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Five Ways Finland Gets Vocational and Technical Education Right

By Elizabeth A. Radday — November 14, 2016 8 min read
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Elizabeth Radday, Learning Support teacher at The Marvelwood School, recently spent six months in Finland, where she studied how their innovative vocational education system works for all students, including students with learning disabilities. Here she shares five lessons she learned about vocational education in Finland. This post is part of our ongoing series exploring vocational education around the world with Advance CTE.

I recently returned from a six-month stay in Finland as a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grantee. I went to Finland hoping to learn more about education for students with learning disabilities at the upper secondary (high school) level and came home with a new outlook on vocational education. Finland, a country that has consistently been at or near the top of international tests of educational comparison such as the PISA, not only has great education for students through age fifteen, their upper secondary model is one that other countries should look to as an exemplary model of vocational education.

I fell into vocational education in Finland because that is where I found most special needs students. However, I was reminded over and over again that students choose to enter vocational school and it is not a system where kids with learning disabilities are tracked into a path with a dead end.

What do they get right that we can use a model to move the United States toward a respected system of vocational education for high school students? Here are five lessons I learned about vocational education in Finland.

1. Vocational education is a choice.
In Finland, there is an almost equal split between students who choose to go to vocational school and general upper secondary school (the traditional high school). And choice is a key word in that sentence; it is one of the most important reasons Finnish vocational education succeeds in Finland in ways it doesn’t in other countries.

During the winter and spring of ninth grade, students apply to their top five upper secondary school choices. I have heard over and over from parents, teachers, and students, that where students go for high school is truly their choice. Most students feel no pressure from their parents to go on to one path or the other, and both options lead students on successful career pathways of their choice. Parents emphasize that they want their children to be happy and successful in whatever path they choose, so they encourage their children to make the choice they feel fits them best.

Students gave me a variety of reasons why they chose one school or another, but they all emphasized it was their personal decision. Some say they chose a general upper secondary school, or lukio, because they have hopes of attending a university and studying for a certain career that will require higher education like being a doctor or teacher. Others chose a lukio because they weren’t sure what they want to do as a career yet, and lukio gives them three more years to figure that out.

Students who chose a vocational path knew what they wanted to do and were eager to learn skills for that career. Some were motivated to start working and earn money after only three years of school and didn’t have to go to university. Some were looking for a practical and well-defined future in a specific field. Vocational school is highly respected and seen as the more practical, well-defined, and more secure path for many students!

Many of the students are well aware that some careers coming out of vocational school are more lucrative than those that require a university degree and they even joke about the people who spend more time in school doing more work and ultimately end up earning less or having less secure jobs. If America wants to make vocational education more popular and respected, it has to be seen as a choice that all students have, not a path that some people are forced into.

2. Vocational education is not a dead end.
Vocational schools in other countries offer similar training for students. So why doesn’t it earn the same respect as a general upper secondary education in most places? It’s simple: vocational education is seen as less rigorous and is a dead end, meaning that students have no chance for further education or promotion in many other places.

In Finland, students who earn a vocational degree have a wide range of options open to them. After earning their initial vocational certificate around age nineteen, students can earn an additional vocational certificate to make themselves more marketable. They can also study at the vocational school for a few more years to earn an advanced certificate in a particular area in order to move to a higher position within a company.

Many students apply to universities of applied science where they can earn bachelor’s (and then master’s) degrees in their fields. And finally, the traditional university remains an option for students with vocational certificates. They must take the same entrance exam as any other student and if they are qualified, they can gain acceptance to a traditional university.

In the United States, vocational education at the high school level cannot be the end of educational opportunities for students. A vocational diploma must be treated with the same respect as a high school diploma and should permit a student the ability to gain entrance to both public and private universities throughout the country.

3. Vocational education covers a broad range of careers.
In Finland, vocational education does not just encompass the fields that Americans think of as vocational. There are 120 different vocational certificate programs in 50 different fields that students can choose to study at different vocational schools in Finland. Of course, there are many of the traditional fields like construction, plumbing, electricity, and cosmetology. But there are also vocational certificates in fields such as tourism, business and entrepreneurship, health services, natural resources, technology, social services, and catering.

I met students learning to make sausages who were studying food production. I saw students learning to sew and make clothing. I even spent some time at stables where students were learning horse care and horseback riding instruction. My favorite experience was at a school in Lahti where students were learning to be circus performers! Circus arts is a vocational degree in Finland.

The wide range of vocational fields means that students can prepare for a wide range of careers, and nearly everyone can find something in which they are interested and can do with confidence and great skill.

The United States can make vocational education more attractive to a wider range of students if schools offer vocational skills that cover as broad a range as they do in Finland.

4. Vocational education is supported by all of society.
One very important part of earning a vocational certificate is on-the-job learning. Students must spend at least one term (six to eight weeks) each year in an apprenticeship-type situation. They must find an employer willing to host them and then the student, teacher, and work supervisor plan which skills the student will learn during that period. At the end of the term, the student is assessed on the mastery of the new skills.

Employers all over Finland are willing and open to accepting students to do on-the-job learning at their companies. Sometimes customers have to have a little more patience because they are being waited on or served by someone doing on-the-job learning, but everyone accepts and encourages these students and their work.

In addition, vocational schools often have their own restaurant, bakery, salon, or store where the public can purchase goods produced by the students. The people know that they can get excellent baked goods and delicious meals at a lower price at school restaurants and bakeries, or get beauty services for a good price by going to a school salon. People also buy other products that students make, from planters to chairs and cabinets or even sauna stoves at the vocational schools. Students gain the experience of working for real customers and society benefits by having a well-trained workforce.

As a society, communities throughout the United States must support students in vocational programs by allowing them to be apprentices and interns at a wide range of businesses in order for vocational training to be effective for our high school students.

5. Vocational education keeps more kids in school and leads to more employable citizens.
The United States loses between twenty and thirty percent of all high school freshman before they make it to graduation. This unacceptably high number of high school dropouts means there are hundreds of thousands of young adults with few skills for employment. And on the other side, employers cannot find skilled workers to fill empty positions.

The most often cited reason that students drop out of school is that it is not engaging and doesn’t seem relevant to their future. Vocational education, on the other hand, is directly related to what a student will have to do on the job and leads directly to employment for many young adults. Students stay in vocational school because they find what they are learning is actually what they will use when they graduate. Vocational education also helps employers find the workers they will need who have been trained successfully in vocational schools.

The United States is ripe for change and improvement in vocational education. Some schools and states have exemplary programs and are moving in the right direction. While Finland’s model isn’t perfectly replicable in the United States, there are certainly lessons we can learn from their highly efficient and successful system.

Follow Elizabeth, Advance CTE, and the Center for Global Education at Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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