Planning my thesis – a comparative investigation of education and social equity in New Zealand and Finland

davI haven’t been updating this page over the Spring semester as I have wanted to focus on my studies and life in Oulu. I will write more frequently on here as I adventure into my thesis, the plan of which is mapped out in this very long post with reference to the complex field of comparative and international education research. Please feel free to comment, question, and critique. These are early days and I have much to learn! I hope that you can learn something from this too :)

x Min


If we study foreign systems of education thoroughly and sympathetically – and sympathy and thoroughness are both necessary for the task – I believe that the result on our minds will be to make us prize, as we have never prized before, the good things which we have at home, and also to make us realise how many things there are in our [own education systems] which need prompt and searching change.”

(Sadler, 1990, cited in Bray, 2014a, p. 40).



My master’s thesis is a comparative investigation of the role of formal education in promoting social equity in New Zealand and Finland. I am especially interested in the effects that dominant discourse about this relationship has on the decisions and actions of policymakers in each country.  The problem I want to understand is the impact of family background on educational and life outcomes. Although there has been a lot of research done on the relationship between education and social equity, including in the specific context of each of these countries, to date there has been no research that specifically compares the phenomenon in New Zealand and Finland.


The time period in question is the present situation in New Zealand and Finland, but I will situate this in their social, historical, political, economic, and cultural contexts. The theoretical framework in which these contexts are explained will have a particular focus on the last thirty years, over which the world has become increasingly globalised. This time has been characterised by the rise of neoliberalism / new managerialism as the dominant economic paradigm influencing a global reform movement in education and social policy. Some of these effects include decentralisation of educational management coupled with increased accountability and evaluation, moves towards privatisation of education providers to encourage competition, a view of education in terms of its economic value, a changing view of the teacher’s role as a technician, and the dismantling of the welfare state.

Some similarities and differences at a glance

New Zealand led the world in establishing a model welfare state in the 1930s, but this has been eroded over the last thirty years with consequences on the provision of education and levels of social equality and opportunities. Finland’s Nordic welfare model with its free access to education, social support systems and focus on dignity and decent living conditions gives it the reputation as a last bastion of the comprehensive welfare state, despite cuts and changes in recent years.

New Zealand is an ethnically and culturally diverse country of 4.7 million people built on immigration. The majority of New Zealanders are of European descent. It is founded on the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi between the colonising British Crown and the indigenous Māori people who comprise nearly 15 percent of the population. Finland, a country of 5.5 million people, is often referred to as having a comparatively homogenous culture made up of mostly ethnic Finns. There are also two significant minority groups in Finland, Swedish-speaking Finns and indigenous Sami people. Finland is becoming more diverse with increased migration.

New Zealand students perform comparatively well in international tests, but the system has been heavily influenced by the global reform movement, resulting in the introduction of tuition fees at tertiary level, a public-private-partnership / charter school initiative, and mass testing against national standards from primary years. Teaching is not such a highly valued profession, and education is increasingly seen as an economic transaction and preparation for the job market. Finland’s education system is praised worldwide for its students’ very high scores in international tests, despite its rejection of the competitive model that prioritises national testing and competition. Finnish students instead enjoy shorter school days, little homework, pedagogical innovations, and intentional inclusivity, in the predominantly public school system. Education and the teaching profession is highly valued in Finland, where policy is grounded on equality of access to high quality and free education for everybody.

My thesis is most interested in the stark difference between the impact of socioeconomic / family background on educational outcomes. The correlation is very strong in New Zealand while Finland leads the world in reducing the impact.

Theoretical framework

I will employ perspectives and analytical tools from a neo-Marxist / critical approach which “emphasises economic factors and, especially, the influence of social class on both policy and practice” (Sweeting, 2014, p. 175). My concern with inequalities and education’s potential to perpetuate them place me most naturally in the neo-Marxist framework derived from radical functionalism, but with a view towards revolutionary change inspired by radical humanist critical theory. Critical theory recognises that “there is no individual emancipation without societal emancipation” and the understanding that social inequality hinders emancipation (Biesta, 2005). Structural functionalism will be used as a lens to understand the contexts of each country and the role of education as seen and acted upon within them. I will perhaps also bring in some insights and perspectives from postcolonial and feminist thought, and will challenge neoliberal / new managerialist assumptions and practice.


I will undertake primarily qualitative research, but I will also refer to quantitative studies conducted by other academics and also agencies. In establishing the context of the present situations in Finland and New Zealand I aim to review literature, refer to government policy and working group papers promoting reform, examine primary sources such as speeches, interviews and newspaper articles, and analyse statistics on educational achievement and social inequalities. My empirical research will consist of semi-structured interviews with decision makers in each country. I will undertake a critical discourse analysis of these interviews, possibly using a dispositive lens, but I am still reading about that. I will look to Foucault’s (cited in Biesta, 2005) theorisation of how discursive practices define and establish what can be perceived, talked about, and done. I am also inspired by Gert Biesta’s (2005) call to reclaim a language for education as a challenge to the dominant language of learning that characterises education as an economic exchange.  


Defining the field/s of comparative and international education is complex, as it is multidisciplinary and diverse in its approaches, theoretical frameworks, methodologies, purposes and uses.

