Blog: Play, trust and children-centred learning: the Finnish approach to music education
Published: 3 Oct 2019
I’m a choral conductor and music educator from Derbyshire. I’ve been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study the impact of choral singing on educational development in Finland, Canada and the USA. Here are the key things I’ve learnt from the first leg of my travels, visiting schools in the Finnish cities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä.
One thing that struck me about Finland straight away is that it seems an altogether very efficient place to live. At least it is in Helsinki, the capital, where I spent my first nine days. The public transport is very reliable: one weekly ticket gets you on any train, tram, bus or underground. And no one checks that you even have a ticket – they just trust that you have. Which neatly brings me onto my first observation about music education in the country: trust.
Trusting teachers and assessing pupils’ learning
It seems to me that all teachers in Finland, whatever they teach, are highly respected and trusted to get on with their job. You need a Master’s degree to become a teacher, which means it’s a relatively difficult job to get into. As a result, teachers are given a high level of trust once they’re in post, and there are no inspections.
Because of the lack of inspections, there’s less pressure on teachers in Finland than in the UK. This lack of pressure applies to the pupils as well: there's no testing here, no league tables or regimented timetabling. Children learn freely, and music is treated as an important part of this. It certainly isn't marginalised or seen as an 'add-on', as it is in the UK. Although there’s a core curriculum for both ordinary schools and music institutes, teachers are given the flexibility to deliver lessons based on children's needs.
This got me thinking about how we assess pupils’ learning in the UK. The government places so much importance on testing and inspections that teaching has become about ticking boxes and reaching targets. The UK spends £40m on the SATs tests every year – and an astonishing £207m every year on school inspections. Imagine how that money could be distributed to schools in areas that really need it, like music education.
A child-centred approach
The approach to music education in Finland is very child-centred. Children’s motivation to learn is high, because they’re not simply being told what they need to know. The reason teachers are able to be so flexible is because they’re free from much of the 'red tape' that chokes many teachers in the UK.
Ordinary primary schools generally provide 1-2 lessons of music a week. Some primary school children as young as eight can apply to attend 'extended music classes' – which form part of an ordinary primary school, not a specialist one – where they develop their musicianship further, alongside other topics. Also, the school day here is shorter than in the UK – it finishes at 1pm or 2pm: pupils are encouraged to take up hobbies like music and pursue this as an extension of their school day.
Through discussions with teachers and music education experts, I learnt about a system of 89 Finnish music schools, or 'institutes'. The institutes are scattered across Finland and are part-funded by the government. Then there are 'music play schools'. Attending these is the most popular activity for preschool children. Like the institutes, they’re also publicly supported. Funding per pupil generally works out at 57% from the state, 25% from the municipality and 18% in fees from the parents. There’s no equivalent to this system in the UK.
Finland's population is around 10% of the UK's. Some 67,000 Finnish children attend music schools, with about 36% of these attending Early Childhood Music classes (up to age 7). Research in Finland shows that a musical education, which starts with singing, makes a huge difference to how the brain works and learns.
Every pupil is equal
Lastly, the Finnish approach demonstrates the fact that everyone is seen as equal: there are no unnecessary barriers. Children call teachers by their first name, including the head teacher; there’s no school uniform; children (and staff) take off their shoes when entering the classroom; and there are regular breaks to allow pupils to stay focused.
All of the above seems to work well. There’s a lot of respect for one another in an environment that makes learning fun and where kids are motivated. Titles and hierarchy seem unimportant. People have roles, yes - but respect isn't expected, it's earned.