Finland’s Music Education System: How It Works

Graham Strahle
| June 6, 2017

In an earlier article, Music Australia presented an overview of the Finnish school system and how music teaching is delivered by a highly successful network of government subsidised specialist music schools. In this article we explore further how this parallel system works: how music is taught as a classroom subject in Finnish schools from primary level upwards, and how these specialist, co-curricular music schools operate under the umbrella of the Finnish Association of Music Schools.

When people talk about what makes Finland’s educational system famously different and world leading (see for example here and here), it is usually the regular schools that they are describing. Often referred to as comprehensive schools, they are the equivalent of Australia’s state-run schools. In these, all children are given a free education from the age of 7 to 16, there is hardly any homework, no nationwide exams, children are not required to wear uniforms, and the school day is kept remarkably short (finishing between 1pm and 2pm).

Music begins as “one of the activities of day care programs” for babies and toddlers in Finland, says Timo Klemettinen, former Managing Director of the Association of Finnish Music Schools and now head of the European Music School Union. At preschool level, “Kindergarten personnel organise musical activities according their own musical background and training. Beside their own education many day care centres organise music education in collaboration with local music schools (Early Childhood Music Education).”

Music is a mandatory subject for all children in Finland for the first seven years of their schooling (Grades 1-7, ages 6-12), says Klemettinen. It continues on as an elective in the upper secondary years. First it is taught by general classroom teachers, “normally till 6th grade”, and then by specialised teachers in the three final years, although “especially in rural areas this is not always possible,” Klemettinen adds.

The number of hours for school music classes is set as a minimum but otherwise left to schools to individually decide. It can vary between two and four hours per week depending on grade level. See further here.

A central feature of classroom teaching in Finland is the flexibility that is accorded to teachers. There is no set national curriculum as such but rather a set of guidelines that place much decision-making in the hands of teachers themselves, as concerns both subject content and the pedagogical approach that they can take. The Finnish music syllabus is ‘learner-centred’ and promotes the value of active experiences of singing, playing instruments, composing improvising, listening and observing. A lot rests on what the teacher perceives to be an individual child’s particular needs. Find more about this here.

A key point about the Finnish system is that it requires teachers to be qualified with a Masters degree in education, in order to teach both at primary and secondary level. “Teacher training courses are popular and difficult to qualify for. In 2014 only 9% of applicants sitting the entrance exam for Helsinki University’s training for class teachers were admitted,” notes a current government source. See discussion here on the amount of music training Finnish classroom teachers receive before they enter service.

Klemettinen emphasises the positive role of play in children’s educational experiences in music. “Children learn basic musical skills by means of “aha experiences” and other meaningful experiences. Simultaneously, the lessons support the children’s cognitive, emotional, motor, and social development,” he has said. Indeed, the importance of learning through play is cemented firmly in the Finnish curriculum. This according to the European Network for Communication and Knowledge Management in the field of Music Education: “In the first four grades, development of the learner’s musical expression through playful and integrating activity is central. The instruction has to give the learners experiences with a variety of sound worlds and music, and encourage them to express themselves and give real form to their own ideas.”

This brings us to Finland’s specialist music schools. This network of 89 government subsidised institutions has no equivalent in the UK, US or Australian education systems. Together with 41 other co-curricular schools that teach dance, visual arts and craft, they run in tandem with the comprehensive school system and supply what is known as the Basic Education in the Arts (general and extended curriculum). This is a core curriculum legislated by government and set down by the National Board of Education. However, individual schools decide how to meet those goals depending on the needs of their children, so essentially each devises its own curriculum (Leena Hyvönen, Airi Hirvonen and Eeva-Kaisa Hyry, 2000).

However, there are no age constraints and these music schools also admit pre-schoolers and adults. In fact, of the 67,000 students that currently attend them, 36% are pre-schoolers. The view of the Association of Finnish Music Schools is that a strong foundation in music in early childhood equips learners with a “solid foundation for future studies in music and a lifelong positive relationship with it”. See more about this here.

How these schools operate is interesting. Klemettinen says: “Music schools can decide freely the way they choose students. Some schools take in all applicants (especially in rural areas) and some schools make test and some take students in a registration order etc.” He recommends this site for a good overview of the Basic Education in the Arts – its syllabus design, training structure and goals.

They charge moderate fees and lessons can consist of instrumental tuition, theory, aural training, music history and ensemble projects, and students undertake these areas at their own pace and achieve ‘levels’ without sitting exams. Again, the approach taken is ‘learner-centred’ and governed around the individual. “Although very structured, the whole programme is designed to be as flexible as possible around each student’s individual needs,” observes Michael Pearce. “The overall aim is to develop well-rounded musicians, not just fine instrumentalists.”

Katie Condon of the MacPhail Center for Music, Minneapolis USA, provides a good firsthand observation of how music teaching in these schools actually works. She says she noticed how Finnish teachers “Create an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable and encouraged to take risks”, that “Teachers are trained to feel comfortable playing a wide variety of instruments across a wide variety of musical genres”, that they “Actively involve students in decision-making process”, and “Openly express personal joy while making music with students”. Her account makes interesting reading.

One downside of these music schools is the fact that they are hard to get into. Only half of those of the 23,000 children who apply to study each year are admitted, and entry into teacher training at higher level music institutions such as the Sibelius Academy is difficult and competition fierce. Yet one could hardly expect less from an institution that occupies seventh place in the world’s top performing arts schools (based on 2016 QS World University Rankings).

With its highly developed philosophy and practices, the Finnish music education system remains a shining beacon for other countries to seriously study. Attempting to duplicate it may well be out of the question, but its principles could surely be adapted anywhere.

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