What lessons can we learn from PISA ranking leader Finland? 

” In Finland for example, there is no national testing, no school inspections and no school league tables”

The latest  Program for International Student Assessment results has prompted questions about what certain countries are doing better than others when it comes to the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems around the globe. In this blog, head of School at ACS International School Cobham, Barnaby Sandow, explores some of the lessons that can be learned from Finland.

Scandinavian countries are world-famous for promoting happiness and wellbeing – and also for their exceptional education, whether measured in academic results, student happiness or overall progress to learning objectives.

You may have seen the 2019 PISA results recently which illustrated that most countries – particularly in the developed world – have seen little improvement in their performances over the past decade, even though spending on education increased by 15 per cent over the same period.

The report – outlined in this insightful editorial comment  – concludes that huge numbers of graduates are therefore likely to struggle to find their way through life in an increasingly volatile, digital world.


The top-scoring OECD countries in the PISA report were Estonia, Canada, Ireland and unsurprisingly, Finland. Whilst there are similarities to be drawn from core elements of education in different countries, two things that Finnish schools do differently from 99% of British schools are that they: 1. do not engage with standardised testing, and; 2. do not ask students to wear school uniforms.

In the UK the regularity of tests means that you have to teach to the tests, and everyone is judged by the same tests. In Finland for example, there is no national testing, no school inspections and no school league tables. The Finnish government looks at an 8-10 per cent sample of students’ work to – very effectively – check on broad performance targets.

Generally speaking, British schools have fallen victim to an all-encompassing culture of accountability which dominates the learning environment; but do these tests even provide us with valuable graduates who are ready for the wider world?

At ACS International School Cobham, we’ve long believed that it’s time for British schools to throw off the shackles of standardised testing, and whilst they’re at it, ditch outdated and unhelpful rules over school uniforms too.

“We’ve long believed that it’s time for British schools to throw off the shackles of standardised testing”

ACS Cobham embraces different approaches compared with the traditional British school system and although prospective students and their parents may sometimes be surprised to hear that we have no entrance exams, no school uniforms and no GSCEs or SATS tests, they are often delighted to hear that the result of this approach is that our students still get into the top universities, both in the UK and all around the world.

We don’t have a school uniform because we don’t believe that what is on the outside affects what is on the inside of our students. What identifies us is the ethos we create, not the uniform we wear.

Some schools adopt a strict uniform code to instil better behaviour or create a sense of community, but we know that you don’t create a community by what you wear, but by how you treat people.

As an international school, a sense of integration and community is one of our core features and as such, we teach children to respect each other regardless of what they wear or where they come from. Having a uniform doesn’t improve this teaching goal. We are more focused on fostering an inclusive atmosphere where each person is valued and feels sufficiently comfortable with themselves that they can be who they want to be, and dress as they feel appropriate.

Whilst we are non-selective we also achieve well above average results – like most Finnish schools. Our students achieve Russell Group university entry alongside regular admissions to some of the best universities in the world, with results consistently above 33 points on the IB, which in the UCAS points framework scores more highly than 3A*s at A-Level. Students need to be confident, independent thinkers to achieve these results, which they manage perfectly well without a uniform.

Remember, we now live in a multicultural, fast-paced modern world and young people need to be ready to integrate and work effectively with people who may look, dress and behave very differently to them. If they only have experience of places where everyone dresses identically, it is another challenge to overcome – but not for our ACS graduates, who are ready for the next step, whichever path they might choose after graduation.

About the author: Barnaby Sandow is the Head of School at ACS International School Cobham.