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education reforms

As Ontario takes steps to reform early-childhood education, it may want to look to Finland, home to the world's most successful schools.

Finland's primary education system has been the envy of the Western world ever since the country's 15-year-olds began acing international literacy, mathematics and science assessment tests several years ago.

Finnish children do not begin primary school until they are seven years old. But from the age of eight months, all children have access to free, full-day daycare and kindergarten. Finland has had universal access to daycare in place since 1990, and of all preschool since 1996.

Primary-school teachers all have master's degrees, and the profession is one of the most revered in Finnish society.

"We see it as the right of the child to have daycare and preschool," explained Eeva Penttila, head of international relations for Helsinki's education department. "It's not a place where you dump your child when you're working. It's a place for your child to play and learn and make friends. Good parents put their children in daycare. It's not related to socio-economic class."

Yesterday, former Ontario deputy education minister Charles Pascal released a long-awaited report that called for an overhaul of the province's early-childhood education, which he described as a "fragmented patchwork of supports," and the introduction of full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-olds. Elementary schools would be converted into learning hubs with after-school programs and include classes for parents on nutrition and health. The goal is to provide students with a mixed program that would increase literacy, graduate rates and postsecondary participation.

Mr. Pascal spent two years studying early-childhood education models across Canada and Europe. He said he was impressed by Finland's full-day preschool program, comprehensive family and parental leave policy, and the options offered to parents.

However, the Finnish approach differs in certain key ways. In Canada, students begin primary school at the age of 6, whereas, in Finland, they begin at 7.

The focus for kindergarten students is to "learn how to learn," Ms. Penttila said. Instead of formal instruction in reading and math, there are lessons on nature, animals and the "circle of life," and a focus on materials-based learning. Fees vary according to income, but the cost of daycare is at most a few hundred dollars a month.

While preschool is optional, most parents choose to send their children because they work outside the home. (Municipalities also pay mothers a small stipend to stay home and care for their children until they are three years old.)

Finnish primary-school teachers have an unusual level of autonomy over the curriculum, a noted difference to the centralized approach in Ontario. They may choose their own textbooks, as long as they adhere to the core national curriculum. Board authorities do not inspect classrooms.

Students and teachers receive a free hot meal daily. Classrooms and hallways are so clean many students walk around in their stocking feet. There is only a minimal amount of homework, and students call teachers by their first names, says George Malaty, a professor of education at the University of Joensuu in Finland.

"There is a very informal relationship between teachers and students," Prof. Malaty says. "The children enjoy the socializing, the hot meal, it's a rich experience for them. School isn't only to prepare for the future. It's their life and they must have a good day every day."

There are no programs for gifted students, but teachers may devise individual programs for them, he added.

The results have been phenomenal. Finland has consistently been among the highest scorers worldwide in the international assessment for student performance - a study carried out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2006, Finland's 15-year-olds scored the highest in science and the second highest in literacy of 57 countries. The World Economic Forum ranks Finland No. 1 in enrolment and quality and No. 2 in math and science education.

Only 2 per cent of Finland's students ever repeat grades, and that is mostly in the early years. More than 96 per cent of graduates continue their studies in upper secondary-level schools. There are no single-gender schools, and very few private schools because the public system is so valued.

Ms. Penttila has hosted thousands of high-level experts and educators from all over the world, known as "educational pilgrims." They arrive in Helsinki hoping to unravel the secret of the country's success.

"I always say you can't take one element out and transfer it to your own country. Education is the result of culture, history and the society of a nation," she says. "When I compare the Canadian system with Finland's, the biggest difference seems to be more volunteers in the classroom in kindergarten. In Finland, everyone is working for a salary. As well, Canada seems to emphasize testing in primary school."

Mr. Pascal noted that Finland and Canada are not entirely comparable. Finland is a very homogeneous society with a high level of adult literacy, he says, while Canada is multicultural with 40 per cent of the population functionally illiterate.

Polls show that the teaching profession in Finland is very high-status, and one of the country's most sought-after jobs. "More than 10 people apply to be primary-school teachers for every spot we have in university," noted Prof. Malaty, who attributes this to the profession's unique culture and status.