Learning from Finland

What makes Finland so successful in schooling their children? Can India replicate the success that Finland has achieved?

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Jul 11, 2013 07:59:03 AM UTC

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about

Finland does it again, and again. Its students have been consistently outperforming other OECD (and other) countries in the PISA rankings year after year. (PISA is a global test of maths, english and science abilities of school students) This is the very same test that India joined in last year and declined to this year. Not a surprise. Results showed Indian students at the bottom of the pile.

Not just that, Finland has often been ranked as the best place to live in the world. Coincidence? Probably not. Education and the quality of life are logically connected. Finland does well on innovation and competitiveness too, which again shows that something right has happened in their education system.

Can India replicate the success that Finland has achieved? We do pride ourselves on a people that perform well globally. Look at the spelling bee - dominated by Indians in the USA. A look at the ASER report on primary school achievement reveals a litany of woe. Students who are two to three years behind in their expected abilities across English and Maths. Other studies reveal similar gaps.

What makes Finland so successful in schooling their children? What is it that they do that other countries have not been able to do? What about India? There must be something we can learn that will fix our poor achievement and performance rates.

This is clearly not the first time this question is being asked. But as I am fond of pointing out, in education, the questions remain the same, the answers differ. There is much that Finland achieves because of its size.. it is a significantly smaller nation than India. What would be a full fledged project there, is often merely an Indian test pilot scheme. Undeniably, the per capita spend on education (per child) is many multiples of the Indian budget. India is not a poor country, but its resources are often spread too thin.

Finland does four things really well: Student centric thinking; Intense teacher selection and training; No private schooling and No examinations till school leaving. Can or should India emulate these?

Finland’s education ambassador, Pasi Sahlbeg is a celebrity in education these days. He speaks of testing and measurement as a virus that must be eliminated to enhance standards of learning, and of course achievement.

Dare we? Should we? In a country where the lack of data hinders good analysis, and worse, good decision making - should India move away from testing and achievement? While we ponder this, and note that these are not mutually exclusive, let us talk about Finland for a bit.

At the policy level, there is simple and elegant clarity about the child-centric nature of education. To give each child an opportunity, and even the nudges to reach their potential is the thrust of the policy, and has been for decades, regardless of political upheavals. Children first.

At the level of practice - it is about finding in and investing in the right teachers. I am reminded of Churchill’s famous - ‘give me the tools and we will do the job’ statement. Every worker knows that you are only as good as your tools. The tools used in practice here are the teachers and every effort is made to invest in the best. And to keep them honed.

Teachers in Finland go through a rigourous selection process, and then five years of study. They must have a masters in teaching - majoring in teaching, and their minor being the subject they will teach. The investment in this education is large, and an honest effort.

I contrast this with the teacher training effort in India. Barring honourable exceptions, teacher training colleges are not worth their name. The Teacher Eligibilty Test is the last bastion of holding up good standards - which most entrants fail. Success rates at the TET hurdle reflect the poor quality of applicants to the profession of teaching. Surveys done on teachers reveal that many teachers themselves do not know simple spelling or mathematics. Their science is often not separated from their beliefs and their communication skills include bullying and beating as incentives. This is the weak link in the chain of education in India.

You ask - why would anyone want to become a teacher? Poorly paid, barely respected, remote postings (if government school) and repetitive work(Not - each child is different). While it is true that teachers in Finland are paid really well, keeping pace with their peer cohort who chose law, medicine or banking, it is also true that after the sixth pay commission, teachers in India are not paid badly at all. And the increase in pay has not improved much. Private school teachers are often paid much less than government school teachers, and if the reports are correct, even in rural areas parents are preferring to pay to send their children to private schools because the teaching is better there. Better pay has not even incentivised government school teachers to attend school more regularly. In Finland, the teacher lives and works in the community, and is at the heart of its academic progress.

If government schools are so unreliable, as they seem to be now in India (with parents voting with their feet), then the Finnish approach of closing down all private schools is clearly not going to be possible in India. This is what Finland did - it declared all education will be in the local comprehensive. This focused attention and investment on a single point. With no choice, the community had to ensure that the local school did the best by their children. It also placed the teacher back at the centre of the community. A daring move indeed, and the prospect of this does not fill me with confidence at all. It worked for Finland, it may not be replicable, I fear. A risk too far.

It certainly has worked for Finland, so much that they have disbanded their school inspection system. They trust their teachers. Teachers have full autonomy during the school years to teach what they will, and as they please. Children too are not subject to examinations till the end of schooling. Of course they all work towards that final examination, but the absence of high stakes testing in the intermediate years gives them the space to explore, discover, learn, share and absorb. And to find their own interests and abilities.

Would that work in India? We are terrified of allowing children to think their own thoughts, have their own ideas - of the class being derailed by questions. It is a rare classroom that is not ruled by the syllabus, curriculum, the fear of losing marks in the examination ahead, and it is rare for students to lead their own learning. Teachers know that running such classes is very very hard work with few visible rewards. At best, the teacher is deemed redundant (not so, they are the puppeteer), at worst - there is unmanageable chaos.

A start has been made here - the Right to Education act decrees no high stakes examinations till class eight. The class ten board exams have been made optional. The only examination we have is the end of schooling class twelve examination. It is a start, and it maps to the model that works.

What is at the core of the success of Finland in education is the social value of equity. This is a deeply held belief that permeates socio economic reality there. A distant goal for India, if one. Our society operates on hierarchy, it is that which gives us a sense of order. If all our students came from similar families, with access to similar roads, food, water, toilets, libraries, safety and homes, then it might have been easier to have this conversation. In Finland, with economic prosperity combined with the concept of Equity as a social virtue, it is easier for each child to explore their potential.

In India, we have a journey to make before we get there. We are still in the race for personal survival. When confidence takes over from myopia, we too may rise to our potential

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