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Experimental reform
Conclusions (> Koulutuskokeilut)
National Conclusions: Finland

Maarit Virolainen
Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä

February 2000
The experimental reform of upper secondary education has produced a model for dual qualifications in Finland
Results of the experimental scheme
Changes in the national context of the dual qualifications
Problems with the experimental scheme
Future challenges to developing dual qualifications in Finland

Reference: FI: Experimental reform.

The experimental reform of upper secondary education has produced a model for dual qualifications in Finland

The DUOQUAL project has compared and analysed European educational programmes with dual orientation towards employment and higher education. DUOQUAL is a multiplier-effect project based on the Leonardo project INTEQUAL which investigated similarly oriented educational programmes in different countries. The two projects adopted a common scheme for the analysis of individual country cases as well as producing topic studies on related subjects chosen by the partners. The outcomes of the two projects help to identify both the features that are specific to the Finnish model of dual qualifications and the limits of the Finnish approach.
     The Finnish contribution to the DUOQUAL project has focused on the dual qualifications originally offered as part of the experimental reform of upper secondary education. This reform of Finnish youth education was launched in 1992 as a response to an evaluation completed by the Ministry of Education on the functioning of the Finnish educational structure. The discussion that followed the evaluation resulted in the issuing of an act initiating the experiments. The problems identified in the evaluation report included the high number of drop-outs, a  disparity in esteem between general and vocational upper secondary education, the differences between vocational and general education content, students wandering through the educational system taking one qualification after another, and overlapping upper secondary education curricula. The experiment was given the following three tools: regional-level interinstitutional cooperation between vocational and general upper secondary schools, the provision of  personal study programmes through the incorporation of student choice into the national curricula, and the promotion new teaching/learning methods. The experiment was started in 16 regions which applied to the Ministry of Education to join the project. Carried out in 1992-1999, the project has involved 130 educational institutions, 35 000 students and 2000 teachers.

Results of the experimental scheme 

The most prominent outcome of the experiments are the 1- to 3-credit (study week) other-school courses that students have taken across the vocational/academic divide. Students enroll for short courses offered outside their educational track because they want to include in their study programme more practically oriented courses (general upper secondary school students) or more interest-oriented studies (ie music or sports) or in order to strengthen and test their vocational orientation, add vocationally preparative content or deepen their knowledge of a related field (vocational students), as well as to prepare themselves for the national Matriculation Examination (ME) taken in general upper secondary schools. Approximately a third of the students have made interinstitutional choices. On an average, 17 per cent have taken courses taught at other institutions amounting to 1-3 credits out of the 75/80 credits making up a general upper secondary or vocational upper secondary qualification. About the same number of students have made more extensive choices. They include students taking the Finnish dual qualifications, studies where the aim is both to pass the national ME and complete an initial vocational qualification. Such a dual qualification was completed by 2-6 percent of the students studying in the experimental schools in 1997-1998.

Changes in the national context of the dual qualifications 

Since the beginning of the experiments, certain major changes have taken place in the laws and regulations relating to upper secondary education. Some of these reforms address the problems identified in the evaluation of the Finnish educational system which led to the experiment while some have involved changes specifically in the role of the dual qualifications themselves. Firstly, the new school legislation that came into force in 1999 has meant the adoption of two important features of the experiments as part of the national upper secondary education system as a whole. Education providers are required to cooperate regionally and to design curricula that enable students to make individual course choices. Furthermore, students have the right to be credited for studies completed at other institutions as part of their personal study programmes when such outside studies can be regarded as corresponding to the level, aims and central contents of their personal  study programmes. However, decisions about credit transfer must be made before a student begins to study for a new qualification.
     These reforms address the problems of high drop-out rates and overlapping curricula as well as making room for student choice and incorporating personal study programmes into the regular educational system. However, even though in tertiary education the problem of the disparity of esteem between vocational and academic education has been attacked through, among other things, the introduction of AMK (higher vocational education) institutions, based on the former vocational colleges, in upper secondary education the challenges linked with the differences between vocational and academic educational content and the disparity of esteem between the two tracks remain. 

