Focus on the Finnish education expertise

Ministry of Education and Culture 22.2.2013 10.33
News item

Finnish training expertise was highly esteemed at the International Exhibition and Forum for Education, held on 18-22 February in Riad, Saudi Arabia. As the guests of honor Finland was playing a large role, with a delegation of experts and government representatives promoting the Finnish model through workshops, lectures and exhibition stand.

A lesson in Finnish: How Finland ‘s educational system breeds success, and how it can provide a guide for Saudi Arabia to do the same

Educational systems in most countries share a common characteristic in that they are organized top-down. They have national testing, national curriculums and national assessment of schools, teachers and students, all of which are the responsibility of the national government. Educational policy is decided at the highest levels, which dictate what should be taught and how it should be delivered.

Finland is different, and yet it is measurably more successful than many other developed nations in educating its citizens. It is for this reason that Finland is playing a large role at the International Exhibition and Forum for Education 2013 as the guests of honor, with a large delegation of experts and government representatives promoting the Finnish model through workshops, lectures and their exhibition stand, decorated with atmospheric logs covered in animal hides and located at the heart of the exhibition hall.

Finland’s Director for International Relations, Jaana Palojärvi, explained the philosophy that set her country apart.

“We don’t believe so much in steering and control. We very strongly believe in learning, and feel that the administration and the structure of education should support learning. Not administration, but what is happening in a classroom is the most important thing. This means that we don’t have any school inspectors, we haven’t had for twenty years. We give a core curriculum nationwide and then it’s up to municipalities and schools to make up the final curriculum themselves.”

Education is also free of charge in Finland; the two percent of schools that are nominally private are subsidised by the state, and do not charge fees. Schools are not encouraged to compete against each other and there is no national ranking of schools, as is common elsewhere. One might expect that this lack of competition and autonomy would lead to diverse educational outcomes, yet Finland’s PISA scores constantly record some of the lowest differences between schools in the world.

How can this success by explained? It may well be a product of necessity.
“We are a small nation, a country less than six million inhabitants,” explained Mrs. Palojärvi. “We unfortunately do not have the luxury of natural resources. So all we can rely on is five and a half million human brains.”

Such conditions require that everyone plays a role in education, and this means empowering local communities and individuals. Another explanation lies in Finland’s culture of respect for academic prowess. Finland has been dominated throughout history by its more powerful neighbours, primarily Russia and Sweden. As Mrs. Palojärvi commented, “we could only fight them with our brains”.

Teaching is therefore a prestigious profession. This has led to a virtuous circle, where the respect teachers command has enabled them rise to the challenge of extra responsibility, which in turn enhances their standing. In total, 10% of all Finns entering higher education opt for educational courses, a remarkably high number.

Yet the idiosyncratic economic and social conditions of Finland do not exclude it from offering valuable lessons to countries such as Saudi Arabia, who are searching for a model on which to develop their own education systems.

Indeed, the differences between the Kingdom and their Finnish guest may not be as stark as they first appear. Saudi Arabia, of course, has a wealth of natural resources, but this will not always be the case and there are increasing efforts to diverse the economy away from its dependence on oil and into the technology and creative sectors in which Finland excels.

Another similarity, revealed by Mrs.Palojärvi, is their belief that teachers should be the driving force in educational development. But perhaps the greatest common trait is somewhat unexpected. “It is sometimes said of Finns that we are a bit more straightforward…we feel that it is very easy for us to communicate in Saudi Arabia, who are quite open and frank about what they are thinking and expecting,” notes Mrs. Palojärvi.

There can be no doubt that this openness and honesty will serve the Kingdom well on its path to match Finland’s educational excellence.

Interview is published originally at the Bulletin of the International Educational Exhibition and Seminar (pdf).

Source: The International Exhibition and Forum for Education 2013