Mikael Nyholm is a trendy young principal who sports one earring and is known to his students as Mike. But when it comes to teaching he describes himself as a conservative. During their nine years of compulsory comprehensive education, Finnish students face few pressures. Tests are not a major feature of the timetable, particularly in the early primary and secondary years, and there is no public exam. But for the 54 per cent who go on to the three-year general upper secondary programme, the pressure mounts. Students in these schools work hard for high scores in the national matriculation exams and school leaving certificate, as these are the passport to university or polytechnic. While there is no shortage of places in higher education in Finland, competition is strong for the best courses. Mr Nyholm is proud that 70 per cent of his students at Gymansiet Svenska Normallyceum move on to tertiary education. Good scores not only get them to university, but provide them with advanced credit points towards their degrees. The module-based national curriculum for these three years is broad in its subject content. Students are required to study between 47 and 51 compulsory courses, each involving 38 lessons of 45 minutes. They must also choose a minimum of 10 specialised courses, amounting to about a third of the programme. There is a heavy emphasis on languages, maths and sciences (biology, physics, chemistry and geography), while students must also complete modules in religion and ethics, philosophy, psychology, history, social studies, music, visual arts, physical education, health and careers education. Students are not taught in year groups, but according to the modules they choose. The programme is designed to last three years, but can be completed in two or four. A new version of the curriculum, which is more detailed in its objectives and content, is to be adopted in August. Jorma Kauppinen, head of the Board of Education's upper secondary school unit, said this was to narrow the differences in delivery of the curriculum between schools, in the interests of equity for students. A similar reform will follow in comprehensive schools. 'We want to make sure every student has the right to good quality education and instruction,' he said. Senior secondary schools may have their specialisations. Mr Nyholm's school emphasises maths, sciences and geography. For the national matriculation examination, taken to enter university, students are examined in their mother tongue language and three optional subjects from those included in the core curriculum. Mr Nyholm divides his school year into six 'periods', or cycles, with tests and report cards at the end of each. 'The curriculum is built for students to do their best in the national exams,' he said.