Distinction and merging of comparative and international education research

There is confusion and debate over the distinction between comparative education research and international education research, as they are intricately intertwined but possess different roots, purposes, and approaches. Crossley and Watson (2003) refer to a variety of literature on the debate, and summarises comparative education research as having a “detached academic approach” while international education research is more easily applicable in practice and oriented toward developing better international understandings (p. 15). The two fields emerged in parallel, but are often unintentionally equated and have also been consciously combined by some academic journals and professional societies. My research fits within and across both of the two fields, and so for the purposes of this paper I will refer to Comparative International Education Research (CIER).   

History and evolution of the field

The field/s of comparative and international education developed from a range of origins, merging with different fields of study and evolving in academic diversity, complexities, and opportunities (Crossley & Watson, 2003). The purposes and uses of comparative studies about education in different places and times has also shifted and expanded over its history, but the quest to improve education systems has been central throughout (Larsen, 2010).

The primarily observational “‘travellers’ tales’” of the past moved into a period characterised by the establishment of comprehensive schooling, early data collection by governments, and colonial powers imposing their education values and systems on the peoples they colonised. This system-transfer was questioned by comparativists of the early 20th century, influenced by the disciplines of history and philosophy which underscore the significance of context. Michael Sadler, a pioneer in the field, saw the primary value of investigating “…the working of foreign systems of education…[to] result in our being better fitted to study and to understand our own” (Sadler, 1900, cited in Higginson, 1979, p. 50, cited in Crossley & Watson, 2001, p. 17). This is certainly central to my own purpose, and indeed my decision to apply lo live and study this programme in Finland. Isaac Kandel (1933, cited in Crossley & Watson, 2003) established the problem-approach to comparative research, which causes of the problem/s are analysed, differences between the locations are compared, and examples of attempted solutions are evaluated. My own research examines the problem of family background impacting educational and life outcomes. I am likely to follow a similar approach to learn more about how and why social background has significantly less impact on outcomes in Finland than New Zealand.

The post-war period saw CIER become more positivist in its approach. National governments and international agencies began gathering statistical data in large quantities which was used to make generalisations and compare themselves against each other. Strict positivism in CIER is challenged by many who warn against making universal assumptions with this data, and promote the necessity for contextualising research. Crossley and Watson (2003) cite leading scholars who have championed this view, such as Bereday (1964), Mallinson (1975), and Thomas (1998). The theoretical framework of my research will include a substantial explanation of the wider historical, social, economic, and political contexts in which the education systems of Finland and New Zealand exist. This contextualisation is important because it demonstrates the uniqueness of different education models and their settings, and highlights the near impossibility of “policy-borrowing” from one place as a solution to problems in another. This is not a new debate, as Sadler warned against the transference of educational policy and frameworks across countries more than a hundred years ago (Crossley & Watson, 2003). Despite this, the practice continues as governments look overseas for solutions to their educational problems (Larsen, 2010). Marginson and Mollis (2001) outline how they believe the field of CIER should be defined in the current context of increasing globalisation: the field must be flexible and reflexive. I will address the theme of policy borrowing in my research as I am interested in the impact of the neoliberal global reform movement (and its associated discourse) on the attitudes and actions of New Zealand and Finnish decision makers in education policy. The academic success of the Finnish education system, its policy grounded in equality of access, pedagogical innovations and inclusivity has led educators, media personalities and members of the public in to call for similar approaches in New Zealand. There is debate about whether New Zealand is too different to adopt a more Finnish approach to education. Although I came to Finland to learn more about the education system here and reflect on our own in New Zealand, my purpose is not to advocate that we copy Finnish policy and mechanisms. However, I do hope that we can learn from some of the values and mechanisms operating in Finland to promote greater social equity through education.


The field of CIER has grown rich with possibilities thanks to the range of disciplines that have influenced it. It welcomes visitors of other academic backgrounds such as history, sociology, psychology, political science and economics who bring with them different viewpoints and skills. Multiple lenses through which educational phenomena can understood and analysed are employed in the field (Crossley & Watson, 2003, Bray et al., 2014). This has resulted in additional layers of complexity, but also an abundance of opportunities to explore a range of perspectives, paradigms, methodological approaches and analysis. Crossley and Watson (2003) describe some of the research produced in the field to demonstrate the potential value of investigating different foci, units of analysis, geographical settings and time periods. The purposes of CIER also vary due to this multidisciplinary nature of the field, which is a prevailing feature of the field today. . If I approach this research from a discipline other than education, it would be history, political science and sociology. I want to develop a good grounding in the philosophies, paradigms and practices of the disciplines to do this well. I studied a double major in history and politics in my bachelor’s degree, and taught high school level history for four and a half years. I have questions about this though as I do not feel as though I have enough depth of knowledge and experience in academic history or political science, but I hope that I can gain some of this in my research.  I have not studied sociology at tertiary level but am very interested in the sociology of education especially, so am trying to become acquainted with the discipline through more reading at the moment. My interest in these disciplines influence my purpose in undertaking this research.

