Basic Comprehensive Education

The compulsory educational system in Finland consists of a nine-year comprehensive school from 1st to 9th grade, from the ages of 7 to 16 (Finnish peruskoulu, Swedish grundskola, "basic school"), in which attendance is mandatory. (Homeschooling is allowed, but rare). There are no "gifted" programs, and the more advanced children are expected to help those who are slower to catch on.

In most countries, the term "comprehensive school" is used to refer to comprehensive schools attended after primary school, and up to 12th and 13th grade in some countries, but in Finland this English term is confusingly used to include primary school, i.e. it is used to refer to all of the grades 1 to 9 (and not higher grades). One can of course also describe the Finnish grades 1 to 6 in English as being comprehensive schools, but this is unnecessary and confusing because primary schools have always been comprehensive in almost all countries, including Finland. In addition, it is best to not try to translate the Finnish term peruskoulu with a single term in English. In order to avoid confusion in English, it is best to describe the Finnish compulsory education system as consisting of 6-year primary schools, called alakoulu or ala-aste in Finnish, followed by comprehensive 3-year middle schools, called yläkoulu or yläaste in Finnish. Although this division of the peruskoulu into two parts was officially discontinued, it is still very much alive -- the distinction is made in everyday speech, the teachers' training and classification and teaching, and even in most school buildings. In addition, the use of two different terms for grades 1-6 and 7-9 is easier to understand for people from most other countries, most of which do not have a single term for primary and middle schools. On the contrary, middle schools and high schools are usually included in the term secondary education in English, which is why the use of this term in English is often confusing for Finns. (The Finnish direct translation toisen asteen koulutus/oppilaitos only refers to schools after 9th grade, i.e. high schools, vocational schools, etc.)

Schools up to the university level are almost exclusively funded and administered by the municipalities of Finland (local government). There are few private schools. The founding of a new private comprehensive school requires a decision by the Council of State. When founded, private schools are given a state grant comparable to that given to a municipal school of the same size. However, even in private schools, the use of tuition fees is strictly prohibited, and selective admission is prohibited, as well: private schools must admit all its pupils on the same basis as the corresponding municipal school. In addition, private schools are required to give their students all the education and social benefits that are offered to the students of municipal schools. Because of this, existing private schools are mostly faith-based or Steiner schools, which are comprehensive by definition.

Teachers, who are fully unionized, follow state curriculum guidelines but are accorded a great deal of autonomy as to methods of instruction and are even allowed to choose their own textbooks.

Classes are small, seldom more than twenty pupils. From the outset pupils are expected to learn two languages in addition to the language of the school (usually Finnish or Swedish), and students in grades one through nine spend from four to eleven periods each week taking classes in art, music, cooking, carpentry, metalwork, and textiles. Small classes, insisted upon by the teachers' union appear to be associated with student achievement, especially in science. Inside the school, the atmosphere is relaxed and informal, and the buildings are so clean that students often wear socks and no shoes. Outdoor activities are stressed, even in the coldest weather; and homework is minimal to leave room for extra-curricular activities. In addition to taking music in school, for example, many students attend the numerous state-subsidized specialized music schools after class where for a small fee they learn to play an instrument as a hobby and study basic solfège and music theory using methods originated in Hungary by Kodály and further developed by the Hungarian-born Finn Csaba Szilvay and others.

Reading for pleasure is actively encouraged (Finland publishes more children's books than any other country). Television stations show foreign programs in the original languages with subtitles, so that in Finland children even read while watching TV.

During the first years of comprehensive school, grading may be limited to verbal assessments rather than formal grades. The start of numerical grading is decided locally. Most commonly, pupils are issued a report card twice a year: at the ends of the autumn and spring terms. There are no high-stakes tests.

Grades are given on scale from 4 to 10. In individual exams, but not on school year report or basic education certificate, it is also possible to divide the scale further with '½', which represents a half grade, and '+' and '-', which represent one-fourth a grade better or inferior. For example, the order is "9 < 9+ < 9½ < 10- < 10". The grade '10+' can also be awarded for a perfect performance with extra effort by the student.

If a comprehensive school pupil receives the grade 4 in one subject at the end of the spring term, they must show by a separate examination at the end of summer term that they have improved in the subject. If the pupil receives multiple failing grades, they may have to retake the year, though it is considered far preferable to provide a struggling student with extra help and tutoring. In the rare cases where a student is retained, the decision is made by the teachers and the headmaster after interviewing the pupil and the parents.

Comprehensive school students enjoy a number of social entitlements, such as school health care and a free lunch everyday, which covers about a third of the daily nutritional need. In addition, pupils are entitled to receive free books and materials and free school trips (or even housing) in the event that they have a long or arduous trip to school.