Legal system - Finland

Legal System

Parliament enacts laws on education and decides on the general principles of education policy. The Government and the Ministry of Education and Culture implement these principles at the central government level. The Ministry of Education and Culture is in charge of the administration of education, research, culture, youth issues and sports. Under the Universities Act, which was passed by Parliament in June 2009, Finnish universities are independent corporations under public law or foundations under private law. The Ministry of Education and Culture supervises publicly subsided education and training provision, from primary and secondary general education and vocational training to polytechnic, university and adult education.

In matters related to pre-primary, comprehensive and upper secondary schools, vocational institutions and adult education, the ministry is assisted by an expert agency, the Finnish National Board of Education. A central development document in the educational sector is the Development Plan for Education and Research, which the Government approves every four years for the year of its approval and for the following five calendar years. 

Historical Overview

Development of special education in Finnish Elementary schools, within the parallel school system prior to the introduction of the uniform comprehensive school system can be divided into four periods. The first period covers the establishment of special education from the 1840s until the Compulsory Education Act came into force in 1921. Initially, special education focused on arranging instruction for pupils with sensory disabilities. The first schools for people with hearing impairments, visual impairments and motor impairments were established in the 1840s, the 1860s and the 1890s respectively. When it was stipulated that folk education was the obligation of local authorities in 1866 and when it subsequently became compulsory, many disabled children were excluded from school during these reforms. Education for disabled people was provided in the form of philanthropic activities of individuals and charitable organisations.

The second period ranges from the time when the Compulsory Education Act came into force in 1921 until the end of the Second World War. The Compulsory Education Act stated that the children of Finnish citizens were considered to be subject to compulsory education, except for those children with intellectual disabilities, who were exempted from compulsory education.

The third period starts at the end of the Second World War and runs through to the unification of education and the launch of comprehensive schools in 1972. The post-war period witnessed the development of care for the disabled. In addition to medical care and rehabilitation, the field of vocational rehabilitation was also being developed. The quantitative increase in special education and specialisation in its different sectors occurred between the 1940s and the 1960s. New forms of education emerged alongside adjusted instruction, such as instruction for maladjusted pupils and part-time special education not tied to year classes.

However, the medical approach prevailed in the provision of education for children with special needs. Deviation was, above all, considered from the perspective of physical and functional disability. Pupils with special needs were seen as being different from other pupils to such an extent that their education could not be organised in conjunction with mainstream education. In addition, the special needs of different groups were so varied that, in order to answer their needs, these children were segregated into groups that were as homogeneous as possible in terms of instruction. As this way of thinking was prevalent at that time, special education remained highly differentiated and segregated.

From the early 1970s, the principle of normalisation and the philosophy of integration was brought strongly to the fore in the education of pupils in need of special support. The aim of the principle of normalisation is that the lives of disabled people would be as normal as possible. Integration is considered to be the means of implementing this normalisation. The objective was perceived to be social integration, in other words, the opportunity for pupils with special needs to participate in regular instruction in the school they would attend without their disability. 

Integration has been promoted in basic education since the 1970s. An important legislative reform was the new Comprehensive Schools Act passed in 1983, which enabled a better starting point for the development of the integration process. According to the Act, no child was allowed to be exempted from completing compulsory education any longer. Another important factor for the promotion of integration was the new comprehensive school national core curriculum issued in 1985; it raised the issues of differentiation and individualisation of education and, where necessary, the provision of special education and the individualisation of education and the syllabus. In terms of promoting integration, it was important that education and the syllabus were to be individualised according to the learning abilities and age of the individual child so as to enable special education curricula to also be used in conjunction with mainstream education. Education for children with minor intellectual disabilities was initiated within elementary schools in the form of special school instruction. In 1985, integrated instruction for children with medium and severe intellectual disabilities was transferred from social administration to educational administration. The instruction of children with the most severe intellectual disabilities, which had long been organised as part of special care for intellectually disabled people within the social administration, was transferred to be provided by comprehensive schools as from 1 August 1997, as was the instruction provided by reform schools from 1 August 1998. 

The fourth period of special education started in the 1990s. In 1995, the status of special education was evaluated nationally. The conclusions of the evaluation formed the basis for national development measures implemented in subsequent years. The aim was to reform the operating culture, organisation of education and joint steering by supporting regional and municipal integration of service systems.

The comprehensive reform of school legislation in 1998 and the new Basic Education Act (628/1998) aim to guarantee educational equality and equal educational services for all those subject to compulsory education. The old disintegrated legislation based on institution forms has been replaced by more concise and centralised legislation based on the objectives and contents of education, levels and forms of education and the rights and responsibilities of students.

