Researchers from the University of Sydney have analysed the cross-national attraction within the media discourse around the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results and found the focus on Finland’s system continues unabated, despite the nation’s decline in real scores.

Co-author Dr Rachel Wilson from the Sydney School of Education and Social Work suggests that this might be partly attributable to the appeal of the Finnish system on other levels.

The study examined the ways in which the largest circulation English language newspapers in Australia, Finland, Japan, and South Korea wrote about other nation’s results between 2001 and 2015. While Finnish reporting focused mainly internally, the other three nations demonstrated a cross-national attraction towards the Finnish system.

“The research showed that positive references to Finland’s results were very widespread in the other countries,” Wilson says.

“Countries such as Japan and Korea are showing strong results in PISA, but reporting on these systems also points to the amount of stress these systems put on students to achieve high results. By contrast, reporting on Finnish results often talks about that system’s focus on teacher professional development, education research, and sustainable education.

“The media writes about PISA results as though they are convinced about the legitimacy and importance of this assessment, But the fact that Finland’s results, although strong, are declining, and yet they remain the focus of reporting on what excellence in education looks like, offers a strange dichotomy,” Wilson says.

“The initial focus on the Finnish system began because they were performing so well on these forms of assessment. The continuing focus may be because their system is culturally attractive.”

Another interesting finding of the research was that countries with improving scores in PISA seemed more outward looking than those with declining scores.

And while Finnish results have been declining in PISA in real terms, there remains broad internal support for how the system is running.

“It appears that the Finns do not view PISA results as a zero-sum end game,” Wilson says. “As a society, they appreciate that other countries may improve their results, pushing Finland down the rankings; but they see that their system is working for them, and they aren’t threatened by other countries doing well in the testing.

“They also suggest that those countries who are improving in their results are perhaps getting there by embracing educational cultures that are unpalatable to the Finns.”

Co-author and PhD candidate Edward Davis says that the media’s constant discussions of top performing PISA countries such as Finland have distracted the Australian public. In his view, debates should focus instead “on why we have declined and how we can address this decline.”

Wilson says further research should be undertaken in this space.

“Education policy is impacted by international trends in education. And yet we have Finland – the almost universally acclaimed pinnacle of educational success – being largely internally focused.

“At this stage, it’s unclear whether they focus on themselves because they are widely believed to be the best, so why look elsewhere; or they are the best because they focus mainly on themselves. What is clear is that we need more research to understand what is driving media attention, because there is no doubt it is steering political debate and it may be distracting and causing ill-informed policy shifts.

“We need more analysis into why Australia shows declines measured across a range of education indicators; and not this continual international league table focus. Much of the cross-national attraction among education systems is complicating things – we don’t need more distractions, or band-aids, but a deep internal analysis and long term plan.”