonomy is one thing, but it also means that teachers must be able to cope with the added complexity that this brings.

Teacher quality is too often absent when it comes to policy discussion, perhaps because these discussions lead to some hard questions being asked; hence, the politics of distraction (class size, more money, etc) are often invoked to avoid asking them. Everyone that has kids going through the school system, or have been through themselves, knows that there is a massive variability in the effect that some teachers have compared to others. This is reflected in Hattie’s extensive research where he shows the most effective factor in boosting student achievement was collective teacher efficacy.

Collective teacher efficacy can be manipulated at a whole school level, and involves helping all teachers on the staff to understand that the way they go about their work has a significant impact on student results – for better or worse. Simultaneously, it involves stopping them from using other factors (e.g. home life, socio-economic status, motivation) as an excuse for poor progress. These factors do hinder learning, but a great teacher will always try to make a difference despite this, and they often succeed.

So the aim is to bring the effect of all teachers on student learning up to a very high standard. The ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy should have been named ‘No Teacher Left Behind’.

Both Hattie and McKinsey maintain that the three systems, curriculum, teachers, and leaders, when combined effectively can lead to successful transformations and have the greatest influence on student progression in learning. Performance indicators from schools that have adopted this strategy show this to be true (McKinsey).

Below is one of the best examples, Finland.

Finland Case Study                                                                                                           

The schooling system in Finland has adopted many of the approaches we have discussed above over the last 40 or so years and have seen significant improvements. To say simply that because they have worked there they can be successful in New Zealand would be foolish, each system possesses its own intricacies and variables. However this does not mean to say we cannot gain significant insights into how the application of such systems could benefit us here. 

Finland school system quick stats

  • The 2015 PISA scores place Finland 5th in science, 4thth in reading and 10th in maths among  69 countries and nearly half a million students.
  • In Finland, the average time per week spent learning regular lessons is one of the shortest among countries and economies participating in PISA. (24.2 Hours/week, rank 54/55 )
  • In 2015, the index of social inclusion (calculated as 100 × [1-rho], where rho stands for the intra-class correlation of socio-economic status) was one of the highest among PISA-participating countries and economies. (87.2 %, rank 4/68 )
  • They have no mandated standardised tests apart from one exam at the end of students senior year in high school.
  • Results are not publicised
  • Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7.  
  • There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools, or regions.
  • Schools are publicly funded.
  • The differences between the weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world
  • Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing.
  • The state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17
  • Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school.
  • Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools

The school system emerged as way out of economic distress brought about by Finland’s fractured past civil and world wars through the 1900’s. The idea was that robust education would drag them toward economic recovery.

The initial plan developed in the 60’s revolved around a one unified system of schools with a national curriculum. This was contributed to by teachers from across the nation and provided guidelines rather than prescriptions. Resources were distributed evenly.

In 1979 reform then required every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots.

Finally in the mid 1980’s initiatives cleared schools from the last vestiges of top-down regulation.  Control over policies shifted to town councils and the national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. 

  • Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated.
  • All children—clever or less so—were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind.
  • Accountability and inspection was turned over to teachers and principals.

Pasi Shlberg, a Finnish educator and author emphasises that Finland’s success is one of basic education, from age 7 until 16, at which point 95 percent of the country goes on to vocational or academic high schools. “The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society,” he said.

He maintains that the system was not built to be the best, simply to try give equal opportunity to every child in Finland, and of course “ We want to be better than the Swedes. That’s enough for us.”


OECD (2013). Education Indicators in Focus. What are the social benefits of education..

ME (2016). New Zealand Education System Overview.

OECD  (2015. Program for international Student Assessment

OECD ( 2014) PISA in Focus.

OECD (2011) Investing in high quality early childhood education.

OECD (2016) Low- Performing Students – Why the fall behind and how to help them succeed

OECD (2010) The High Cost of Low Educational Performance.

OtagoUniversity (2016). Child Poverty Monitor Technical Report.

VictoriaUniversity (2014). Indicators of Inequality for Maori and Pacific People.

Waters, T. Marzano, R. McNulty, B. (2003) Balanced Leadership: What 30 years of research tells us about the effect of leadership on student achievement.

Haque, B. (2014) Changing our Secondary Schools.

Hattie, J ( 2015) What Works Best in Education: The politics of Collaborative expertise.

Hattie, J ( 2015) What Doesn’t Work in Education: The politics of Distraction.

Scheweinhart, J. Montie, J. Xiang, Z. Barnett, W. Belfield, C. Nores, M. (2005) The High/Scope Perry Preeschool Study Through Age 40.

McKinsey & Company (2010). How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.

Fullan, M. Langworthy, M. (2014) A Rich Seam – How New Padagogies Find Deep Learning.

National Research Council (2001). Incentives and Test Based Accountability in Education.

EconomicPolicyInstitute(2010) Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.

Heckman J, Masterov D. (2007). The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children. 

Stipek, D (2002). Motivation to Learn. Integrating Theory and Practice.

Dalice, S. Marrott, L (2014). Indicators of Ineqaulity for Maori and Pacific People

Nelson, H (2013). American Federation of Teachers, Testing More, Teaching Less: What America’s Obsession with Students Testing Costs in Money and Lost Instructional Time.

Showing 6 reactions

  • Kate Tyson
    followed this page 2017-03-14 10:55:12 +1300
  • Martin Finkel
    followed this page 2017-02-24 16:23:54 +1300
  • Seann Paurini
    commented 2017-02-22 12:54:49 +1300
    I like the way TOP people put real oomph into the research. I think the ed policy needs some work on being specific about the social and democratic (or citizenship) needs and thus benefits of education. The 4 Cs are good for employers (do we assume employers are ethical, decent, fair-minded human beings as well?) and generally good for everyday life – ‘lived experience’ – but for me that says very little about formal foundational education which is utterly critical in advanced capitalist, tech-worship society/economy.
  • Steve Cox
    followed this page 2017-02-20 17:11:47 +1300
  • Oliver Krollmann
    commented 2017-02-20 11:23:23 +1300
    With regards to learning only what is required to pass, I’ve seen the same phenomenon in the IT industry. There are some well-known and sought-after industry certifications that are usually obtained by passing a series of multiple-choice exams. Some people became really good at passing these exams by either illegally buying the answers somewhere, or by using exam cram techniques to prepare particularly for the types of questions asked, or they simply took the exams again and again until they passed, obtaining and learning more and more answers by rote every time. But these people didn’t make any effort to actually learn and understand and apply the IT technologies. They were called paper-engineers or paper-specialists. If you got someone like that in your team who was hired by a manager or some HR person purely because of their paper certifications, without any practical testing by subject-matter experts during the interview process, you ended up having a damn expensive apprentice to look after, train and mentor. Often they weren’t able to take it any further than being able to follow written instructions and click buttons in the right order, but if something unexpected popped up, or if they needed to come up with their own approach to some task, they threw up their hands and started crying for help.
    I would hate to see the same thing creeping into our general education system. It wouldn’t produce creative thinkers and problem solvers and inventors that we need to be able to excel as a small country.
  • Oliver Krollmann
    followed this page 2017-02-20 11:08:13 +1300