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PIAAC researchers in Finland and Estonia: Continuity is key

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, Photo: Vita Thomsen

There are no shortcuts for creating a foundation for the skills needed in working life. It is a time consuming process. Finland’s good results in international surveys stem from a 1970s school reform. The results are now at risk due to cuts and readjustments. Estonia, meanwhile, is catching up with the Nordic countries.

As you can read in the Nordic Labour Journal’s reports on the Nordic PIAAC survey, the Nordic countries plus Estonia do well in international comparisons of skills. Finland was number two out of all of the 24 OECD countries on its total score for literacy, numeracy and problem solving using computers.

The result matches other studies. Finnish 15 year olds keep doing very well in Pisa tests and they are the best in Europe and number four out of the OECD countries when it comes to problem solving using computers. But their numeracy, science and literacy skills have deteriorated. It has been some years now since Finnish students came top in the Pisa test.

The Pisa results are mirrored in the PIAAC test which measures competencies. Finnish 20 to 40 year olds are “in a different world” compared to the other Nordic countries, according to Aune Valk, who heads the department for analysis at the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. 

“I believe this is due to the 1970s educational reforms, because if you look at the 50 plus generation Finland is the same as other countries,” she says.

The foundation

So the foundation for skills is laid early in life and it is hard to compensate for this later on. The quality of basic education is incredibly important as a launch pad into an increasingly demanding working life, says Antero Malin at the University of Jyväskylä, who was project leader for PIAAC in Finland

“That’s why primary and secondary schools should focus on basic skills first and practical skills second. Basic education is key, and we cannot afford cuts or changes.”

It is a tough task. You only have to look at Germany where the authorities have put a lot into developing educational models and teaching tools which has resulted in improved theoretical knowledge — yet this has not been translated into creativity, perseverance and problem solving.

Estonia and Denmark are below the Nordic level for general skills. But teachers in Estonia’s basic education system do a good job, just like in Finland, and this shows in the youngest pupils’ results. 

“Estonia is catching up, so they are doing something right. But there are still big differences.”

Using technology

Estonia scores less well when it comes to problem solving using computers. This is due to the fact that just 60 percent of Estonians use a computer at work, while 80 percent do so in the Nordic countries. On the other hand, existing work computers are being used far more intensively.

“So there is a major difference in how technology is being used at work, and there is even a difference at home, albeit smaller,” says Aune Valk.

Skills are a combination of formal education and how much people use their competence. Problem solving using computers is for instance not dependent on education, but on how people use computers at work.

“School is an important explanatory variable here. In working life things are more varied, in some occupations these skills are needed more than in others. Another factor is how much of the skills are being used outside of work, how much you read and so on,” says Antero Malin.

He wants to highlight the link between age and skills in Finland since the differences between different age groups is greater than in other countries, even though older people are at similar levels as comparable age groups in the other Nordic countries.

Decision maker

Antero Malin says working life is becoming more challenging and the demand for better  skills has become an international trend.

“But it is difficult to further educate people with poor basic skills.”

This is something he has tried to highlight in discussions with authorities about further training. Antero Malin says the issue is relevant for the debate about increasing the retirement age and for the basic skills which are needed to re-train for new working tasks. The main problem is numeracy skills, but also problem solving skills using computers. 

There are other conclusions which decision makers could make too. Aune Valk believes the Nordic countries have much to learn from each other, because there are differences which in Finland are about higher academic education and in Sweden successful vocational education. 

“I would like to know what Sweden has done in terms of higher vocational education and for someone to explain it to me.”

Aune Valk thinks researchers should use data from the Pisa surveys to a much larger extent, even if the test is not designed to measure research on skills. 

“But this should make it possible to compare the different areas of education and specific learning in different systems.”

Antero Malin

Antero Malin

is National Project Manager for the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) in Finland 


Aune Valk


Aune Valk

is Director of The Open University Centre at the University of Tartu in Estonia. She is a psychologist and Chair of the working group on APEL in European University Lifelong Learning Network.


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