Finland puts flexible holidays ahead of longer school days

Nearly home time. kmoliver, CC BY-NC-ND

The length of the school year and school days, as well as the timing of holidays, is always a controversial topic. While the debate rages in the UK about whether children should spend more time at school, in Finland – which has both one of the shortest school years in the OECD and some of the best results in international education rankings – there is a push to improve learning by developing novel ways of learning, rather than increasing school days and lesson time.

Winter holidays in Finland are staggered depending on where you live. At the moment pupils in southern Finland are enjoying their last days of the winter holidays. They will be followed by the middle part of the country, and finally northern Finland.

Finnish pupils spend some of the least time at school compared to other OECD countries. In 2010, Finnish children aged 9-11 spent an average 640 hours in school a year, compared to an OECD average of 821 hours. In England, the average was 899 hours, in France, 847 hours and in Japan, 800 hours.

In Finland, by law there can be 190 school days, but official holidays usually decrease the number. During the school year there are normally four holidays. Most schools have a week’s autumn holiday, and all schools have at least a ten-day Christmas vacation, four-day Easter holidays, and a week-long winter break in February.

Local authorities have the right to determine when the school year begins, and often it starts in the middle of August. Legislation says that the school year has to end on the Saturday of the 22nd week of the year, either at the very end of May or at the beginning of June.

Because of the climate, Finns hold summer holidays sacred. In recent years there has been a debate on whether the school year should extend until later in June, and start somewhat later in August. Opinions vary and no changes have been made.

Experimenting with the school day

School weeks have five days. The number of weekly lessons vary, taking into consideration the development phase of the pupil. In the nine-year comprehensive school, pupils in the first two forms (seven to eight-year olds) have 19 lessons a week, with 30 lessons a week during the last three years (12 to 15-year olds).

The school day must not exceed seven lessons. Upper secondary school students build their study programmes independently and can finish their upper secondary studies flexibly in two to four years. The number of weekly lessons is meant to be 35, but this can vary a lot according to the students’ individual study plans.

Finnish legislation states that the duration of the lesson in both comprehensive and upper secondary education has to be at least 45 minutes, which is more or less the norm, too. But there is a continual discussion on whether splitting the school day into 45-minute sessions is really optimal for learning. As a result, schools and even individual teachers are experimenting with other kinds of school day rhythms. Fortunately, legislation and curricula offer them a lot of freedom to try this.

For pupils, and especially for teachers, the number of lessons spent in school is just part of the story. Pupils continue their learning after the school day with homework, in which Finland has a long and strong tradition. The amount of homework increases gradually as pupils progress through school.

Lessons at school are just the tip of the iceberg. As Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg writes, “Finnish teachers take on significant responsibility for curriculum and assessment, as well as experimentation with and improvement of teaching methods, some of the most important aspects of their work are conducted outside of classrooms.”

In OECD surveys, the Finnish education system is seen as one of the most efficient in both its use of time and money. It has to be, because Finns want to protect their children’s playful childhood as much as possible. Besides the school year and the school day being one of the shortest in the OECD, the compulsory school starting age of seven is one of the latest among OECD countries.

Longer days are not the answer

For this article, we asked school heads, directors of local provisions of education and members of local school boards how they considered the time pupils spend in schools today. Their opinion was very explicit and unanimous, and, we think, reflects a wider chorus of opinion in Finland.

They did not want to extend the number of school days or lessons. For primary school pupils, they wanted to have more playful extra-curricular activities and were happy this has been one of the focus areas of the ministry of education and culture and the National Board of Education in recent years.

Concerning the relationship between the number of school days and lessons and pupils’ attainment, our respondents did not regard increasing the number of school days and lessons as a solution. Instead, they talked about experimenting with new kinds of rhythms for the school year and school day, and investing in developing novel ways of leading learning processes and increasing pupils’ empowerment and motivation.

Markku Suortamo, Pekka Kanervio and Seppo Pulkkinen also helped contribute to this article.