Why Finland is outperforming other countries on education

Pupils arrive at the Kirsti primary school in Espoo, Finland, as it reopens after eight weeks of lockdown. Picture: Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via Reuters

Pupils arrive at the Kirsti primary school in Espoo, Finland, as it reopens after eight weeks of lockdown. Picture: Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via Reuters

Published May 28, 2020


A thriving education system is vital to a country’s success, but why is it that the US spends more than any other country on education but its students end up far worse than others in the knowledge gained from education? US learners have scores in Maths, Science, and reading that are below average compared to the OECD countries, but the US spends US$700 billion on public education. The US is ranked 38th in Maths and 24th in Science compared to 71 other countries. 

As a percentage of GDP, the US spends 6.2% on education, but it works out to US$12,800 per student on elementary and secondary education, which is 35% more than OECD countries, which spend an average of US$9,500 per student. The US spends US$30,000 per student on post-secondary education, which is 93% higher than the average of the OECD countries which is US$16,000. It is worth examining what a sampling of other countries spend on education as a percentage of GDP by way of comparison. 

Cuba spends the most on education as a percentage of GDP at 12.9%, Norway 8%, Finland 6.9%, South Africa 6.2%, Germany 4.8%, China 4% and India 3%. 

If one adds up the GDP of Finland and Vietnam, you still wouldn’t get to the amount that the US spends on education. So why is it that the US is not achieving the kind of success that matches its massive spending on education? Some experts say that the education methods the US uses churn out worker clones, rudderless adults, and an uninformed populace. It is particularly instructive to compare the approach to education of a country like Finland to that of the US. Finland is rich in intellectual and education reform, and the simple changes it has made have revolutionized their education system. Finland now outranks the US in terms of education success, and is gaining on East Asia. 

The reason Finland is leading the way is because of its holistic teaching which strives for equity over excellence. Unlike the US, Finland has no standardized testing, as it prioritises learning over simply passing tests. All children are graded on an individualised basis set by the teacher. Finland also places huge emphasis on the quality of teaching. All teachers are required to have a Masters degree, and teaching programs are the most rigorous and selective professional schools in the country. There are no lists of top performing schools or teachers as it is not an environment of competition, but rather of cooperation. 

Perhaps most important is that Finland strives to make the school environment a more equitable place so that education is an instrument to balance out social inequality. Schools in Finland also prioritize less stress and unneeded regimentation, and more caring for their students. The whole model is diametrically opposed to that in the US and schools in Asia. 

Education starts slightly later at the age of seven, in order to let kids be kids, and there are only nine years of compulsory education. Both colleges and trade schools are professional options after secondary school, and fulfilling. The school day starts later between 9 and 9:45am, and ends between 2 and 2:45pm. There are longer class times and longer breaks of 15-20 minutes intervals. The idea is not to cram in learning, but to have holistic learning so that children grow as human beings. Often a child will have the same teacher for 6 years who takes on the role of a mentor. Finnish schools have the least amount of homework in the world - only half an hour a night - and there are no tutors. Amazingly, schools in Finland are outperforming cultures that have toxic school-to-life balances. 

Cuba, as the country which spends the highest percentage of its GDP on education, has also achieved remarkable results. Ever since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the island has adopted a similar approach to education as the one which has emerged more recently in Finland. What has guided Cuba’s approach to education is that peoples’ minds must be highly developed for them to contribute to a world free of fear, ignorance and disease. The purpose of education for Cubans is to empower humans to become the guardians of progress and peace. 

Cuba’s teacher training institutions use the most advanced, well researched scientific training methods, and the selection for teachers is based on intellect, good character, commitment to social development, and love for children. By the year 2000, Cuba had the highest number of teachers per capita worldwide with a student teacher ratio of 12:1. Since the mid 1990s, primary school admission has been 99% compared to 87% in the region. Secondary school enrollments have been 82% for girls compared to 51% in the region. By 2010, Cuba’s literacy methods were adopted by 28 Latin American, Caribbean, African, and European countries.

What we can learn from this is that it is not so much the amount of money that a country spends on education which matters, but their approach to education and holistic learning. Both Finland and Cuba are excellent examples of how to prepare children for the real world and mould them into productive, well rounded, and innovative human beings. 

* Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor.

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