On 14 March, 2006 the Ministry of Education appointed a steering group to prepare a proposal for a long-term strategy for the development of special needs education in pre-primary and basic education.

The steering group proposed that the current practice be changed to focus on a clearly earlier support and prevention. The general and intensified support will be adopted as the primary forms of support before a decision on special support is made. The intensified support would be used to bolster learning and growth and prevent the aggravation and escalation of problems relating to learning, social interaction or development. 

The changes of Basic Education Act came into force on 1 January, 2011 but the provisions on pupil welfare and data protection were applied from 1 August 2010. The Finnish National Board of Education revised the national core curriculum for pre-primary and basic education according to the new provisions and they were adopted on 1 January 2011. The amendment supplements provisions on pre-primary and basic education and support given to pupils. The aim is to strengthen the pupil's right to early, preventive support in learning and growth and special support, if needed. The support intensifies by stages: general support, intensified support and special support. Provisions on the handling and confidentiality of personal data and pupil welfare services were also amended and supplemented.  

A pupil has the right to get instruction and guidance counselling in accordance with the curriculum and sufficient support in learning and school attendance, as soon as the need arises (amended Section 30). The possibility to get support and counselling is a right every pupil has on every school day. The support is a collaborative effort involving all teachers, the pupil and his/her parent and, where needed, pupil welfare personnel. Special needs education is provided, taking into consideration the interests of the pupil and the facilities for providing the education, in conjunction with other instruction or partly or totally in a special-needs classroom or some other appropriate facility (Figure 1).


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Figure 1: Participation of learners in educational settings 

 Legal System in Mainstream Education

According to the Constitution of Finland, everyone is equal before the law. No one may, without a valid reason, be treated differently from other people on grounds of sex, age, origin, health, disability or any other reason that concerns her/his person. Children are to be treated equally and as individuals and they are to be allowed to have an influence on issues affecting themselves to a degree corresponding to their level of development. Everyone also has the right to basic education free of charge. Everyone is to be guaranteed an equal opportunity to receive education in accordance with their abilities and special needs and to develop themselves without being prevented by economic hardship.

According to the Basic Education Act (628/1998), all education must comply with national core curriculum. Instruction is to be organised to meet the age level and abilities of pupils so as to promote pupils’ healthy growth and development. Instruction is to be conducted in co-operation with pupils’ homes.

The National Core Curriculum for Basic Education is the national framework and it is used as the basis for drawing up local curricula. Education providers are responsible for preparation and development of local curricula. Municipalities are responsible for providing early childhood education and care, pre-primary education and basic education to all children residing in its area.

Renovation of the National Core Curriculum concerning support for growth, learning and school attendance based the changed legislation


The Finnish basic education system has been based on the philosophy of inclusion for a long time. Basic education is the same for all. There is no streaming, but children are supported individually so that they can successfully complete their basic education.

Amendments to the National Core Curricula for pre-primary and basic education (2010) include a new systematic way of organizing support. The focus is on earliest possible support in order to prevent the emergence and growth of problems. Support for growth, learning and school attendance is shaped into three categories: general support, intensified support and special support. Everyone is entitled to general support. It is a natural part of everyday teaching and the learning process. Intensified and special supports are based on careful assessment and long-span planning in multi-professional teams and on individual learning plans for pupils.

If general support is not enough, pedagogical assessment shall be done and a plan for the intensified support handled in the pupil welfare group of the school. Following this a learning plan is drawn up for the pupil.

If intensified support is not enough, new and more extensive pedagogical statements on the pupil shall be done. The education provider collects information from teachers and the school’s welfare group. Based on this information, the education provider makes an official decision concerning special support. Following this decision, an individual education plan shall be drawn for the pupil. 

As a part of the reform a development project of intensified and special support was started in 2008. The objective was to institute the strategy (2007) for the development of pre-primary and basic education. The Finnish National Board of Education was responsible for the project. Developmental assessment of the project was executed by Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment. National training for the project was organized by Jyväskylä Continuing Professional Development Centre, EduClusterFinland. The Development project was completed in 2012.

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Figure 2: Types of support available in educational settings

Legal System concerning support for learning and school attendance

The Constitution ensures that the support services needed in education are to be available to everyone, who cannot obtain the security, indispensable subsistence and care required for a life lived with dignity. The public authorities must guarantee everyone adequate social, health and medical services and promote the health of the population. In addition, the public authorities are to support families and others responsible for providing for children so that they can ensure the well-being and personal development of children. 

Support measures form a systematic continuum in Finnish education system. 

