Meeting Pasi Sahlberg

On Thursday 17 May while in Brussels, I met Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg who is one of the world’s leading experts on educational reform and the author of the best-selling ‘Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?’

We had breakfast together with Dr James Calleja and Dr Frank Fabri, who were with me from the Ministry of Education.

As usual when meeting great persons like Pasi, you realize how humble they are and that truly intelligent people are not egocentric. He is a very effective speaker and a great listener. He talks gently and follows closely what you say and engages you. We got on very well because he made it clear and we agreed with him that we were not talking to a Finnish Messiah to come and deliver us from the evils of our system. Pasi said that he wants to work with us to improve and change the system in Malta, but as a "critical friend": to discuss with him and then it is up to us in Malta to decide the way forward.

We agreed that you cannot import an educational system. An educational system is an integral part of a country's culture and it has to be rooted in such a culture, and it can thrive only if such a culture allows it to thrive.

Pasi Sahlberg is director general of Finland's Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation. He still works for the Finnish government and had advised and continues to advise many governments around the world about education policies and reforms. Malta is the only European Union country he has not visited so far. We look forward to having him here and working together.

Pasi reminded me of another great reformer in education I have had the fortune to meet: Paolo Freire. In 1975 I spent two days in the company of Freire in Sicily. He was one of my heroes after reading 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' and 'Cultural Action for Freedom'. I remember him always humming to himself the song 'To dream the impossible dream'. He had shocked me when he told me and explained to me the limits of education at a time when I believed that education can change the world. "Yes" he told me, "but not on its own. You also need political, economic and cultural changes".

Pasi makes a very similar point: how can teachers on their own help to get children out of poverty?

"Teachers and schools cannot overcome the negative impact that poverty causes in many children's learning in schools. Solution: Elevate children out of poverty by other public policies."

In Malta at present, 22% of children live in poor homes or at risk of poverty. In Finland only 4% of children are in poverty or on its margins. Pasi stresses: "Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools every day."

He quotes research that consistently shows that up to 70% of the factors shaping children's achievement in schools depends on factors outside school. Another 15% comes from the way the education system is run and how the school is managed. Only 15% depends on teachers. This is not to be interpreted as an excuse not to have schools and teachers make a difference to children. We have to make sure that we do all we can to get the 30% right but we also need the support of the other 70% that is beyond the control of schools.

The Indians are right when they say: "It takes a whole community to educate a child." We need to mobilise all the possible resources across government and in the country at large to create the right conditions for schools and teachers to help more children learn successfully and acquire the necessary values, attitudes and skills to get on in life.

We discussed with Pasi how important it is to involve teachers, respect them and trust them. He is a fierce critic of "toxic accountability". He says that there is no Finnish word for "accountability". He says that in Finnish they say that teachers should be responsible. We agreed that the best educational systems allow their teachers the freedom and responsibility to decide what goes on in school within a national framework.

"Teachers should have autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to best results and authority to influence the assessment of the outcomes of their work. Schools should also be trusted in these key areas of the teaching profession."

Pasi says: "The toxic use of accountability for schools should be abandoned. Judging teachers by the marks students get in academic subjects is unfair and inaccurate. Most of student achievement in standardised tests can be explained by out-of-school-factors."

Pasi sums up the main factors that contribute to Finland's educational success: "The freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardised testing, strong leadership from heads who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty."


Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Education