For years, Finland has been the by-word for a successful education system, perched at the top of the international league tables for literacy and numeracy.
Only Far Eastern countries, such as Singapore and China, outperform the Nordic nation in the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ─ an international standardised test for 15-year-olds in language, maths and science.
It seems this isn’t the only league table in which Finland is coming out on top, as they are known for producing some of the most physically fit children in Europe.
A recent report found that young people in Finland were in favour of more physical activity in schools.
Finland’s obsession with health stems from the 1970s when it had the highest rate of deaths from heart-related issues in the world – no thanks to their flourishing dairy sector.
In a bid to tackle this issue, from a young age pupils were weighed on an annual basis and the results were recorded in end-of-year reports.
These results were collated and led to the governing body issuing dietary guidelines, and eventually introducing an edict that schools should not only provide free lunches, but that they should be nutritional as well.
Finland’s Minister for Education and Culture, Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, believes this is no coincidence, and said physical activity contributes to a child’s happiness and promotes learning by developing a young person’s ability to interact socially.
Ms Grahn-Laasonen said: “When children exercise together they develop interaction skills and connect socially, and it’s healthy, too.
“In our new curriculum, we are looking at two to three hours a week of physical education and more outdoor activities. But we are also looking at non-traditional ways of teaching”.
This pioneering move, later introduced by other nations, highlighted physical development and nutrition, early identification of abnormal conditions or disease and immunisation.
With the UK currently rolling out the Childhood Obesity Plan, is there a lesson to be learned?
The benefits of a proactive healthcare system, which identifies issues in children from a young age, teamed with an inventive education system is evident to see.
In Finland, the most interesting aspect of their education system is that the country achieved its success by breaking what are considered the customary rules of education.
As part of the key propellant of the country’s economic plan, some 40 years ago, the transformation of the Finn’s education system began.
We spoke to Stephen Cox, Managing Director of 21tenlearning, whose company is currently working for the Finnish government. He said: “Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the PISA revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world.
“Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries in science. In 2009, the country came second in science, third in reading and sixth in maths.”
Mr Cox said: “The fundamentals of what is taught in Finland barely differ from what is taught in the UK. We have the same basic principles and pupils are taught a similar syllabus”.
So, what is the difference? If the teaching in maths is the same as that found in the UK, why are Finnish pupils far surpassing ours?
The difference, it seems, is not the instruction. Good teaching is good teaching, and it can be found in both Finland and in the UK. The difference is less tangible and more fundamental. Finland’s national mantra is deeply engrained into the mindset and is the guiding principal to their educational philosophy.
Finnish children do not begin school until the age of seven, when they are developmentally ready to learn, and schooling is compulsory for just nine years. School days are shorter and classes are fewer. Homework is minimal. There are no mandated standardised tests. There are no rankings, comparisons or competition between pupils or schools.
Could the Finns be proving that sometimes “less is more”?
Speaking to Katja Wiberg, a pupil who has studied in both Finland and the UK, she said: “In my experience English pupils are overly controlled by rules. I think this leads to pupils not having to make decisions nor take responsibility for themselves”.
Ms Wiberg said that teachers in Finland have more authority and are given much more respect. Being a primary school teacher is one of the most sought-after positions and competitive degrees in Finland.
In addition to all this, all teachers must earn a Master’s degree – the requirement for an advanced degree essentially confers upon Finnish teachers the same status as a doctor or lawyer.
“Finnish pupils call their teachers by their first names. Teachers have a lot more independence than in the UK: they are given more responsibility and trust. They are encouraged to make choices by themselves, think critically and analyse rather than learning matter by heart. Questioning a teacher is encouraged rather than frowned upon” Ms Wiberg added.
Unfettered by bureaucracy and excessive regulation, teachers in Finland are free to innovate and adjust their teaching manners.
It seems in the UK that we can’t stick to one philosophy of education long enough to see if it actually works. We are constantly trying new methods and ideas and rolling out reforms and initiatives. We very much believe that “more” is the answer mentality to all our education problems.
More classes, longer days, more homework, more assignments, more pressure and more testing. All this seems to create is more burnt out teachers, more stressed out pupils and a school system which is currently on its knees.
The “less is more” argument is starting to seem rather appealing now, isn’t it?
 Stephen Cox (2016) (Telephone communication regarding the success of Finland’s education system) [Personal communication: 17 October 2016]
 Katja Wiberg (2016) (Email communication regarding her experience of the UK and Finland education system) [Personal communication: 14 October 2016]