Finland's Education System Is the Best in the World: What Can South Africa Learn from It?

By Fazila Farouk · 10 Jun 2009

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Picture: Anneli Salo/Wikimedia Commons
Picture: Anneli Salo/Wikimedia Commons

Finland is known as the country with the best education system in the world. Since the year 2000, Finland has topped OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) ratings for the best education system overall. In 2008, Finland also joined Japan at the top of the leader board to produce the best science students in the world. Finland’s 15 year-olds are the most literate in the world.

Finland and South Africa are quite literally and figuratively, poles apart. Finland is geographically located at our opposite end in the northern hemisphere. It is an extremely rich country with a population just a tenth the size of our own. Not only do they have money, but their schools also have small classes.

While these differences make the Finnish education system near impossible to replicate in South Africa, we would be foolhardy not to examine the best education system in the world. It does provide sound principles to set us on a path to transform our ailing education system.

In fact, journalists and policy makers from all over the world have been flocking to Finland to find out what the secret of their success is. According to The Economist, a Finnish government official reports that she arranged school visits for 300 foreign journalists in just six months during 2006.

When thinking of Finland, home of hi-tech Nokia, graduating the smartest kids in the world, one might imagine a country populated by savvy first world go-getters, aided and abetted by a complex and costly education system. But that’s not necessarily the case.  The Finn’s spend much less on education than America and South Korea, which has the second best education system in the world.

Culturally, Finland has been described as an old fashioned country still untouched by globalisation and shielded from the psychosis of consumerism afflicting the rest of the planet. Finnish society is “less flashy” and “more equal” than other parts of the world, says the BBC’s Owen Bennet-Jones, who visited the country in 2007 to learn more about its schools.

So while their schooling system has clear features that distinguish it from other parts of the world, it is the wholesomeness of the Finnish national consciousness, the social values that they aspire to as a nation, which play the most important part in making their education system work.

Finn’s, it emerges, are motivated by the principle of equity, which is THE fundamental building block in their approach to human development.

People strictly adhere to the principle of equity in the Finnish education system. They believe that nobody should be left behind. All classes have children of mixed ability and naturally there are bright sparks who get bored with the pace of learning. In other countries, these children would be singled out and placed in the best schools whose mottos may support the notion that they are developing the world’s future leaders.

But this is not the case in Finland, which seems not to care so much about the top 1% as much as it cares for the bottom 99%, to ensure that on balance, this approach culminates in the most favourable outcome for society on the whole.

Good for Finland. This emphasis on equality, has also given birth to Linux, the free open source computer operating system, which rivals expensive propriety systems such as Microsoft Windows. Linus Torveld, the founder of Linux is a Finn who created the system, which allows computer programmers to replicate, adapt and distribute its code freely. Torveld has made an astonishingly selfless contribution to the economies of the world because of his belief in the principle of sharing, which without a doubt was nurtured by his country’s education system and culture.

In stark contrast, in unequal societies such as America, institutions such as Harvard University only provide support and encouragement for the best and the brightest, instilling a positive sense of entitlement in its students, which does not necessarily translate into public good.

In fact, Harvard graduates have turned out to be a menace to society. The ‘global financial crisis’ has been linked to its graduates in the current edition of The Economist (June, 6-12th 2009). Wall Street is the biggest employer of Harvard MBAs -- and recognising the damage done by his predecessors, current Harvard MBA student, Max Anderson, has started a campaign encouraging fellow graduates to take an oath where they promise to “serve the greater good.”

The evidence for an equitable system of education where the ethos of equality is instilled is overwhelming.

In the Finnish school system, all schools, whether in better off or deprived neighbourhoods, are of exactly the same standard. The school infrastructure, quality of the curriculum and most importantly, the teachers, are of the same high standard, across the board.