Particular care is taken to ensure continuing support as a child moves from early childhood education and care to pre-primary education, from pre-primary to basic education and from basic education to secondary education. 

Support for growth and learning in pre-primary Education

The basis for development and support in pre-primary education comprises objectives agreed together with childrens’ parents, which sustain basic security and support childrens’ holistic growth. The primary concern is to support development of each child’s positive self-concept and healthy self-esteem and to ensure equal membership of the group. Work in pre-primary education should be playful and involve action-based group and individual guidance stemming from children’s development level. It should promote children’s cognitive, in particular linguistic, as well as socio-emotional development and their ability to learn new things and also prevent learning difficulties. 

Attention must be focused on early identification of learning barriers and difficulties. Those participating in education are entitled to receive sufficient support for learning and growth immediately when the need for support becomes apparent. Early identification of support needs requires continuous assessment of children’s growth and learning and provision of support must be initiated at a sufficiently early stage. This will prevent aggravation and long-term effects of problems. Provision of the right support measures at the right time and level is the key to safeguarding growth and learning. The support received by children must be flexible, planned with a long-term view in mind and must change in keeping with support needs. Different forms of support are used both individually and in combination to complement each other. Support will be provided as long as necessary and at the appropriate level. Particular care is taken to ensure continuing support as a child moves from day care to pre-primary education and from pre-primary to basic education.

Support for growth, learning and school attendance is shaped into three categories in the National Core Curriculum for Pre-primarily Education: General support, intensified support and special support.

Support for learning and school attendance in Basic Education

The starting points for provision of teaching and support are the strengths learning and development needs of both the whole teaching group and each individual pupil. Support for learning and school attendance means solutions based on community spirit and the learning environment, as well as meeting pupil’s individual needs. When planning instruction and support, it is imperative to bear in mind that support needs may vary from temporary to continuous, from minor to major, or from one to several forms of support.

Every pupil must be given an opportunity to succeed in learning, develop as a learner and grow and refine him- or herself as a person on his or her own terms. Diverse learners, different learning styles and starting points for learning as well as pupils’ cultural backgrounds must be taken into account in schoolwork. Special attention must be focused on early identification of learning barriers and difficulties.

The school management is responsible for decisions relating to provision and implementation of support and for taking these into account in all year groups and subjects. Pedagogical expertise and cooperation between teachers play an important role in identifying support needs and in planning and implementing support. Where necessary, support is planned and implemented as part of multi-disciplinary pupil welfare work. Pupils and their parents or guardians shall be provided with information about support measures and shall be given an opportunity to express their views on the provision of support. Each pupil is provided with support at his or her own school through various flexible arrangements, unless its provision inevitably requires the pupil to be transferred to another teaching group or school. Particular care is taken to ensure continuing support as a child moves from pre-primary to basic education and as a pupil moves from basic education to the upper secondary level or changes schools during basic education. 

Pupil welfare in pre-primary and basic education 

Pupil welfare refers to promotion and maintenance of each pupil’s good learning, good psychological and physical health and social well-being as well as activities geared towards improving the prerequisites for these. Pupil welfare comprises pupil welfare in accordance with the curriculum approved by the education provider and pupil welfare services, which include school health services as referred to in the Primary Health Care Act and support for schooling as referred to in the Child Welfare Act (1). 

Pupil welfare concerns everyone working in the school community as well as the authorities responsible for pupil welfare services.  It is implemented in cooperation with pupils and their parents or guardians (2). Pupil welfare consists of both communal and individual support. Pupil welfare promotes the learning and balanced growth and development of children and young people.

The purpose of pupil welfare is to develop a learning environment that supports well-being and to reinforce the school’s collaborative operating method as part of the school community’s operational culture. Community spirit is nurtured by promoting the involvement of pupils and their parents or guardians in development of well-being in the school community. The aim is to create a safe and healthy learning and growth environment, to safeguard mental health and prevent exclusion, and to promote well-being in the school community.

Pupil welfare involves developing, monitoring and assessing the well-being of the entire school community and individual classes and groups and ensuring that pupils’ individual needs relating to growth, development and health are taken into account as part of the school’s daily routines (3).  

Pupil welfare aims to prevent, identify, ameliorate and eliminate barriers to growth and learning, learning difficulties and other problems at the earliest possible stage. Special attention must be focused on safeguarding pupils’ mental health. Preventive child welfare and annual health checks as part of health promotion alongside health advice as necessary reinforce prevention of problems, their early identification and provision of support.  Planning and implementation of extensive health checks as part of school health care require multidisciplinary cooperation within pupil welfare (4). The purpose of pupil welfare is to monitor each pupil’s holistic well-being and, where necessary, support the pupil and intervene in changes in well-being in cooperation with the pupil’s parents or guardians.  

