The Finnish Wonderland

The Finnish Wonderland
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First Published: Wed, Nov 30 2011. 09 42 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Nov 30 2011. 09 42 PM IST
During 2006-10, I spent a lot of time in Sweden and Finland. I must have made about 30-35 trips to the two countries and spent, cumulatively, over a year there. This familiarity was very helpful when I started trying to understand the reasons for the stellar performance of the Finnish school system in many ways, including in cross-country comparative assessments of learning levels in children.
Their education is merely one integral component of their vision of their society. A society that allocates economic resources on the basis of a free market but at the same time ensures that every member has the same high-quality education, healthcare and social security. That society is responsible for each individual is one of the most deeply ingrained notions of the Nordic model.
In my assessment, their commitment to a society of this nature is at the heart of three key things about their education system. First, that they spend a significant amount (about 6% of their gross domestic product, or GDP) of money on education. This is way above what India spends but is almost at the bottom within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Money is an important but inadequate explanation of their continued stellar performance relative to all (including OECD) countries.
Second, they view the school as the students’ other home. The school is responsible for the overall well-being of the child. This starts with education but goes on to physical, emotional and social well-being. This is why all schools, in addition to teachers, have nurses, counsellors, social workers, etc. Parents form the majority of the board of the school and have a key role in its functioning. The school is the integrated community of the child.
Third, by the nature of the vision of their society, the education system sees its objective as the “holistic” development of the student. The Finns do not have an instrumental view of education. They certainly want their children to be economically self-sufficient and well off. They clearly see education playing a role in this, but their vision of education goes well beyond this. Partly this is why notions such as “understanding”, “analysing”, “creating” are a natural part of their education. This is in marked contrast to the devils that we live with: “rote” and “marks”.
Finnish schools contribute to two other exceptional results. The first is that Finland has high inter-generational income mobility, i.e. parental income is relatively less determining of the next generation’s income. The second is low “between-student” variation, meaning a narrow gap between the scores of the most able and least able groups. This trick is easy to pull off if standards are uniformly low, but Finland’s average is the world’s highest, implying that even relatively weak students do well.
Besides these deep philosophical anchors in their vision of society, what else has led them to the top?
For one, they started on an approach to improve their schooling in 1970 and they have just stayed the course. This is highly unusual—most countries (including India) do directional flip-flops—both at policy and execution levels.
This steadfast commitment to their path has worked wonders, because they got their basics right. Their system is another example of how focusing on the vital few issues lies at the heart of any improvement.
They decided the teacher is the key to education. They have single-mindedly focused on investing in the teacher system: recruitment, education and roles. It is not something that anyone would disagree with. All of us (in all countries) mouth the same phrases, but they acted on it. They have almost ignored other things because they believe that if they get this basic thing right, the war is won.
They have a rigorous, research-driven, university-based, five-year master’s programme for teacher education (India has 10-month programmes). The country has a set of guiding national curricular goals, but the teachers actually have enormous freedom: in the curriculum, in the classroom, in the choice of books, etc.
This makes the teachers’ role creative, with great possibilities, and hence an exciting job. This freedom is effective because the teacher recruitment and education system builds adequate capacity. This virtuous cycle is completed by the lack of administrative machinery to “manage, monitor, and inspect” the teacher. The system operates on trust.
As an aside, they don’t pay their teachers exceptionally well (e.g. lower than in the US).
We cannot transplant anything from Finland: India is too big, too different, and too diverse and doesn’t have as much money. But emulating some ideas and some fundamentals will help. It will be silly to ignore that by claiming that we are completely different.
Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability issues for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Wed, Nov 30 2011. 09 42 PM IST