Actors and purposes


The individuals and groups that are interested in CIER also have different purposes that underpin their research. Mark Bray (2014a) outlines some of the categories of actors who research comparative education: parents, practitioners, policy makers, academics and international agencies. He explains that those who engage in this research do so for different purposes, and these purposes result in varied approaches taken, methodologies used, questions explored and data analysed. Like the multidisciplinarity of the field, this adds complexity to undertaking a research project but it also allows for possibilities and experimentation. Crossley & Watson (2003) have identified some of the most common purposes of CIER in their review of the literature. These purposes include greater understanding of the researcher’s own system, fulfilment of intellectual curiosity, exploring relationships between education and society, determining similarities and differences, establishing reasons for educational problems and analysing solutions to them so as to contribute to better policy, and finally to advance international understanding and cooperation.

My purpose in undertaking this research might be fairly unique in that my own personal and professional self is situated across all of these categories:

At this moment in my life I am studying for my master’s degree and planning my research thesis, so my primary identity is that of a budding academic, curious to improve and deepen my understanding of the relationship between education and social justice / equity, both in theory and practice. Before i came to Finland I was a co-opted member of the Child Poverty Action Group management committee, and am deeply passionate about finding solutions to social and educational inequalities that keep our most vulnerable children and their families in poverty. My most recent paid work was as the education and youth coordinator at Amnesty International New Zealand, so I have interest in how other places promote and protect human rights and social justice through their education systems, and how we might do the same in New Zealand through a curriculum-aligned programme and active youth participation. Before working in human rights, I was a candidate for a fledgling political party in the 2014 general election of New Zealand, and shared responsibility for the party’s approach to education and social justice. In this role as policy maker my interest in other education and social structures was to consider how we could learn from them and apply those lessons in our own way, to inform the policy we developed and promoted. I have also actively and openly campaigned against new managerialism and the privatisation of public assets. Despite not having been in the classroom full time for four and a half years I usually view and introduce myself as being a teacher, and it is my love for that foundational role that made me more interested and active in the more structural issues of policy, development and human rights. As a teacher I am anxious to develop my theoretical understandings and pedagogical skills so that I can provide relevant and engaging opportunities for learning with my students. Finally, although I am not yet a parent, I hope to be in the future. Analysing and understanding our own and other places’ education policies and schooling systems will inform my decisions about my children’s education, and I will have my children as motivation and also as reference in any policy work i might do in the future. As each of these standpoints present their own possible opportunities they also each carry great potential for bias, as discussed throughout this paper. I hope that my position at their intersection with each other helps me to be freer and provide a more holistic balance, or at least that I can be transparent about it.


The multidisciplinary nature of the field provides opportunities to explore a multitude of themes relevant to education, and the purpose of the actor instigating the research will help to determine the focus. A group of researchers who were members of CIER professional associations were surveyed and the themes their work most often referred to were globalisation, gender, education and development, equality in education, and multiculturalism, race and ethnicity (Cook et. al, 2004, in Bray, 2014a, p. 39). The growing interest in globalisation and its effects reflects a geomorphic shift since the 1980s (Bray, 2014b). My research project’s main theme will be equality and equity in education, but it is also connected to the concepts and processes of globalisation which have dominated the time frame in my study, as well as the themes of development and multiculturalism to a lesser extent. Another study of foci in CIER (Foster et al., 2012, cited in Bray, 2014b, p. 55) found that education in society and education policy/planning were popular themes in research published in four major journals 2004-2008. 21 percent were focused on values and attitudes relating to education, and 20 percent were concerned with issues connected to globalisation. My research interest in education policy, globalisation and attitudes towards education’s role with regard to social equity is not so unique in the field, and I will have a more beaten path to tread.  

Within the broader themes like those identified above, comparisons are made between different units of analysis. The complexity and opportunities of CIER allows for a range of these units to be compared, although the nation-state has been dominant throughout the history of the field. Bray and Thomas’ (1995) cube for education analysis provides a three-dimensional framework: where – geography/location; who – non-locational demographics; and what – aspects of education/society (cited in Bray, 2014a). This framework is not exhaustive, but it does demonstrate what a lot of CIER research has attempted to compare already. The contributing authors to editors Bray, Adamson and Mason’s (2014) volume on approaches and methods in comparative education research cover examples, perspectives, opportunities and challenges presented by different units of comparison. These include comparisons of geographical locations, systems of education, time, race, class and gender, cultures, values, policies, curricula, pedagogy, ways of learning, and educational achievements. My research will compare the nation-states of Finland and New Zealand as the geographical entities of comparison, with a focus on their education systems (which are distinct to that territorial and boundary) and how they interrelate with social values, policy and equity. The similarities and differences between the countries’ ethnic/cultural diversity and the policies, mechanisms and attitudes relating to education and equity will also be explored in the contextual framework and empirical analysis. Explaining the context of my research will look at the historical, economic, social, and political situations of each country, their education reforms, and mechanisms for social equity. I will have to decide which specific mechanisms to focus on, but they could include accessible early child care and education, meals at schools, lack of high stakes testing, inclusive and special education, alternative pathways in after junior high school, and tuition-free university.  Some ways that I can justify and approach these units of comparison to aim for exemplary CIER research are identified later in this paper.


