What a circus - cultural lessons from Finland’s vocational education reforms

 12 September 2018

The Finnish education system is often regarded as one of the best in the world. Partnership Manager Sam Hawkins discusses the changes the country has made since 2001 and considers what the UK could learn from it.

The Sibelius Concert Hall in Lahti, Finland.
The Sibelius Concert Hall in Lahti, Finland.

The city of Lahti in southern Finland has a distinctive skyline. Three tall ski jump towers overlook the city and Vesijärvi lake. This beloved city winter attraction is bustling even in summer, as the base of the largest slope transforms into an open-air swimming pool and cable cars take tourists up to the top of the 120m tower for panoramic views of Finnish Lakeland.

It’s a city with a proud outdoors tradition, renowned for regularly producing and training international winter sports champions. But Lahti is not only producing the next generation of ski-jumping talent. In the centre of Lahti, at the Salpaus Circus Center is Salpauksen Sirkusartistikoulutus: Lahti Circus School.

This is one of the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) upper secondary schools in Finland where young Finns work towards the well-established and well regarded vocational certificate. Whether at the Circus School, the Lahti Conservatory that specialises in vocational music training, or in any of the other 50 vocational pathways available to all students.

Changes put in place

Finland’s education system has an excellent reputation. Alongside regular top-of-the-table PISA rankings, their approach to vocational studies is one that catches the attention of countries trying to really integrate post-16 education with industry - the UK included.

Finland introduced major changes to a diverse and underperforming system beginning in 2001. Sharing many similarities with the current technical education reforms of England and Wales, Finland was aiming to address a lot of the same problems: duplicate and unclear vocational qualifications, youth unemployment levels, dead-end vocational tracks, few links between education and working life and with productivity on the decline.

Finland introduced major changes to a diverse and underperforming system beginning in 2001.

What are some key lessons we can learn for our young people in the future, looking at the improvement they have made in the last 15 years?

Finding a successful circus school at secondary level represents one of the aspects of the technical education reforms Finland has really got right: choice.

Mid-Year 10, Finnish students apply to their top five upper secondary schools. They can choose a general school, lukio, where they study towards university if they want to go into a profession that requires it (medicine or teaching for example) or if they want to pursue more general education and take another three years to decide on their future career. Those who have a specific career in mind and want to learn the skills for that job, and those who want to start earning sooner can choose the TVET schools.

Quality vocational options

The choice these 15 and 16 year-olds make is between quality options. The reputation of TVET is excellent, delivering on a promise of practical skills, and in many cases a more secure and lucrative career than following the general route.

The 50 routes available cover a wide range of careers from arts, through construction, health and beauty, business and entrepreneurship, digital technology to tourism and the environment. This helps balance more jobs on an equal footing in terms of training, reputation and prospects.

Just over half of Finns choose the TVET route each year, and the quality is reflected in how competitive the applications are. Only 70 per cent are successful getting onto their preferred vocational track, compared with 92 per cent going into general education.

Keeping options open

The prospects that the young people have after their training also makes the Finnish system stand out. After earning their initial vocational certificate, TVET students can continue to learn and earn an advanced certificate, often leading to specialisms and trade certification. Options remain open, with students able to move onto Universities of Applied Sciences which is specifically for advancing technical education.

Including work placement time, over four years a TVET student would end up with a Level 4 qualification, work experience and further options to continue study or go into employment. Whereas the general track ends at Level 3. Finland has succeeded in a big social shift, moving TVET onto an equal footing with general education, and often with rigour and expectations measurably higher on TVET than a route geared to HE.

Social responsibility

The other remarkable social shift is the way that society as a whole accepts and takes responsibility for at-work training. Employers across the country welcome trainees into their companies. Students must spend six to eight weeks each year learning on-the-job.

The encouragement of the young person is embedded in the culture.

In all workplaces you will find students working alongside professionals and it is accepted by customers, co-workers and business owners across the board. The encouragement of the young person is embedded in the culture.

TVET schools have restaurants, salons, workshops and shops that are open to and supported by the public: students make goods from furniture to sauna stoves and they are bought and valued. Involving the students in the real customer/client economy at that early stage is a vital step that we could learn a lot from.

What can we take away?

There are economic, demographic, political and resource differences that make a Finnish solution uniquely Finnish. However, this is a society that made a firm decision to treat vocational training with equality; to value, support it and find it everywhere.

This is a society that made a firm decision to treat vocational training with equality; to value, support it and find it everywhere.

In some ways, we are on a better footing that Finland to make these changes. The government there has, in 2017, just brought in legislation to make the vocational certificates more skills and behaviour led, with more personalisation for each learner, as the youth unemployment rate has not improved greatly. This is much like apprenticeship reforms here. I believe we have a society that values young people, we just seem to want to keep them separate from the workplace.

Imagine if every time you were at the cinema or theatre you knew that your email ticket enquiries, your trip to the bar, the front-of-house team or sound, lighting or technical team was always going to have a young person learning while they interacted with you or your event? Could there be part of the ticket or receipt that shows the share of the social contract we have with our young people?  

For every young person that trains and succeeds, everyone can take pride in their success and everyone can benefit from it.


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