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Education Finland

Finland’s education system explained

In this post, I’m going to explain the basics of the Finland’s education system. I’m starting at age zero even if it’s not school, but that way it explains better how the system works. There will be links referring to sources that are in Finnish. I apologize for the inconvenience, but all the data is not available in English. 

Time before school

The baby year, age 0-1

Babies are at home with their mother and/or father. One common way to do this is that the mother is at home most of the time, and the father is at home some of the time. But there are other ways around it, too. About the first four months will be paid leave for the mother, after that it can be either one of the parents.

The age of 9 months is a bit of a turning point, if you have two parents in the family, the money you get from the government will decrease heavily at this point, and some babies will start a daycare at this age. If you have to start at a very young age, it’s quite common to start with a family-like care in the childminders home. This is called “perhepäivähoitaja” which translates to “family daytime care”. If the family has only one parent, the turning point age is approximately 11 months. 

Starting at daycare (age 1-3)

There is no one particular age for children to start the daycare in Finland. Most kids will start somewhere between ages 1-3. This is because even if you won’t get the full paycheck from the government, you will receive some support to care for your children at home if they are younger than three. This gives some flexibility to the families, and many people put their children to daycare at the age of 1 or two.

Years at the daycare (age 3-5)

The very basic idea is that children are in the daycare while the parents are working but kids can go to nursery even if the parent(s) are at home. On the other hand, children at this age group can also be at home. Maybe there is a smaller sibling that mother or father is taking care of at home, or maybe the family just chooses to keep children at home for longer.

How much education do you receive at the daycare? Well here is the interesting point: Teachers at the daycare centers are educated, they must have a degree of Bachelor of Arts (Education). The translation of the degree isn’t the most fluent English, but apparently, there is a law that states the right translation[1]. The teachers plan educational content for every day, but these lessons are much shorter than a day in school would be. In addition to teachers, there are also nurses to take care for the children during the day. 

So, in Finland’s education system kids at age 2-5 receive upbringing provided by teachers with a bachelor’s degree in education. The differences (compared to countries that present the formal education at earlier age) are:

  1. It’s not mandatory
  2. The educational content is chopped to relatively short lessons or integrated to the daily routine
  3. It’s not called school. (That would sound too much work!)

The price of the daycare is partly subvented. Usually a family pays a few hundred euros per month, the cost depends on the parent’s income level and the city/municipality they live in. 

Level 1: Basic School

Preschool (age 6)

Preschool is one year long, and it’s the first mandatory part of Finnish educational system. Children start preschool in the calendar year they turn six. The official goals of preschool are a bit abstract. There are things like interaction, taking care of oneself, multiliteracy, and ability to use technology. It’s not officially listed, but you could say that recognizing letters and numbers is something you would do in preschool. [2]

The basic school (peruskoulu)

The basic school in Finland’s education is the level one and it’s for ages 7-15. It’s mandatory with one technical exception: You don’t have to put your child to school if you make sure that the child learns the basic school curriculum some other way. In practice, homeschool is very rare, because sending kids to school is just easier. In rural areas the municipality has to take care of getting your child to school with a bus or taxi.

Lower grades of basic school (ages 7-12)

At grades 1-6, you typically have one teacher teaching most of the subjects, and then maybe one or two teachers for special subjects like foreign language (typically English) and handicraft/sewing. (These subjects are only examples.)

Upper grades of basic school (age 13-15)

At grades from 7 to 9 you typically have several teachers and all those teachers have been studying their own subject at university to the master level. If one teacher has several subjects, she/he will have one of the subjects as a major subject and about one year’s studies of the other subjects. Students can spend about 1-5 hours with one teacher in a week. That means the students would have close to 10 teachers in the same week. They do have one teacher assigned for the class but the teacher won’t be teaching much more than a few hours a week. So from the students point of view, the system really changes when shifting to upper grades.  

Level 2: High school or vocational school

The second level (ages 16-18)

This used to be optional, but now it’s starting to be mandatory. However, this law has been since 2021, so no-one has real experience about mandatory second level. [3]

In this level, you have two major options: Lukio (the closest translation would be high school, but it’s not 100% the same) or ammattikoulu (vocational school). The typical time for level 2 would be three years, but it can also be two or four. It’s possible to take both, high school and vocational school at the same time, then it’s probably four years. There are also other options such as apprenticeship, but it’s less common at this stage. 

Requirements for the teachers in high school are the same as the upper grades teacher at level 1 and that is a master’s degree from the subject in question. For a vocational school teacher, the requirements are the same if you teach some general subjects such as math. If you teach vocational subjects, you must be an expert on your field and have some work life experience before teaching. 