Cooperation within pupil welfare involves agreeing on procedures for implementing preventive child welfare work and special support as part of school health services. Cooperation and operating guidelines must take account of any possible endangerment of a pupil’s development due to risks in the growth environment and the duty to notify as specified in the Child Welfare Act in order to investigate the need for child welfare (5). 

The guiding principles of pupil welfare work are confidentiality, respect for individual pupils and their parents and guardians, as well as support for their involvement. It is imperative to guarantee that the views of pupils and their parents or guardians are heard in the work. The school must inform pupils and their parents or guardians of pupil welfare work and its procedures. Parents and guardians must be provided with information on how individual pupils welfare matters are prepared (6). 

Pupil welfare is coordinated and developed in a multidisciplinary welfare team. The general principles and structures of cooperation, organization of practical activities, division of work and responsibilities are to be agreed in cooperation with the authorities dealing with implementation of local health care and social services (7). In addition, cooperation with other authorities, such as the police and fire and rescue services or other partners in issues relating to health and safety, is also taken into account when organizing cooperation. 

The principles and procedures relating to both community-level promotion of health and well-being and supporting individual pupils and dealing with their matters are to be separately agreed when planning pupil welfare work. Activities promoting overall health and well-being in the school community may be developed through multidisciplinary cooperation. In this respect, different parties may participate in pupil welfare cooperation notwithstanding secrecy, unlike with matters concerning individual pupils 

Support in special circumstances 

Pupils may need support in special circumstances, such as in connection with an illness or in difficult life circumstances. In such cases, instruction may be provided at hospitals and community homes. The local authority in whose area a hospital is located is responsible for arranging teaching for a pupil who is a patient to the extent that his or her health and other circumstances allow. Instruction for pupils placed in a community home is the responsibility of the school operating at the community home, provided that the community home is authorized to provide education. Responsibility for instruction for other children placed outside home rests within each pupil’s municipality of residence. 

Vocational Education

Special instruction within vocational education and training should primarily be provided in connection with regular instruction or in separate groups or both. Vocational special institutions, in turn, are responsible for providing education and training for students with the most severe disabilities. Vocational education and training are provided in the form of special education and training for students who need special educational and student welfare services due to disability, illness, delayed development, emotional disorder or some other similar reason. It is the task of each education provider to determine how to define which students are in need of special education and training and how to draw up individual education plans for them. Special education and training may deviate from the general provisions governing vocational education and training as determined in the relevant national core curriculum. The duration of studies and study arrangements may be adjusted where a student’s state of health or previous studies dictate accordingly.

The 1998 legislative amendments introduced on-the-job learning and the appreciation and priority of learning by doing to the sphere of vocational education and training. These changes have promoted the provision of special education and training, as special education has traditionally intensified learning by emphasising practical skills and activities.

Upper Secondary Education

The National Core Curriculum for Upper Secondary Schools (2003) emphasises the fact that the purpose of special support is to help and support students so as to guarantee them equal opportunities to complete their upper secondary school studies. Once a student’s learning difficulties have been identified, planning and implementation of support measures are started immediately, taking into account the information acquired on the student’s study performance and their needs for support during basic education. The local upper secondary school curriculum will determine how instruction and support measures for special needs students are to be organised.

For more information about the Finnish Education System, click here 




1. Basic Education Act, section 31 a(1) (as amended by Act 477/2003) and (2) (as amended by Act 642/2010); Primary Health Care Act (66/1972; kansanterveyslaki), section 14(1)(5) (as amended by Act 626/2007); Child Welfare Act, section 9 

 2. Basic Education Act, section 31 a(3) 

 3. Basic Education Act, sections 3(2) (as amended by Act 477/2003); Government Decree governing school and student health care, sections 12, 13 and 15; Child Welfare Act, section 9 

4. Basic Education Act, sections 16, 16 a, 17 and 17 a (as amended by Act 642/2010); Child Welfare Act, sections 3, 3 a (as amended by Act 88/2010); 8, 9 and 12; Government Decree governing school and student health care, sections 4, 7 (2) and (3) 8, 9 ( 1) and (2) 13, 14 and 15 (3)

 5. Child Welfare Act, section 25(1); Government Decree governing school and student health care, sections    13 and 18 

6. Basic Education Act, section 31 a(3) and (4) (as amended by Act 642/2010)

7. Basic Education Act, section 15(2) (as amended by Act 477/2003)

Last modified Dec 18, 2012


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