EducationNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 23

Lessons for Pakistan in Finnish education system

Do you find it surprising that more than 81% of parents of public sector school students wish to shift their children to private schools if they can afford it? A survey, conducted by scholars of Punjab University’s Institute of Education and Research (IER) last year, showed that a huge majority of parents of government school children were not satisfied with the quality of education being imparted to their children. Almost all of the respondents said they wanted their children to get “very good” education in schools.

Most of them were unable to explain the “good education” concept, but it’s a reality that education, being provided to our new generations in public or private schools, is not good at all. Leave aside the case of 22.84 million Pakistani children aged 5-16, who are still out of school (UNICEF 2019), even 50.62 million children, who are regularly attending schools, are not learning properly. Even they are not getting an education, what to talk of “good education.”

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) made a painful disclosure in its 2016 report that more than 50% of Pakistani students are not learning much, despite attending their schools regularly. The researchers found out that 54% of class five students could not read sentences in English, 48% were unable to read Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto, while 52% could not do two-digit division in arithmetic.

The ASER data showed one thing very clearly that our schools, no matter public or private sector, are not imparting quality education to our children at all.

Are there any schools in the world which impart good education to their next generations?

Answer is, “yes, there are many”. And the top of them are those functioning in Finland. The country is located in the Nordic region of Europe. With a small population of 5.528 million, the country is considered to have one of the best education systems in the world.

It has been a top performer since the first Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) triennial international survey, back in 2000. But what’s special, what’s so great about Finland’s education system, which outperforms all other systems?

Here’s how Finland’s education system works, and in comparison, what’s wrong with Pakistan’s education system, which always hinders accomplishment of the set goals, no matter which political party is in power here.

International educationists say Finland’s education system works because its entire structure has been built around several core principles. First and foremost, equal access to education is a constitutional right.

On the contrary, around 20 million children in the 5-16 age group in Pakistan have no access to education, according to UNICEF figures. On April 19, 2010, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed free and compulsory education for all 5-16 year olds as a fundamental right via the Article 25 A. Sadaf Taimur, Asst. Manager Communications and Partnerships, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), regrets that 10 years down the road, implementation of the Article 25 A is yet to begin in almost all four provinces and the Islamabad Capital Territory.

Another important principle in Finland’s system is that one should be allowed to choose their educational path, which should never lead to a dead-end. But, in our country, parents and teachers start telling children they should become doctors, or engineers, when they grow up. Interestingly, most of them either exhaust their energies halfway, and leave education without securing any certificate or degrees, or prove to be a big failure in the field after getting education of the disciplines not matching their aptitudes.

Better we have a look at the Finnish education system from the beginning. Finland’s early education is designed around the concepts of learning through play. Finnish children aren’t required to go to school until age 6, when pre-primary education begins. They are free to spend the early years playing, learning, and bonding with their elder ones.

And here in Pakistan, parents want their little ones to start getting an education as early as three, four years. And that too, with a heavy bag, full of many books. The bag is too heavy to be carried even by parents, what to talk of children themselves.

When a Finnish child turns 7, it’ll be time for basic education. Finland doesn’t divide its basic education into elementary and junior highs. Instead, it offers single-structure education for nine years, 190 days per year. As with Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), policymakers leave plenty of room for local school administrators and teachers to revise and revamp the curriculum to meet the needs of their unique student body.

“The ideology is to steer through information, support and funding,” writes Finnish National Agency for Education, which sets core curricula requirements. Their stated goal for basic education is “to support pupils’ growth toward humanity and ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life.” This latitude includes what tests to give, how to evaluate student progress and needs, and even the ability to set daily and weekly timetables.

Can we compare such a great freedom and autonomy to children to learn on their own, with the active support of teachers? There is no hesitation in admitting here that in our country, parents and teachers start turning the children into “parrots” from the first day of their school. They are forced to learn every single word, written in the textbooks, by heart. Their creativity is killed on purpose, so they might not raise any question ever.

Teaching is a highly respected and professional field in Finland. Most teachers hold a master’s degree, and basic-ed teachers are required to hold them. Eighty per cent of basic-ed teachers also participate in continuing professional development. This level of learning and continuous development ensures Finland’s educators are steeped in the science of teaching.

Can we even think of comparing our teachers with the Finnish teachers in any way: qualifications, training, wages, respect in society, and so on? Once, it used to be said proverbially that if someone couldn’t join any other “respectable” job, they should become a teacher, the easiest way to get a job in the country. And what type of education they would give to their students is anybody’s guess.

Finland’s education system has no standardised testing. Their only exception is something called the National Matriculation Exam, which is a voluntary test for students at the end of an upper-secondary school. All children throughout Finland are graded on an individualised basis and the grading system set by their teacher.

What often happens with standardised testing is that students learn to cram just to pass a test and teachers will be teaching with the sole purpose of students passing a test. Learning is then given little to zero priority.

We, in Pakistan, are well aware of this kind of standardised testing, or examinations. Here, students are tested for their ability to cram lessons and memorise books, not for the knowledge they gained in classes.

Writer and freelance journalist Kevin Dickinson says that while most countries see the educational system as one big competition, the Finnish believe that “real winners do not compete”. Their educational system doesn’t worry about artificial or arbitrary merit-based systems. There are no lists of top performing schools or teachers. It’s not an environment of competition – instead, cooperation is the norm.

Another very interesting fact: students in Finland usually start school anywhere from 9:00 – 9:45 a.m., contrary to Pakistan where school starts anywhere from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. A research from the U.S. National Library of Medicine showed that early start times are detrimental to students’ well-being, health, and maturation. Finnish schools start the day later and usually end by 2:00 – 2:45 p.m. They have longer class periods and much longer breaks in between. The overall system isn’t there to ram and cram information to their students, but to create an environment of holistic learning.

There is a general trend in what Finland is doing with its schools; less stress, less unneeded regimentation and more caring. Students usually only have a couple of classes a day. They have several times to eat their food, which is provided to them free of cost in schools, enjoy recreational activities and generally just relax. Spread throughout the day are 15 to 20-minute intervals where the kids can get up and stretch, grab some fresh air and decompress.

In comparison, only one thing would be sufficient to portray the situation in Pakistan: dozens of students commit suicide in the country due to studies and examination pressures.

According to the OECD, students in Finland have the least amount of outside work and homework than any other student in the world. They spend only half an hour a night working on stuff from school. Finnish students also don’t have tutors. Yet they are outperforming cultures that have toxic school-to-life balances without the unneeded or unnecessary stress.

Pakistan is a typical example of the latter type. All students from all school systems bring home lots of homework, and spend most of their time at home completing that homework, without or with the help of private tutors. A lot of writing in notebooks, a lot of cramming for taking tests almost on a daily basis, but the outcome almost nil. Would our education authorities ever ponder on the issue for a brighter future of Pakistan?