Matriculation examination

Matriculation examination (ylioppilaskirjoitukset) is a significant set of tests you take at the end of high school (lukio). Nowadays it’s more common to do it in several parts, for example in the fall term of third year and the next spring. It’s also possible to take all tests at once. You can select your set of tests, except that the first language test is mandatory. (First language can be Finnish, Swedish or Sámi language. [4]) The results of these tests will highly affect where you can go studying because many universities select at least some students based solely on these tests.

Level 3: University / University of Applied Sciences

Selection test system  

In many universities in Finland, there is a selection test. Often it measures your ability to 

  1. understand the books you should read for the test 
  2. apply new solutions to new problems. 

Another way to get in is to do well in the matriculation examination. 22% of the students are selected based on the ME only. [7] In some schools, often related to art, there are some other measures for taking students in. 

Between levels 2 and 3, it’s common to have a year or two off before starting at the university or university of applied sciences (Later also: UoAS). This is caused partly by duties to society and partly by the selection test system. In highly competitive fields, such as medicine, it’s typical to try several times before getting in. A person who didn’t get to school of choice can

  • Study some other subject for a year and try again
  • Get some job and study for the test and try again
  • There are also commercial prepping courses for those trying to get in.

Mathematics plays a huge role in student selection nowadays, and it has been a matter of discussion if it should be reduced when the studies won’t require it. Of course, some people are able to get to their school of choice straight after high school. There has been a tendency towards faster start of the studies via favoring marticular examinations, but the selection test system is not likely to disappear any time soon.

Who can apply

The rule is that if you have completed the second level you can apply to the third level. If you’re heading to the university you usually take the high school. To get into a university of applied science you can take either high school of vocational school. Applying from a vocational school to university is unorthodox and usually these are cases where a person has been in the work-life from some years and then changed the plans. 

University of applied science

The idea behind University of applied science is that in some professions, you will need both a practical and theoretical approach. Examples of professions: nurse, police, several bachelors, several engineers and so on. Many of these studies can be completed in three years if you study full-time, but some of them are longer and it’s also common to comprise study and work. Sometimes it’s for money, but also for the experience and getting contacts. It’s also possible to do a couple extra years in UoAS and get to the masters level.

University

In Finland you will apply to study a certain subject and each faculty decides how they will take the students in. After you are in, you can usually select some supporting subjects. Theoretically, after three years you should be able to do your bachelor’s degree and after two additional years the master’s degree. Some students may do that faster and for some, it may take a bit longer time. 

After completing the third level?

If you are sure that you want to get a PhD and become an expert in your field, applying to doctoral studies can be your choice. But generally, if you don’t have a clear vision about a career in university, it would be a wise choice to get some experience in work life. Those with a degree and experience tend to have a wider choice of jobs than those with a PhD but no work life experience. 

How old are you when graduating?

If you do everything at an ideal pace, you would turn nineteen when completing level 2. The bachelor’s degree would be complete at age 22 and master’s degree at 24. But, for reasons explained above it’s typical to be slightly older than that.

Price

The education is basically free. In the old days, you had to buy your own books from level 2, but since it’s becoming mandatory the books will be included in the future. But the third level books you will have to buy, unless you get them from a student library.

Summary of the Finnish teachers’ education level throughout Finland’s education system: 

  • At the nursery, your teacher is a Bachelor of Arts (Education)
  • School years 0-6: Your teacher will have a master’s degree in Education
  • From year 7 to the end of high school: Your teachers will have a master’s degree on one of their subjects and one years worth of studies in additional subjects.
  • At the university, you’ll be of course teached by a PhD. (University of applied sciences may hold some exceptions.)

References:

[1] https://www.finlex.fi/fi/laki/alkup/2012/20120421 
[2] https://www.oph.fi/fi/koulutus-ja-tutkinnot/esiopetuksen-tavoitteet
[3] https://minedu.fi/oppivelvollisuuden-laajentaminen
[4] https://www.studentum.fi/tietoa-opiskelijalle/ylioppilastutkinnon-kokeet-7790
[5] https://opintopolku.fi/wp/aikuiskoulutus/opettajan-pedagogiset-opinnot/yliopistotutkinnolla-opettajaksi/
[6] https://findikaattori.fi/fi/9
[7] https://www.oph.fi/fi/uutiset/2019/korkeakoulujen-yhteishaussa-opiskelupaikka-yli-48-000-opiskelijalle 

The picture is based on: The fact that level 2 is as wide as level 1 is based on the mandatory education now applied to everyone over 18. [3] At the moment, it would be a little narrower. The wideness of level three pieces is based on 2019 statistics that about 32% will study at the third level[6] and the information that about half of those start at some university of applied sciences[7]. The daycare part is based on my artistic view and understanding about the daycare system.