Finland’s schools may be at the top of the global league tables, but the country’s principals say burgeoning workloads have them at breaking point.
As Australian schools strive to emulate those in Finland, what does this mean for best practice in Australia?
Dr Philip Riley, who authors the Australian and New Zealand principal health and well-being surveys, said he became aware of the issue in Finnish schools last year at the International Confederation of Principals (ICP) conference.
Riley said that during a meeting with Antti Ikonen, the head of the Finnish Association of Principals, he was told that the country’s principals were “suffering” due to massive workloads, which are causing principals high levels of stress and burnout.
“Ikonen approached me and said ‘you need to do your research in our country because our principals are suffering hugely’,” Riley told The Educator.
“The association now wants me to do research to look into the levels of burnout and stress among their principals. It hasn’t happened yet but it looks like it probably will, because they really want to know how to resolve these issues.”
Most Finnish principals struggling
Ikonen says a whopping 84% of the country’s school leaders report feeling ‘very busy’ on a daily basis.
“There have been discussions about this issue among school leaders in Finland for years, and about five years ago, we decided to really do something about it,” Ikonen told The Educator.
“We know that the main reasons why the [principal] profession is not very attractive as it used to be is because there is the perception that there are too many tasks, too little time for pedagogical leadership and too much stress.”
Ikonen said that although Finnish schools are high-performing, both in international league tables and locally, these challenges are “a well-known fact” that require action.
“The challenge is that these issues demand a lot of money to solve the problem,” Ikonen said, but added it’s not only a question of resources.
“The solution also demands reorganization among people who are working in schools and a new way of thinking – these are the most important tasks for a principal.”
Ikonen said it is crucial that school leaders have enough time to focus on pedagogical leadership.
“A big part of Finland’s success is built on well-educated teachers, but a lot of it is also based on good leadership, trust and confidence, which are the best words to describe Finnish schooling in all levels,” he said.
Changing times demand more from principals
Several years ago, Finnish schools rolled out new curriculums across all year levels in a bid to ensure the country’s youth kept ahead of the curve in their learning outcomes.
However, Ikonen said that increasing digitalization, the need to find more ‘active’ ways of learning and recognising individual student needs are tasks that demand more from the country’s school leaders.
“On the other hand, the average number of employees for one principal is between 40 and 50, like in many other education systems around the world,” he said.
“All these things together combine to show a contradictory result, which is very difficult to work in practice.”
Ikonen said the Finnish education system has done several year of intensive work, including thorough consultations with teacher and employee unions to get “more facts into the conversation”.
“We can now see the first steps in providing more time for educational leadership for principals, but also more resources towards the deputy principals in bigger schools,” he said.
“However, there is still much more work to do, and that is why we have started a long-lasting project called Pro Rexi 2025 [Pro principal 2025] which concentrates on principal health and well-being.”