Thank you to those of you who attended Founders’ Day. Besides the weather playing its part it was wonderful to celebrate our College as a community. I trust you enjoyed the celebrations and that you enjoyed the wonderful talent of our students. It was also very special to welcome so many Old Oaks and Old Oak parents back to the College. I hope that, when you are alumni parents, you will know that you are part of this place and that you will always be welcome as part of this community.
The Old Oak, Dr Luke Hunter, Headboy from 2005, gave a very inspiring speech. He is an excellent example of the type of person who leaves this College as he is a man of character who has clear values by which he lives. Dr Hunter challenged us all not to accept crippling diagnoses or labels placed on us by others but rather to live fulfilling lives unburdened by limiting labels. Likewise, he challenged us not to label others. In order to overcome the diagnoses foisted on us, we need to acknowledge that we have been labelled or ‘diagnosed’ and then begin the healing process with the help of others. He also challenged the entire audience to think of positive affirmations and to acknowledge the support of those who walk alongside us, encouraging us to be the best individuals that we can be. He left the audience with the question: “Who is going to write your life story: is it your label or is it you?”
As many of you know, I recently attended the International Confederation of Principals Conference in Helsinki. The conference was particularly well subscribed on account of the Finnish education phenomenon. For some years Finland has scored the highest scores on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests. 450 000 fifteen-year-old students from 65 nations sit for the various PISA tests. Finland has scored the highest in Language, Problem Solving and Mathematics since 2004. Educators across the world have focused their attention on Finland trying to emulate some kind of magic model. It is impossible to replicate the Finnish model because Finland, as a welfare state which has a very high tax rate, is unique and it serves its citizens remarkably well. By way of just a few examples, one can access free Wi-Fi on public transport and anywhere in the city; day care for infants up to the age of five is offered to parents at no cost and heating to homes is provided. In Finland there is a security in knowing that the high taxes paid by the people go directly to serving the needs of the community – perhaps that is a mark of civilization.
Even though Finland is one of the most homogenous countries in the world it is, nevertheless, worth noting some of the features that must surely play into the excellence they achieve in education. Not all of these attributes are out of reach for us as parents and as teachers.
Every teacher in Finland, regardless of the age group they teach, must have a Master’s Degree. Only 10% of those who apply to teach are admitted to the degree. One of the results of well-qualified teachers and the demand to follow teaching as a career, is that teachers are highly regarded in Finland. Respect for the teacher is part of the national psyche, as is their conviction that education will provide a strong defence against unwelcome external forces. Determination to succeed and grapple with difficulties is a well-articulated Finnish value and character trait. Their love of and passion for music bears testimony to their belief in the principles of being determined to work through difficult tasks and to master an instrument or subject.
I am of the opinion that the Finns’ commitment to the value of reading is the most important reason for success in their education system. Finland publishes the most children’s books in the world and Finnish families read the highest number of newspapers compared to any other European country. They pride themselves on not dubbing foreign movies and TV series into Finnish or Swedish (the two national languages); instead they have subtitles so that when people are watching TV or movies they are still reading!
Success in Finnish education can be ascribed to many factors, not least the national belief in the profound value of education and respect for teachers. The areas which can be more easily emulated, though, are the value placed on the worth of grappling with difficulties and not giving up. Finnish people value courage to persevere and to practise until a task is successfully completed and understood. In addition, Finns acknowledge the importance of reading. Children from a young age are read to and reading continues to be a habit that is valued and encouraged in all homes. Both these attributes of reading and grappling lead to better problem-solving abilities and thus educational success.
Most important, the Finns, in spite of living in a very cold climate, score very high on the happiness index. There are many reasons for that achievement but in the meantime perhaps we should all read more and grapple more and encourage our children to do the same.