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The Finnish Education System Has a Lot to Teach the Rest of the World

June 20, 2024

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For a nation that, as a whole, does not believe in the efficiency of standardized testing, Finland has a history of excellent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores. This assessment was first performed in 2000 and measures the knowledge of reading, mathematics, and science of 15-year-old students around the globe. It has become a tool for governments to evaluate and improve their education systems. Despite a decline in performance in 2022 compared to 2018, Finland still ranked higher than the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average.

Although in recent years, countries such as Singapore have seemed to surpass Finland when it comes to test scores — Singapore’s PISA reading score was 10% higher than Finland’s in 2022— the country is still a great role model for education, and we are about to explore some of the reasons why. 

Teachers are highly qualified and respected

While early childhood education and care (ECEC) teachers are required to hold only a bachelor’s degree, general basic and upper secondary education teachers must hold a master’s degree as well. According to the Smithsonian, teachers come from the top 10% to complete a master’s degree in education in the country, making teaching a competitive career path to a certain extent. This is one of the main reasons why the status of teaching is considered on par with more traditionally respected professions, such as medicine or law.

Despite the prestige of teaching as a profession, Finnish teachers are not paid with as much generosity as you would expect, considering the fanfare over their education system. In 2016, the Brookings Institute reported that Finnish primary school teachers earned 10%, lower secondary school teachers 18%, and upper secondary teachers 28% more than their American counterparts. However, OECD data from 2020, four years later, revealed that the annual primary teacher’s salary in the United States was about 29% higher than in Finland. The average annual salary of a primary school teacher in the US was estimated to be 62,102 USD, while in Finland, it was 44,180 USD. It’s worth noting that Finland’s compensation for teachers is still above the OECD average. 

Quality over quantity

In Finland, quality matters more than quantity when it comes to time spent in school, and the teaching approach is student-centered. Compulsory schooling starts when children are seven years old. They spend a minimum of 20 hours per week, or 4 hours a day, in class. This is less time in class compared to most other countries, yet Finnish children seem to achieve better or, at least, similar academic results to the rest of the world. This goes to show that the way students spend their time in class has a much greater impact on their learning than the amount of time spent inside a classroom. 

In an Al Jazeera report titled ‘Inside Finland’s incredible education system’ from January 2024, the importance of critical thinking in Finnish education is highlighted. Finns really put a premium on media literacy. Children are shown in a classroom being taught how to spot fake news, to distinguish between fact and fiction. These teachings start as early as pre-primary school. 

Teachers have autonomy over the curriculum — they can choose how to teach it and which tools to use. Students are encouraged to read books and interpret the facts on their own, stimulating their sense of critical thinking. They also spend a lot of time outside the classroom playing games and sports. 

Finally, class sizes in Finland are also close to ideal. The student-to-teacher ratio is 8.4 in pre-primary schools, and the student-to-teaching-staff ratio is 8.5 at the lower secondary level. This ratio gets higher, however, for the upper secondary level at 16.9.

Efficient school funding and equal opportunity

Finnish education is publicly funded, and from pre-primary to higher education, there are no tuition fees. Investment in education extends beyond the classroom. Students receive free textbooks, hot meals, and sometimes even snacks, and school extracurriculars are free of cost. This is crucial because food insecurity, which affects many poorer countries, has a huge impact on academic performance, and being left out of school activities can weaken a student’s sense of belonging and community. Transportation to school is also ensured so students living in more remote areas are not left out.

Interestingly, despite all the benefits offered to students and exceptional quality of education, Finland’s funding per primary student isn’t that much higher than that of the United States. According to data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics published by the World Bank Group, Finland’s percentage of its GDP represented by government expenditure per primary student in 2016 was 21.5%, while in that same year, the United States’ expenditure was 19.9%, a considerably small difference of only 1.6%. 

Conclusion

When the subject is teacher compensation, Finland is still lagging behind many countries with less impressive results. However, the focus on students as individuals with their own needs and way of learning should be an inspiration for the rest of the world. They prioritize quality teaching over long hours in the classroom. They thus teach critical thinking and media literacy early on, which is essential in an era where our lives are ruled by the internet and a big slice of the information we base our lives on comes from our smartphones. 

Finland’s public funding ensures that every student, regardless of background, has equal opportunities for education, including resources and activities outside of class. Their well-educated teachers are essential in helping students learn and keep high educational standards in schools. This shows why it’s important to value teachers and understand how qualified professionals can make a big difference. Finland’s approach to education sets a strong example for the world on how to create a successful learning environment by showing the rest of us that effective education goes beyond test scores — it cultivates engaged, knowledgeable citizens capable of shaping a brighter future.