One of the most attractive features of CIER to me is the fluidity and flexibility with which paradigms can be employed and explored. While some paradigms are of course incompatible with each other as they are grounded on very different assumptions about reality, the heterogeneity of the field allows for overlap in more complementary outlooks. This suits me because I struggle to fit myself into just one particular paradigm, and I find value in a radical structural-functionalist as well as a radical critical-humanist approach to understanding education and society.

Shifting paradigms in an evolving field

Becher and Trowler (2001, cited in Bray, 2014b) demonstrate how the multiple disciplines contributing to CIER offer different ways of thinking about knowledge. The “pure” or “hard” sciences influenced the positivist comparativists who often used quantitative methods to search for universal truths. Their research aims were often functional with the purpose of applying these generalisations and laws to education. The humanities such as history and pure social sciences such as sociology have brought a more holistic approach to the field, and researchers shaped by this use more qualitative methodologies to explore and compare education systems, forces and experiences and relationships beyond the statistics. My own research will be influenced by perspectives brought by history, philosophy, political science and sociology to the more applied social science of education.

The influence of many disciplines on CIER has seen the field evolve and expand in its paradigmatic trends. Crossley and Watson (2003) summarise the development of CIER: The early 20th century comparativists were sceptical of the colonial practice, and were influenced by the frameworks offered by history and philosophy to explore the contexts surrounding education systems in other countries. As Sadler famously said, “What happens outside the school is more important than what happens inside because it shapes and influences what takes place inside” (cited in Higginson, 1979, p. 52, cited in Crossley & Watson, 2003, p. 23). The context of Finland and New Zealand’s current educational situations will be a significant part of my research, and it will frame the empirical interviews that I conduct and analyse.

Positivist approaches returned to dominate the post-WWII eras, when statistical information was used to draw generalisations and there was an assumption that a solution to a shared educational problem could be copied in another setting. The post-war quest to establish CIER as an empirical social science was influenced by the disciplines of hard science, political science and economics, and sought to identify laws that guided causative relationships between education and other aspects of society so that similar problems in different places could be addressed by similar solutions. These positivist comparativists were critical of earlier descriptive work which they saw as lacking the rigour required in scientific research. Their structural-functionalist perspective promoted education as a socialising vehicle through which preferred norms and values could be instilled in young people. Investment in education was necessary to stimulate the economy, because schooling would ideally prepare the younger generation with the skills and attitudes desired for the work force. This view was complementary to the prevalent modernisation theory, which advocated for similar values and models of education to boost economic and social development in countries of the global South (Crossley & Watson, 2003).  I will be using statistics collated by both governments and international agencies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations (UN) to illustrate differences to do with educational outcomes and socio-economic backgrounds of Finnish and NZ students etc., but I do not aim to make strongly causative links or universal assumptions based on the data as I do not hold a positivist worldview. I do however acknowledge the influence of the functionalist viewpoint on education’s role in economic and social development, and want to better understand the relationships between socio-economic background and educational outcomes / life opportunities. I am frustrated by the continued influence of modernisation and human capital theory in decisions made about education and society by policy makers and politicians.

Criticism from more interpretive comparativists recognised that the reality of widening inequalities between countries and greater cultural diversity in Western societies rendered functionalist assumptions open to question. Critical theorists from the 1960s onwards, especially neo-Marxists, denounced the modernisation perspective and argued that schooling was in fact reproducing and reinforcing inequalities in society, and on a global level it was cultivating a dependency of low-income countries on high-income countries. The relationship between power and what types of knowledge is considered valuable is evident throughout the history of the field, and is explored in other ways further in this paper. My concern with inequalities and education’s potential to perpetuate them place me most naturally in the neo-Marxist framework derived from radical functionalism, but with a view towards revolutionary change inspired by radical humanist critical theory. Because I will be using historical analysis in my contextualisation of the Finnish and New Zealand education systems, I need to consider where I fit within that discipline also. Sweeting (2014) acknowledges that historians do not usually position themselves from a single theoretical standpoint, but recommends the use of theory to help comparativists using a historical lens to choose, synthesise and analyse texts and other resources. I take a neo-Marxist / critical approach which “emphasises economic factors and, especially, the influence of social class on both policy and practice” (p. 175). I will perhaps also bring in some insights and perspectives from post-colonial and feminist thought, and will challenge neoliberal / new managerialist assumptions and practice.

Paulston’s (1997) macro-map of paradigms and theories in CIER illustrates this overlap (p. 142, cited in Jacob & Cheng, 2005, p. 229).


