A couple of years ago I had the great fortune to visit schools in Italy. Having visited a number of schools around Europe over the last few years I know what I experienced in there in term of their use of ICT was not usual. It made me realise how far we have come in this country, and although there is still much to do to ensure our curriculum is relevant to children and our use of ICT prepares them for tomorrow’s world – we certainly have the edge of many of our European counterparts.
Through the British Council we were developing a project with partner schools in five EU countries (Germany, Finland, Italy, Czech Republic and Belgium) at the initial planning meeting I suggested we use a shared blog and maybe create a wiki for the children to collaborate. This raised a few eyebrows and voices of concern but most worries were allayed when we agreed that at our visit to Italy we would go through how each online element of the project would work. It’s fair to say we were working with a number of differing levels of competence regarding ICT and this was borne out on each of our visits, but the Italian visit in many ways seemed to set the tone for the subsequent trips. On reflection, I certainly over estimated the use of ICT in the project.
On arriving at the first of our Italian partners’ schools we set about going through how to use the shared European blog we had created. The teachers very proudly took us to their ICT suite. The large, iron shutter, similar to a high street shop’s protective front, was unlocked and lifted to reveal a small suite with all computers and monitors covered with dust sheets. ‘Don’t the children use the computers very much?’ asked James, one of our staff. ‘The children?’ came the reply. ‘These are not for the children!’ It didn’t look like the staff got much use of them either!
Our latest Comenius trip enabled three staff to visit Finland, a country I have read so much about in terms of its approach to education. Finland consistently tops most educational surveys, it leads in children’s achievements and has a system that many of us envy. Schools receive no inspections, no Ofsted, no SATs, no end of key stage assessment or league tables to measure one setting against another.
The staff we met certainly didn’t appear stressed and loved their work. The curriculum showed a leaning towards creative work, but it was far from radical and innovative. Children’s attitudes weren’t markedly different from those you’d find in our schools but they only start their formal schooling at 6 or 7 so they’ve learnt a lot of social skills before they begin. This means more formal learning can happen quicker and the children are more receptive to it. I have spoken to people in the past who think that by starting school later they will remain behind their global peers but the reality is that because they begin school when they are ready to learn, their rate of progress is quicker.
Finnish society also seems to place great importance on schools and learning. In the afternoons after school, many of the children could be found in the library, a well used and inviting environment that children readily access. Indeed the schools showed a relaxed, calm atmosphere that reflects the life in general.
Teaching is a Masters profession and as such held in high esteem. The parents we met fully supported school and life seemed to work in harmony! School dinners are paid for by the state and in the main trips and outings are also provided free of charge. There is a healthy love and respect for the arts and society in general seems to value culture and learning in a way we don’t here.
What did I learn from this trip to Finland? I learnt that education is about society not just school. The classes I watched didn’t show me any great pedagogy, no hidden formula for success, no magical insights into a radically different approach that produced superior results. Finland sees learning and education as everyone’s responsibility, parents and the state don’t simply hand children over to schools and say ‘your job.’ That collective responsibility, respectful partnership and shared investment in their children’s future is where we really need to learn from our European colleagues.