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Finns’ learning outcomes have declined exceptionally rapidly, says ministry

LEARNING OUTCOMES in Finland have declined at a particularly rapid rate in global comparison, reveals a so-called bildung review published by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Simultaneously differences in learning outcomes have increasingly become attributable to the social backgrounds of learners and differences between genders have widened to become “exceptionally large” in international comparison.

The Ministry of Education and Culture admitted that the reasons for the deterioration of learning outcomes are largely unknown and underscored the need to identify them.

“As learning outcomes continue to decline, it is necessary to critically evaluate both the development and our previous assumptions about the reasons for good learning outcomes,” Anita Lehikoinen, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education and Culture, wrote in the preamble of the review published on Thursday.

“Many of our traditional strengths, such as the widespread autonomy and high education level of teachers, have only improved in the 2000s, but learning outcomes have declined.”

The Ministry of Education and Culture pointed out that the national education sector underwent strong growth between the 1960s and 1990s, with learning outcomes topping industrial countries. The long-term positive development came to a halt by the end of the millennium, however, after funding for the sector had begun to decline during the recession of the 1990s, falling from 4.6 per cent of gross domestic product in 1990 to 4.4 per cent in 2020.

While Finnish pupils received the highest score for reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000, their reading proficiency has declined by an amount that equals almost a full year of learning since 2006.

The decline in learning outcomes has coincided with a decline in educational attainment. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in October published a report revealing that Finnish young adults are less educated than the average among its member states, with the share of 25–34-year-olds with a university-level degree falling below 40 per cent.

The percentage leaves Finland between Chile and Turkey. Finland has adopted the official objective of raising the share of 25–34-year-olds with a university-level degree to 50 per cent by 2030.

Lehikoinen pointed out that people born in 1975, who completed upper-secondary education in 1994, remain highly educated at a higher rate than any other age group in Finland.

“Today we find ourselves in a situation where the increase in education level achieved with decisions made in previous decades is coming to a stop and the age groups that are retiring are almost as highly educated as those entering the labour market. This slows down the increase in education level significantly,” she said.

“It is a socio-political challenge that clearly more comprehensive measures are needed for the change today than in previous decades if the intention is to restore Finland as a country where education levels among the population are globally high.”

Officials at the Ministry of Education and Culture pointed out that learning outcomes have declined particularly rapidly in lower socio-economic groups, indicating that the reasons for the decline are linked to a general widening of socio-economic disparities.

There has been some positive development, too, toward the end of the 2010s. Educational attainment among 28-year-olds increased between 2010 and 2020, suggesting that education level among people born in the 1990s can surpass that of people born in late 1970s.

The review also speculates that learning outcomes may have been affected by social and technological development that have shaped, for example, how people read. Borrowing from libraries has decreased markedly since 2006, a development that has likely intensified as their book collections have shrunk.

The share of people who borrow from libraries fell from around half to one-third between 2006 and early 2020s.

The Ministry of Education and Culture reminded that education provides various benefits for both the individual and society. Education tends to correlate with income, with a higher-education degree boosting the career earnings of men by 550,000 euros and women by 400,000 euros compared to those with upper-secondary vocational qualifications.

Education in Finland also correlates strongly with the employment rate, and the much-discussed labour shortage applies especially to employees with higher education qualifications.

“Labour supply can impose limitations on employment and business growth,” the review notes.

Experts concur that the reasons for the decline in learning outcomes are multi-faceted, Helsingin Sanomat reported on Thursday.

Katariina Salmela-Aro, an academy professor at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Education, estimated that diminishing resources at schools have clearly had an impact on learning outcomes.

“Some schools are starting to be short on good teachers. That creates differences between schools,” she said to the daily newspaper. “The well-being of the entire school has an impact on learning outcomes. A motivated teacher motivates pupils.”

One should also not overlook the effects of qualities such as curiosity, motivation, perseverance and resilience, as well as the general well-being of children and youth, according to Salmela-Aro.

“When you’re anxious and exhausted, you won’t learn, become interested or excited,” she summed up.

Hannu Lehti, a researcher of sociology at the University of Turku, expressed his concern about the widening performance gap between boys and girls. “In Finland, the development has continued to the point that girls are better than boys even in maths. That isn’t too common internationally. This raises the question, what has happened in schools that has made boys’ outcomes drop.”

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