The loosely defined field with its various paradigmatic possibilities means that a range of methodological approaches are possible in CIER, including a combination of both quantitative and qualitative. Picciano (2004, cited in Fairbrother, 2014, p. 72) identifies the quantitative method as “the collection of numerical data which are then subjected to analysis using statistical routines” (p. 51). Quantitative research aims to be objective and is based on nomothetic reasoning to discover universal laws and generalisations. These laws can help to explain and predict, find correlation and even causation in relationships, and test, verify and confirm hypotheses (Fairbrother, 2014). This is contrasted with qualitative research, which relies on “meanings, concepts, context, descriptions, and settings” (p. 32). Qualitative research is less concerned with true objectivity and sees research as being value-laden, and so the researcher is part of the research process and is in an unavoidable relationship with the subjects and data. Context is important in qualitative research, because it is located in specific times and places rather than trying to generalise. It is interested in understanding people’s perspectives, experiences and conceptions of phenomena, and unlike quantitative research it generally does not seek to prove or disprove hypotheses (Fairbrother, 2014). Both quantitative and qualitative approaches have different purposes and contribute to the creation of knowledge in different ways, and so both are needed in the field of CIER for thoroughness and balance. Gert Biesta (2010) outlines pragmatic support for a mixed methods approach using both quantitative and qualitative research in CIER, as well as the variety of challenges it poses. The Foster et al. (2012, cited in Bray, 2014b) study of CIER journal articles cited in the previous section also looked at the methods of research undertaken. More than half reviewed documents and utilised historical analysis, and over a quarter used interviews to gather data. I will undertake primarily qualitative research, but I will also refer to quantitative studies conducted by other academics and also agencies. In establishing the context of the present situations in Finland and New Zealand I aim to review literature, refer to government policy and working group papers promoting reform, examine primary sources such as speeches, interviews and newspaper articles, and analyse statistics on educational achievement and social inequalities. My empirical research will consist of semi-structured interviews with decision makers in each country. Critical discourse analysis will be used to examine evidence in both the context and the empirical sections.


Questions of power relations and the value of different forms of knowledge are distributed in other sections of this paper, but it is important to look at some of them separately here. My focus on the perceived role of education and its relationship with social equity holds these questions at its centre.

Marginson and Mollis (2001) use Foucault’s conception of the power relations applied through discourse to frame their position that “at the heart of comparative international education research, education intersects with power” (p.581). It is rare for research to be truly disconnected from policy concerns, particularly in the field of comparative education. Manzon (2014) reminds us that “national school systems exist within the context of unequal power relations among nations”, and that “regional variations in education within nation states are often great if not greater than those between…” (p. 112). I must be aware of and explicit about the power relations connected to the geographical units of comparison I have chosen, on a global level as well as a national. Marginson and Mollis (2001, p. 582) also observe that “Even as power constitutes knowledge, so the reciprocal applies: new knowledge augments the capacities of power” (p. 582). Although much CIER work aligns with the assumptions and aims of dominant knowledge and powers, there is a lot that also challenges them. I hope that my research can contribute to the exploration of the dominant strand of CIER that leads global development education, but also provide useful challenges to it.


Because my research will be set within the context of an increasingly globalised world over the last 30 years, I must recognise and deal with the power/knowledge relations and their implications produced in this economic, social, cultural, and technological process. Globalisation is having profound effects on matters such as cultural diversity and identity formation, inequalities and exploitation, the role of the nation-state in administering education, privatisation and veneration of the market, and conceptions about the desired function of schooling in local, national and global society. All of these are intricately connected with knowledge/power relations, and all will have a place in my research. Marginson and Mollis (2001) examine globalisation’s “dual potential for homogenisation and difference” (p. 599), especially the former which currently dominates through the idealisation of the market, modernisation, managerial reforms, evaluative culture and decreased government funding in education. These issues are very interesting to me, as this worldview has influenced New Zealand education policy and practice, and Finland’s to a lesser extent although that is changing with the current government.

The purpose and use of comparative research

The purposes and application of CIER are varied and can depend on who conducts it, how it is supported/funded, and which agendas are sought for promotion. As an example, the mass data collection on educational outcomes conducted by national governments and international organisations such as the OECD is inherently implicated with issues of power and knowledge. For one, reliance on statistical data to draw generalised conclusions promotes instrumental positivism which holds more “scientific” knowledge above other forms. Secondly, the financial and human resources required to conduct such research is extensive and so inaccessible to most. Mass collection and comparative analysis of cross-national data is still dominant in the field of CIER, and it is important to remember that it is highly complex, and it can be incomplete and unreliable (Henry et al, 2001, cited in Bray, 2014a). Researchers need to be careful not to make generalisations based on them without a deeper understanding of contexts. Use of this data in visual tables and figures especially runs the risk of oversimplifying complex issues and being used for political purposes, or to make generalisations and affirm norms (Bray, 2014a; Manzon, 2014). My data will include data from OECD but will include other sources including empirical interviews. My own position as an unpaid student conducting my research alone I am restricted in my capacity, but the availability of this data online will help me to make a meta-analysis of it. I must recognise the influence of the OECD and similar agencies in the promotion of their view of education’s role in social and economic development and the Western and capitalist norms that this embeds, and the education policies that are constructed in line with these norms.

