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Postcards from Scotland

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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 26/11/2013

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Alan Little’s programme on Scandinavia last night -  Our Friends in the North.   There is now a lot of talk in Scotland about following the example of Nordic countries so it was interesting to learn more about Finland, Sweden and Norway and to see that they aren’t quite the left leaning societies they're often made out to be.
 
What I found most memorable, however, was the section on Finnish education. Finland scores best in the world for education but this isn’t achieved through competition, inspection or academic hot housing. Indeed what we saw last night was the exact opposite of that. Finnish kids don’t start school till they are 7 and don’t sit an exam until they are in their mid teens.
 
The ethos of Finnish schools is very different from the UK's – no school uniforms, endless play outdoors, and pupils taking lunch with teachers with whom they are on first name terms. The emphasis is on bringing the best out of every child and on equality. There is no streaming, setting or constant tests. Bemused by this at one point Alan Little asked the head teacher of the school he was visiting how they dealt with the fact that some children are more intelligent. The head teacher looked slightly puzzled and replied that this simply didn’t matter.
 
The footage of the kids contained so much smiling, hugging one another and playing  that you really got the feeling that this was an education system which really puts child well-being at the core and isn’t just saying this as it's fashionable these days.
 
I know from listening to other Finns talk about education that even though they top the international league tables there is nothing boastful about them.  This came over strongly in last night’s programme. They are quietly confident of the value of their approach but they don’t think they have the answer which they should then preach to others.  They certainly aren’t working hard to be top of the PISA scores; they are simply doing what they think is right to educate and raise children.
 
In Scotland, however, we take an aspirational approach which borders on arrogance. We have a Curriculum for Excellence.  An influential group in Scotland called the Goodison Group have a project called ‘By 2025, Scotland will be regarded as a world-leading learning nation’.  Only a few months ago the Scottish Government stated that it aims to make Scotland the best place in the world for children to grow up.  And, of course, Scotland used to have as its slogan ‘the best small country in the world’.  The SNP Government objected to this as they disliked the word small in the slogan. Yet there is no such thing as the best country in the world and never can be. What does the best refer to?  – weather, food, child-rearing, customer service, enterprise, crime, democracy … or is it boasting?
 
The emphasis in the ‘best in the world’ type of approaches is too much on performing well in the eyes of others and on beating other people or countries. On the surface they appear aspirational and yet they suggest a lack of confidence because others’ validation is so important.  What seems to matter most is being seen to do well. However, what really does matter is that we improve learning, and improve child well-being and parenting for their own sakes and not because it is going to make us as a country look good.  This may seem inconsequential and yet it is attitudes such as these which make such a difference to the way we do things. Just look at Finland. 

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