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I have taught for 16 years in the UK and now for 3 years in Finland. In my opinion, there are number of educational policy issues that account for Finland's success, e.g. teachers have pedagogical freedom and exams and assessment are not the main focus. However I think the biggest factor lies outside of schools completely.

Pasi talks about play. Children really know how to play here. There is virtually no pressure on them to grow up and behave like adults. Nor do they have to worry about adult issues. Children from toddlerhood play outside in the streets, forests and by lakes, with very loose adult supervision. Siblings are expected to look after each other and all adults in society have a responsibility to protect children and help them if they need help. Children walk or cycle miles to school, with no fear of abduction or busy roads. They have very little to worry about, even in big cities.

In short, society is safe and children's minds are free to focus on play and study. It is a very healthy environment for young people. Teenagers are not feared or avoided. Society really values them and treats them with respect. I wish we could bring these things to the UK but 60m people are harder to change than 5m.

Nicki - thanks for this perceptive comment. I have spent time in Norway most years and I have noticed a similar phenomenon. I remember standing with one of my kids aged about seven at a bus-stop in the early morning when the temperature was about -25C. The bus had to pass the stop in the opposite direction before turning round and coming back to pick up passengers. Because it was cold the bus stopped unbidden and the driver beckoned my son onto the empty bus, saying that it would be better for him to be on the bus than out in the cold. This was obviously simply a normal thing to have happened. I've also done long distance bus journeys quite a lot in Norway, and I've noticed small children alone at bus stops travelling miles to school alone aged about eight upwards. That is how I remember my own London childhood over 50 years ago. But things certainly ain't like that in England any more.

Yes - this question of play was a major feature of Pasi's talk. He mentioned that PISA shows that less classroom time is associated with better learning. He also made a memorable link with the research on expertise, that shows that top musicians, athletes etc seem to do at least 10,000 hours of practice to become expert. So we should provide at least 10,000 hours for children to become expert at playing.

In answer to an "anxious parent" type of question, he also said that there is no expectation at all of any reading or writing skills on entry to school at 7. Pre-school is for play - some play with letters and numbers, others don't. The primary school handles children with whatever skills they arrive with.

I attended a seminar with ministry officials when the news about Finnish success first broke. People just wanted to find out what was the key - which initiative, which strategy. It was almost impossible to convey the cultural width of what was happening in Finland. In Pasi's talk he was keen to stress that this is not just an educational success story - it is happening across society.

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