The reform of 2018 of vocational education and training in Finland goes hand in hand with a major reform of the Finnish education system. What? May one perhaps think abroad, of all places, that Finland's education system is so good? (A recent BBC report provides an insight into the situation.)
Yes, the Finns think so because they know that those who do not develop further do not give the best for their most valuable - their children and adolescents, with the available means and with fun, without already being under pressure.
For the Finnish Ministry of Education it is clear that the digital change in our lives must be taken up in schools and can be used for the benefit of learners. But the aim is not just for young people to sit with their backs crooked in front of computers but also for physically fit and mentally mobile children. Schools must open themselves more to the outside world, integrate movement into everyday school life and make less use of content catalogues of classical specialist disciplines as a starting point than to the skills of individual schoolchildren. The consequence is a strengthening of learning oriented towards phenomen-based learning, and there is still no empirical evidence for an improvement in learning outcomes, as Prof. Jari Salminen from the University of Helsinki notes. But the experiences from Germany with the “learning field approach” in vocatioanl education as well as the approach of Martin Wagenschein in physics can stimulate optimism. To bring this reform to a success also means a massive investment in professional development for teachers.
A good time to go on a longer research trip to Finland from a German perspective, I said to myself, and talk to politicians, researchers and visit vocational schools and teachers there as well as in the neighbourhood Sweden. Sari Turunen-Zwinger, who is working on the "Opetushallitus-Utbildningsstyrelsen" the Finish National Agency for Education, was kind enough to explain the essential aspects for vocational education of the Finnish reform to me (see picture). She has experience with the dual system because she studied in Germany for a short time and lived in Austria for several years. She was responsible for the apprenticeship system in Helsinki before taking over responsibility at national level in Finland.
She emphasises that the reform in Finland combines vocational training for adults with that for young people. It will now only be regulated by a law and will be more strongly aligned with individuals, regardless of whether they have qualifications at EQF level 4, 5 or 6. For this purpose the manifold experiences from adult education will be used for the individual assessment of competence. The current 354 vocational qualification profiles (Germany has, with significantly more inhabitants and an enterprise-oriented system even less) are reduced to 164, whereby these are based on 54 basic occupations. Further specialisation will then be based on 3-5 years of work experience with optional modules to supplement the qualifications that can be acquired at school or in the workplace.
Even during initial vocational training, the company as a place of learning should be used as intensively as possible in school-based training and not only in the apprentice model. Due to the individualised competence assessment, the duration of the training is also no longer so clearly defined; however, it is assumed that it will take approx. 3 years. This also means, however, that learners can switch to work in the company earlier and take up paid employment there (a decision that has always been criticised in the discourse on modularisation in Germany, at least by the trade unions, because they feared that young people would then remain in a low-wage sector).
However, the quality of in-company learning, which is now to gain in importance, is controlled by schools and is also to be assessed by teachers at vocational schools.
Questions that arise from a German perspective remain unanswered:
What should motivate companies to participate if they do not have an acute shortage of skilled workers? Who has the competence to design systematic training there? How should this work in rural regions? Will the cost-intensive school workshops, which are so important and helpful for a phenomenon-based learning approach, still be maintained? How should the schools accompany such a flexible individual learning development that is reminiscent of the support plans in German support for disadvantaged people and is developed there with multidisciplinary teams?
Good that I had the opportunity to discuss these questions with the practice in a seminar with Swedish speaking leaders and teachers at vocational schools in Finland the following week. The further education seminar, organised by HY+, the institute responsible for further education at the University of Helsinki, was designed by Prof. Viveca Lindberg (with whom I cooperate closely during my research stay on the Aland Islands) and Gabriella Höstfält (both University of Stockholm) and titled in line with one of my open questions: "How can one be a good supervisor (handledare) of company practice at school? - Consequences of the 2018 reform".
The assembled vocational school teachers and school principals made explicit that the absence of in-company trainers is just as much a problem as the flexibility that can now be achieved in the design of school instruction. They are also sceptical about the fact that learners are now expected to have a very high degree of independent learning control and self-discipline. How these policy requirements can be met without additional funding remains unclear to them. Nevertheless, they also see positive aspects in flexibilisation.
The indications from my conversation with Annika Isacsson at Haaga Helia (University of applied science in Helsinki), who is responsible for the pedagogical training of vocational school teachers, also point in a similar direction. The training curriculum for teachers is based on a high degree of self-direction on the part of the prospective teachers. However, since all of them have already completed their studies in a professional field and have longer work experience, this is in line with the interests and abilities of the students. Annika is sceptical that the same degree of self-control can be expected of pupils in initial training. She relies on conversations with parents, whose young people perhaps prefer to play computer games on their sofa at home rather than go into the adult world of a company when they cannot be accompanied intensively.
So it remains interesting how this reform works in Finland in terms of vocational training. In any case, the state places a lot of trust in the creative abilities of its teachers and those of its younger generation.
As my stay is not yet over, I am looking forward to further insights at schools and universities in Tampere, Jyväskyla and Jakobstad, 450 km northwest of Helsinki.
Vocational teacher education in Finland by Harri Keurulainen, JAMK University of Applied Sciences, Teacher Education College, Jyväskyla 2017