How and why information gathered is used in CER is central to core debates and discussions in the field, and is tied to issues of knowledge and power. CIER is extremely valuable for informing education and social policy, but there is danger in using it to uplift an education system or mechanisms of another country and transplant it in another (Bray, 2014; Crossley & Watson, 2003, ….. ). As explained earlier, colonial powers imposed their systems, or slightly altered variations of them, in their colonies, such as the British schooling system in New Zealand. The post-war period saw CIER become more positivist in its approach as national governments and international agencies gathered statistical data en masse, and their findings contributed to persevering assumptions and practices with regard to the role and structure of schooling in development and “modernisation”. Dependency theorists are damning of modernisation proponents, highlighting the inequality in power relationships between and within the global North and the global South. Comparativists such as Noah (1994) and Yang (2014) have helpfully outlined some of the uses and abuses of comparative education, and specifically emphasise the danger of uncritical policy transfer. Yang fits his argument within the context of intensifying globalisation and the changing role of the nation-state in education. Despite these warnings, many decision-makers and governments continue to borrow and transplant educational policy (Crossley & Watson, 2003; Yang, 2014). These policy makers have been criticised for uplifting mechanisms from other education systems and trying to implement them with little understanding of the different contexts of each place, or without adapting to suit their own situation (Bray, 2014a). There is international interest in Finland’s education system, especially due to its consistently high PISA results and its reluctance to follow other countries into a culture of high-stakes testing and privatisation. Indeed, this was at the heart of my decision to apply for this master’s programme in Finland. I have seen people advocate for the Finnish model replicated in New Zealand with too little understanding of the unique contexts of each places, and I have also heard the quick rejection saying that the places are too different for this to be successful, with too little consideration for the similarities and possibilities they bring. Blanket advocacy and swift dismissal are not helpful, and I hope that my research might help me to find a more constructive avenue between these approaches.  As a potential policy maker I hope to learn from practices in history and the present so that I have more idea of the possible opportunities and difficulties ahead, rather than use the knowledge to support my political ideology without enough critical analysis, as Bray (2014a) cautions against. As an academic, I hope that what I research and present is easily accessible and can be helpful to New Zealand policy makers so that it can contribute to more equitable approaches, practices and outcomes. With a more even balance between these roles I could make more informed recommendations (?) so that the conclusions have an opportunity to move beyond theory(?). But should I be drawing conclusions, let alone making recommendations?


Difference and sameness

The conceptualisation of difference and sameness is also connected to issues of power/knowledge. Comparative researchers are interested in the differences and similarities between their chosen units of analysis. Marginson and Mollis (2001) delve into power play present in universalist and relativist approaches to sameness and difference, and note that the extremes of each are questionable as they privilege one over the other. I will try to find my own balance between these views, and will direct my investigation towards understanding difference while also recognising what the systems and their contexts hold in common.


There are many issues I need to keep in mind, opportunities I should explore and challenges I should avoid to ensure that my research is exemplary.


Criticism of comparative research


 CIER has been criticised for “…considerable undisciplined thinking, in which vague ideas and poorly thought-out methods of analysis are tolerated alongside more rigorous work” (Bray, 2014b, p. 66). The heterogeneity and flexibility of CIER, while providing a wealth of opportunities, seems to also have resulted in some research that is criticised for looseness in theoretical/methodological grounding, and lacking depth beyond mere description. Many studies do not even genuinely compare, yet label themselves as being comparative (Olivera, 1998, cited in Bray, 2014b). The range of research possibilities in CIER has also led to criticism of some research as being too heavily focused on theory and too little on the practical applications of the findings, and other research as having the opposite problem, emphasising description and lacking adequate grounding in theory (Crossley & Watson, 2003). Marginson and Mollis (2001) also highlight this when they outline how they envisage exemplary CIER in the present context of increasing globalisation. As noted earlier, they emphasise that the field must be flexible and reflexive, and promote the need for it to be “democratic, pluralist, nonrigid, and nonethnocentric” (p. 615) to fulfil its potential.

The importance of context

Perhaps above all, the recognition that an education system can only be truly understood in the wider context of its society is evident throughout literature that seeks to define and map exemplary CIER (Crossley & Watson, 2003, Bray, 2014a). To be truly comparative and useful, research in this field must do more than just describe the units, but also delve into the reasons behind the similarities and differences. A better understanding of context will also help to determine if the focus is educationally significant enough to warrant comparison. Manzon (2014) also warns that while macro-analysis is useful for general understanding, it is a good idea to also make comparisons at other levels to develop a fuller picture of the situation. Context at the macro-level will be a significant part of my research, and I hope that the empirical section will allow me to investigate on a more micro-level. I will contextualise my empirical research, and aim to follow Marginson and Mollis’ advice. I especially have to be careful to avoid the tendency of ethnocentricism, which will require constant reflexivity on my part throughout the research process. This section outlines some of the ways that I can aim for my thesis to be exemplary in the field of comparative and international education research.

Comparing nation-states

The nation-state as the traditional unit of analysis in CIER has been challenged, especially in light of the processes and shifts associated with globalisation. Maria Manzon (2014) discusses examples, possibilities and challenges of comparing geographical places in education research. She emphasises the need to begin research by clearly establishing and justifying the comparability of the different systems, nation-states, educational phenomena or whatever is being analysed across locations. The basis for analysis depends on having enough commonality between the foci in question, or the exploration of the differences (which should not be too extreme) will not be meaningful. Firstly, I must explicitly justify my state-centric choice of focusing on New Zealand and Finland for my comparative research, and make sure that they are similar enough for the investigation of their differences to be meaningful.

