Like ecotourism, education reform travel has its hot spots. Along with Singapore, Finland tops the list for research pilgrimages, with visitors hoping to find out why Finnish 15-year-olds perform so well on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, the multinational testing program in reading, math, and science. But perhaps you’ve wondered, as I have, what happens to these well-educated Finnish students after they complete their nine years of compulsory school. Are they all college graduates who settle nicely into careers?
Last fall, I went to Finland to have a look. Some data provide a context for what I saw. After compulsory education ends at around age 15, all but 9 percent of students either enter vocational education and training, or VET, or enroll in academic upper-secondary education, with about an equal division between the two options, I was told. About 80 percent of academic education students complete their studies in the traditional three years and leave school at around age 19. Most of these academic students take the national university-matriculation exam, and about 65 percent of those who pass are admitted. Meanwhile, only 62 percent of VET students complete their studies in three years; after five years, the proportion climbs to about 75 percent. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers PISA, 90 percent of Finnish 25- to 34-year-olds have earned an upper-secondary qualification—a credential closer to an associate degree than to a high school diploma.
The Finnish youth-unemployment rate exceeds 20 percent today."
I was particularly interested in outcomes for the VET population, since this 50 percent of students represents a broader achievement spectrum than their peers who go on to university. VET students are on average around age 19, and many I met were in their mid-20s, because many young Finns take at least one “gap year” between traditional secondary school and their later education. One other explanation is a shortage of places—both in VET and university, a thorny problem the Finns are addressing. In addition, some VET schools are highly competitive, with 10 applicants per open slot, so a student may try for entrance multiple years. A good number of vocational students attend intermittently, repeat courses, change programs, or enter late. And some Finnish students complete both the academic diploma and a VET program—five years in total.
If completing a credential were the best measure of success, this record would be satisfactory, especially when compared with the United States, where less than half of young people attain a postsecondary credential by their mid-20s. But, as we’ve learned in the United States, credentials don’t mean a sure route to a job in the current economy. From the youth-employment perspective, Finland looks like our nation, and that is not a good thing. The Finnish youth-unemployment rate exceeds 20 percent today; it stood at 18.5 percent in 2006, before the global financial crisis. By contrast, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland (other countries with half or more students entering the VET system) were all well under 10 percent for youth unemployment in May.
So how to connect Finish success in compulsory school with the post-PISA picture of high youth unemployment and an extended time to full-time “working life”? One observation confirmed by my Finnish guides is that there is little support for the transition from compulsory school to VET. A unique feature of Finnish compulsory school is the provision of “special education” for about half of all students. Teachers zoom in to support any student in academic or other trouble at the first sign of need; such an approach is absent from VET.
While VET schools have nurses, social workers, and career guidance offices, the general attitude is that if you don’t pass an assessment, you find another way to prepare, and failure is yours to own, not the school’s. That is not to say that teachers aren’t sympathetic to students. The teachers I met appeared to like and respect their students and were proud of their accomplishments. But they spoke of them as young professionals; in other words, the VET colleges, as they are called, seem better adapted to older students than to 9th graders who still need guidance as they move to VET with its different demands.
And then there’s the relaxed culture I found among young people in Finland. Students in their mid-20s were at ease answering my questions about what they had done between school and VET—played in a band, cooked in Chicago, went around the world taking landscaping jobs, made hats in Finland. And while just an anecdote, here’s an interesting contrast: A 19-year-old student whom I asked about plans said she had no idea what she wanted to do. She was “just in school.” The older students all had distinct goals. The gist was that they had learned on their own, but now wanted to strengthen their expertise and earn a national qualification with currency in the labor market.
Finally, one could attribute the attitude toward entering the labor market in part to the social supports available for student living expenses and for such necessities as health care and housing. But poverty is growing in Finland, and government officials are concerned. There are signs that the government is now gearing up to give the transition from post-compulsory education to the labor market a level of attention similar to what it has given compulsory school.
For example, the Ministry of Education and Culture has announced that 110,000 young adults in Finland have no education beyond compulsory school, and that 40,000 youths are not in school, not in a youth program, or not employed. The agency pledged to reduce youth unemployment with what the European Union calls a youth guarantee. Five ministries are collaborating to promulgate an aggressive, active labor-market policy, a public-private partnership that will create more places in vocational schools, subsidize employers to take on unemployed young people, and ensure everyone under 25 (as well as late graduates up to age 30) a place in a training program within three months of becoming unemployed. Penalties for noncompliance are still a bit obscure. These new services supplement the youth workshops, informal drop-in settings with short courses, career-exploration modules, and individual attention where young Finnish residents can experiment with various career-related activities that exist in about 250 locations.
So where does this mixed picture leave us? It certainly doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of the Finnish compulsory schools, but it does raise questions about the support these well-educated adolescents need from their communities, employers, and other social partners to transition smoothly from the protective environment of comprehensive school, to the mix of school and work afforded by VET, to becoming productive working adults. And it suggests as well that it takes a whole society, not just an education system, to turn adolescents into productive adults.
Nancy Hoffman is a vice president and senior adviser at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization based in Boston that focuses on education and career pathways.