Problems with the experimental scheme 

In Finland, when dual qualifications were first offered the intention was to provide parity of esteem in an instrumental manner, by enabling students to acquire eligibility for HE. In practice this meant that students chose four tests (mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish), the second official language (Swedish or Finnish), one foreign language, and either mathematics or general studies) required as part of the ME taken at the conclusion of general upper secondary school, studied the courses offered at these schools as preparation for the examination, and qualified for HE. Because HE admission regulations have been changed, all students who have completed a three-year upper secondary qualification have gained the right to be admitted to HE. (In 1999 all upper secondary vocational qualifications were extended to three years.) General upper secondary school students still have to pass the ME. However, HE institutions continue to decide for themselves which student groups they prefer to admit. Thus, from being an instrumental tool for giving students eligibility for HE dual qualifications have come to emphasise general competencies. At the same time, for the most part this means that as they study general subjects at general upper secondary schools to be better prepared for the ME, vocational students lose the chance of studies where general subjects would be integrated and embedded into vocational subjects. While the Finnish model for DQs relies heavily on individual learning programmes and while the opportunity for taking dual qualifications is provided locally as part of the nationwide educational system, the organisation of interinstitutional cooperation between schools with different traditions sets limits for the actual integration of vocational and academic subjects in individual programmes. This is a result of a  contradiction built into the logic of the Finnish educational system.
    The dual role of general upper secondary schools as providers of preparation for both general and vocational higher and further studies may not have been taken seriously enough. However, some researchers have pointed out that there is a need to make the ME more responsive to vocational content. Also, the potential of the integration of vocational and general education as a tool for fighting the instrumentalisation of and indifferent attitudes towards studying might be considered more thoroughly. Even though one of the foci of the experimental reform of upper secondary education was the adoption of new teaching/learning methods based on a constructivist approach, situated learning and related concepts, the opportunities to achieve this aim have in practice been limited. Teaching and learning methods can change only within the guidelines established by the national curricula with the result that especially the ME continues to have a central role. In the national context, the uncertain status of the experimental scheme has prevented consideration of a wider utilisation of the pedagogical aspects of interinstitutional cooperation in teacher education even though the in-service teacher education provided to teachers participating in the experiment has been serving this aim.

Future challenges to developing dual qualifications in Finland 

As it stands, the Finnish model of dual qualifications is best suited to students who have a clear vocational orientation and who aim to continue their studies in tertiary vocational education. 
Briefly, the future challenges facing the development of the DQs in Finland are:

  • organising DQs locally in cooperation between tertiary vocational education and upper secondary education institutions;
  • clarifying the role and position of DQs within national educational provision so as to support students’ equal rights;
  • rethinking ways of integrating vocational and general subjects in the modularised curricula by reconsidering the function and placement of the different components, and rethinking how the ME could be more responsive to vocational needs  (While ME is a reliable basis for comparing students’ general (study) skills, it is not particularly responsive to the vocational application of knowledge in specific fields or to pedagogical approaches promoting knowledge application of this kind. Schemes established in other countries and discussed in the DUOQUAL project provide fruitful stimulus for such rethinking. For instance, the scheme discussed in the Greek case study is an interesting example of integrating vocational and academic studies on the curriculum level. The English GNVQs might also offer examples of adopting a  variety of learning styles and of how assessment methods affect the completion of qualifications. Further, the parallel Leonardo project EURO-BAC coordinated by the Austrian partner illustrates the establishment of standards for an examination comprising both vocational and academic subjects as well as knowledge and skills);
  • making use of the experience gained in coordinating syllabi within the experimental scheme. 
Taking these challenges seriously might considerably boost the national-level development of DQs at the same time as their role in increasing the attractiveness of vocational upper secondary education might be strengthened in a lasting way. The international comparison of dual qualifications has shown that there is a lively and shared interest in and need for developing the dual approach in a situation where work organisations are becoming flatter and employees’ roles more versatile.

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