Comparing education systems

The comparison of systems, like countries, has been central to CIER from the time of Sadler and Kandel who looked to other countries’ education systems to learn practical lessons. Past research has often referred to countries and systems synonymously, so Bray and Jiang (2014) emphasise the importance of defining the boundaries of each system, which they admit is not a simple exercise. They define a system as “a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent components forming a complex whole” (p.142), and can be operated by government or other bodies. The forces of globalisation have helped to shift the perception of education as a tool for instilling national norms and values.  In the case of New Zealand and Finland, the nation-states’ governments hold responsibility for the formation, regulation, management and reform of the education systems. Bray and Jiang promote the study of systems that are not constrained or defined by national territorial boundaries so as to avoid fixed perspectives that do not take the increasingly fluidity of such boundaries into account, so I will try to justify my choice of focus with this in mind.

Comparisons over times

As frequently noted already, contextualising the comparisons made and data analysed in the specific time and place is essential for good CIER. I will aim to lay out the historical, social, economic, cultural and political contexts of each country to establish the groundwork for the empirical part of my research. Because I will be employing tools and perspectives from history to investigate and explain the contexts of Finland and New Zealand’s education systems, I need to be aware of the possibilities and challenges of comparing times. My focus is on the present day situation, but in the context of the last thirty years with reference to the history preceding this. Sweeting (2014) promotes the value of historical insights in CIER. He outlines seven different types histories of education, how they contribute to the field and what researchers need to consider to ensure their work is exemplary. My thesis might include a little of the doctrines of the great educators, the more critical but potentially narrow polemical broadsides, policy studies, and definitely social histories.  In terms of theory, Sweeting acknowledges that historians do not usually position themselves with a single theoretical standpoint, but recommends the use of theory to help comparativists using a historical lens to choose, synthesise and analyse texts and other resources. I have referred to this earlier in the Mapping section, where I identify my position within the critical neo-Marxist school with influence from feminism and post-colonialism. I will need to make sure that I avoid the feelings of inevitability that neo-Marxism can be criticised for, and hope that feminist and post-colonial insights can help me with that. In that same vein, the grounding in neo-Marxist theory will hopefully help me to avoid some of the shortfalls associated with the feminist and post-colonial approaches, such as exaggeration. This can help me interpret primary and secondary sources, but it is essential that I am careful and clear about my purpose in using historical analysis in my research, and ensure that I do not use it to confirm assumptions or worldviews, as that is contrary to the discipline which does not mind multiple and uncertain interpretations (Sweeting, 2014). Sweeting helpfully describes the possibilities and dangers of different historical approaches to comparing times: diachronic, synchronic and quasi-synchronic. I have not thought about this in enough depth yet, but I think I fit most naturally with the first and last forms of analysis, and will have to take heed of their potential pitfalls. Other challenges of comparing times conclude Sweeting’s chapter, and these are problems of sources, interpretation and periodisation. I will consider these issues in my research, and aim to use a variety of reliable sources, be careful about issues of interpretation and the advantage of hindsight, and avoid periodisation in trying to construct a chronological narrative.

Comparing family backgrounds – class, ethnicity, culture

I will aim to establish a comprehensive context for my investigation, in which cultural/ethnic diversities and relationships, social and economic development, political frameworks, policies, and reform will also be compared. My empirical section will be focused on the attitudes and values held by decision makers in each country with regard to education and its role in society and the promotion / protection of social equity. There are a number of reminders and approaches that I will have to be mindful of when comparing these different units of analysis.

My research is primarily interested in the relationship between education and social equity, more specifically the impact that socioeconomic / family background has on access to education and achievement / outcomes. Jackson (2014) talks about socioeconomic status as class, and illustrates how different paradigmatic stances such as functionalism and Marxism interpret and frame it. She also connects it to previous education research which has conceptualised class as “family background”, which incorporates not only income and wealth, but also the parental education occupations, family size, and other relevant variables. I will probably have to refine which variables that I will be focusing on in my research even within my conceptualisation of “family-background” or “socio-economics”. Jackson also provides information on the measurement tools that have been developed for use in education research, the index of economic, social, and cultural status (ESCS) and the education Gini coefficient. These will be helpful for me, and especially interesting because outcomes of the Gini coefficient have been seen to be at odds with the Marxist critique of capitalism’s impact (Jackson, 2014).

The intersection of culture and ethnicity with wealth and income is essential to keep in mind with regard to institutional inequalities and questions of access to education. I am keenly aware of my own privilege as a New Zealand Pākehā and of my responsibility in respecting and upholding te Tiriti o Waitangi, and I recognise the structural practices and norms that maintain inequality along ethnic/cultural lines. I want to ensure that I am explicit about this in my research. Ethnicity as a concept is contested, and data in comparing across ethnicities can be sparse. Jackson (2014) encourages reflection on ethnicity/culture with reference to class and gender. She refers to Kincheloe and Steinberg (2009, p. 6, cited in Jackson, 2014, p. 213), who suggest that “educators should understand not only the dynamics of race, class, and gender but the ways their intersections in the lived world produce tensions, contradictions, and discontinuities in everyday lives”. Recognition of intersectionality must be throughout my analysis.

