The teachers at Jakomaki Comprehensive School in the suburbs of Helsinki have lofty ideals. Education, said Anu Tanzi-Albi, who teaches Finnish, was about passing on traditions and giving students the skills and concepts they needed for their futures. 'It is very important we transmit our culture and arts in the widest sense. But it is essential we should know how to do it so our students can take them further,' she said. She and her fellow teachers spoke of the strong sense of collegiality in their staff room. Paivi Viren, vice-principal and special needs teacher at the school, said: 'We spend a lot of time planning our lessons. There is a lot of teamwork.' A similar culture pervades the nearby Ilola Koulu primary school. There, teachers work in teams of five, swapping children between classes in order to better meet individual learning needs. 'Teamwork is very good,' said deputy principal Maija Scamans. 'But we don't just share children. We share ideas and worries of work.' Teachers at Jakomaki and Ilola Koulu said their morale was high. They felt valued as professionals, even though they were not particularly well-paid. The strength of the teaching profession in Finland is one of the major factors behind the country's top performing education system. Education and the role of the teacher have long been respected in Finnish society. Its school system, and teacher education, dates back to the middle of the 19th century when compulsory schooling was introduced while it was an autonomous duchy in the Russian Empire. Social changes after the second world war, when many migrated from rural to urban areas, also spurred awareness that education was key to the success of a small, emerging industrial nation. 'Education has a big meaning in our country. It is somewhere inside us. Finns understand the meaning of education,' said Professor Matti Meri, director of the Department of Applied Sciences in Education, University of Helsinki. Yet the starting point was also a deep respect for childhood, which was why the age of seven was seen as appropriate for starting school. 'It is important childhood can go as far as possible, and not to have school regimentation too early,' he said. Neither teachers nor students talk of suffering from the types of pressures and stresses common in Hong Kong. ' 'When we are well-motivated there should be no stress,' said Professor Meri. Finnish schools have a strong culture of democracy rather than the type of more rigid hierarchy common in Hong Kong. Teachers are empowered to enjoy extensive autonomy in their classrooms, while also benefiting from being part of a team. 'Pedagogical authority is shared. Everyone has it, and are experts in their own way. This is democracy,' he said. Such a learning culture is possible only with well-trained teachers. Since 1975, all Finnish teachers, from kindergarten through to senior secondary levels, have been trained in universities. Their master's programmes take five years to complete. Secondary teachers will have subject degrees before their one-year teacher training while for primary and kindergarten the emphasis is on pedagogy. 'Pedagogical knowledge should be as wide as possible for primary teachers because they will be teaching a whole group for many years,' Professor Meri said. All are required to complete a master's thesis. Papers on Professor Meri's desk range from attitude changes among students who joined an adventure camp to how children respond to self-evaluating their work. Teaching practice in schools is relatively short, at 15 weeks. Those embarking on this training are rigorously selected. Professor Meri's department can choose the best. Every year it receives 1,200 applications, of which 140 will be successful. At the application stage, candidates are required to write essays on their thoughts about teaching and education, and convince an interview panel. 'We want to understand why they want to teach, why they think teaching is important and what kind of teacher they want to be,' Professor Meri said. Once in their schools, the learning continues. At state level, all teachers are required to attend a course every three years. Municipalities also organise their own in-service programmes. New and serving principals are trained in school leadership. The professionalism of teachers meant there was no need for their work to be closely monitored in school inspections. 'Teachers are working in schools and the results are good. We don't need the kind of control normal in many countries,' Professor Meri said.