An important outcome of Finland’s steadfast adherence to the principle of equity is the minute 4% variance between top performing and the worst performing schools in the country, which indeed are located in poorer neighbourhoods, where immigrants live and where unemployment is a problem. Finland has a very small immigrant population. Just 12% of school children come from immigrant families, but in some inner city schools, up to 60% of students are not Finnish.

Finn’s are not perfect. People of colour do experience racism in Finland. Arabs and Somalis bear the brunt. But in Finnish schools, no one is given the chance to fail.

Perhaps the most startling discovery about the Finnish education system is that all teachers are required to have a Masters qualification. Finns demand an incredibly high standard from their teachers and it seems to attract only the sharpest minds in the country. In Finland, teaching is a prestige profession and only the top of the class need bother to apply. Given the high entry-level requirements, only 10-12% of applicants get accepted at teacher training colleges.

While their pay packets are not big, there is less income inequality between, for example, doctors and teachers in Finland. However, Finnish teachers also get heaps of respect from their fellow citizens who recognise the importance of their work. This is what drives the prestige of the teaching profession.

According to Enver Motala of the Public Participation in Education Network, a network of concerned South Africans committed to public education, the Finnish resolve for teachers of the highest quality is the one thing that must be seriously considered for South Africa.

In the past year, he has met with Finnish representatives on two occasions and speaks knowledgably about their schooling system. Motala succinctly characterises the difference between South African and Finnish teachers.

Whereas in Finland teaching is the most sought after profession, in South Africa it is the fallback profession. People, who can’t gain entry into professions demanding better academic results, drift into teaching in South Africa.

Motala attributes the success of the Finnish education system, not only to the academic qualifications of its teachers, but also to their attitudes. They display a high level of commitment to their work.

In South Africa, we entrust our country’s future to teachers with poor qualifications and a half-hearted interest in their work.

In every country, the quality of its education system, including its teachers, is intimately linked to the performance of its economy and prosperity of its people.

There is much at stake when it comes to educating a nation and it does seem like the most logical demand, but South Africans are yet to start insisting that only the best people are entrusted with the responsibility for building the foundations of our future.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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Daniel Hutchinson
12 Jun


It would be interesting to know more about what they are teaching in Finland. Is their education policy prescriptive with regards to content, or not?

Our own policy in South Africa is notoriously content specific.

Also, Finns are not as widely travelled as other European peoples, so it seems as a generalisation. That would be a surface similarity with South Africa, who are probably the least travelled of all the Sub-Saharan nations, but for different reasons maybe.

Certainly, there is great interest in Finland when it comes to South African art and music, but no reciprocal interest by South Africans in Lap and Finnish culture, or for that matter in North European / Scandinavian art, music and culture generally. This would appear to be a further imbalance - an inequality of curiosity maybe?

Our exiled artists did a lot of work to raise the profile of South Africa, and this has not been given due recognition, not least of all by our education policies (and educators), fragmented as they are.

Raising the profile of the arts in our curriculum would be a significant step in addressing this. And yet, the arts have been completely marginalised in favour of so called science, math and technology learning areas.

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Maria Callas
17 May

Finnish Schools

I actually visited some primary schools in Finland too. The most striking thing was how extensive the support processes are for struggling kids and lengths to which teachers go to assist kids with difficulties first individually and then through structured processes at staff level. Also memorable were the textbooks they used, the library they shared with the community - the local library was integrated into the school premises - and the feel of the school as a place where people cared. Not large schools.

Rory Short
13 Jun

Human Development

Firstly humans have the cpacity to develop through out their lives. Secondly humans function at their optimum as a member of a community.

These two fundamental principles need to be recognised and given concrete form within the education system. Sadly that is not the case in South Africa. At a societal level making money, by fair means or foul, is seen as more important than anything even education.

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Verified user
19 Jun

Help Me Get a Better Education

I am a 16 year old South African girl. I am not in school at the moment since 6 months ago. I wanted to go to a school of my choice but my mom failed to take me because of her fanancial problems. So that's why I havent been in school for this long. I really love school because school is important.

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