What happens in classrooms and schools is a part of wider society and culture, and each shape and are influenced by the other, especially in national systems (Alexander, 2000, cited in Mason, 2014).The comparison of each country’s national cultures in contextualising their education systems will be interesting, especially as the question of Finnish cultural advantage is often asked with regard to Finnish students’ achievements in international tests. Mason (2014) asserts that comparative research must look at both the material production and symbolic functions/views of culture. He also talks about the relationship with culture and individual and national identities and how these changing with the forces of globalisation, positing that the idea of a “national culture” is mythical. The increasing diversity of Finland and New Zealand will be part of the context, and I will try to avoid equating culture with countries in a superficial way. I will have to make sure to address issues of Finland’s cultural homogeneity compared to the more heterogenous New Zealand, as well as attitudes about education’s value that have been passed down through the culture over time. Mason also cautions against researchers analysing a culture that they have little knowledge and experience of, and reinforces the central role that language plays. I wanted to live and study in Finland so that I would have a stronger understanding and experiences of the culture and education system, so the fact that I live here and have a number of Finnish friends will hopefully give me a better grounding in my research than if I had remained in New Zealand. Unfortunately my Finnish language skills leave much to be desired. Although most Finns speak English with at least some fluency and there is a fair amount of Finnish policy and research available in English, I know that I will have gaps in my research because of this.

Comparing policies

I will probably compare New Zealand and Finnish education policies as part of my research, though I am not yet sure how in depth this will be. Rui Yang (2014) addresses important issues to consider in comparing policies, and emphasises that policy does not exist in isolation and must be contextualised in the changing international policy environment. This is especially important to consider with my reference to the global education reform movement. Yang outlines two competing perspectives on policy, the rational perspective and the conflict perspective. My research and its critical theoretical framework fits with the latter, which is concerned with power relations and views policy as impermanent and dynamic. Building on the earlier section on knowledge/power in CIER, I must frequently question whose interests and ideas are seen to be legitimate in policy, who is excluded from the policy process, and whose values and assumptions are dominant in the wider social/political context.

The question of bias

Because qualitative research is value-laden and recognises that objectivity is unobtainable, there is increased possibility for bias, especially in CIER when researchers observe and investigate educational phenomena in contexts outside of their own (Fairbrother, 2014). The purposes and perspectives of the many disciplines that contribute to CIER also bring with them their own biases (Olivera, 1988, cited in Bray, 2014b). However, a critical perspective does not aim for objectivity. Adamson and Morris (2014) explain that researchers from this school of thought are very open about their worldview, particularly their aspirations to challenge the status quo and change society.  This helps me to feel more comfortable about the tension I face with regards to my own political perspective/involvement and my role as a researcher. I thought I would have to be careful to avoid bias, but it is more realistic for me to acknowledge and be transparent about any bias I have in my positioning. I am concerned about my continued activity in New Zealand politics and education debates and the impact this will have on my perceived bias by others. I will need to recognise and question my assumptions throughout the process, and include solid theory and evidence to support my stance to strengthen the validity of my research.


The field of comparative and international education research is difficult to define and map because of its diversity of paradigms, purposes, methodologies and associated disciplines. This flexibility brings complexity to research in the field, but also considerable possibilities. My thesis will compare the relationship between the national education systems and social equity Finland and New Zealand, with a focus on the impact of family / socioeconomic background on educational outcomes. The discourse surrounding this relationship is of primary interest, and will be critically analysed in the empirical interviews that I conduct with decision makers and referenced in the theoretical framework. Context is essential in exemplary CIER, and a significant part of my theoretical framework will be dedicated to examining the historical, social, political, cultural and economic contexts of Finland and New Zealand. This will include a literature review, examination of primary sources, policy analysis and meta-analysis of educational and social statistics from each country. I will use a neo-Marxist critical framework in my analysis with a view to enhance education’s role in improving social equity and therefore possibilities for social and individual emancipation. I will also refer to the lens of structural-functionalism to understand the contexts of each country and the role of education as seen and acted upon within them. Insights and perspectives from postcolonial and feminist thought will also assist in challenging neoliberal assumptions and practices. The question of bias is a significant one in all academic research, and I will need to be reflexive and transparent about my ideologies, experiences and political activities. There is debate about the use of knowledge gained for CIER research, and much caution about the practice of uncritical policy transfer. I do not seek to promote the adoption of Finnish values and practices by New Zealand, but I hope that through this research I can be better informed in my roles as a classroom teacher, curriculum developer, possible policy maker / consultant, activist and future mother. Despite the existence of much interest in New Zealand about Finnish education, there has been no comparative research like this undertaken so far, and I hope that my thesis can contribute to the body of knowledge in the dynamic field of comparative and international education research.



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Sweeting, A. (2014). Comparing times. In M. Bray et. al. (eds.), Comparative education research: Approaches and methods (pp. 167-193). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Yang, R. (2014). Comparing policies. In M. Bray et. al. (eds.), Comparative education research: Approaches and methods (pp. 285-308). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.


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