Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Finnish schools

After my previous post I read Mr Yee Jenn Jong in a post about the Finnish school education system.

I must confess that I had not taken too much notice of Finnish schools in the PISA ratings. Some might argue that it is the ratings and league tables that have played a big part in dumbing down the British education system. Just read today's news Thousands of 'dead end' courses axed from school tables.

However I can see why someone could become very enthusiastic about a system where children are not labelled and the dropout rate is low/zero and everyone sings from the same song sheet (which I would hazard a guess is led by the tune, "Don't Worry, Be-e Happy").

I like Finland a lot. I had spent many hours at Helsinki airport en route to somewhere (can't remember where). And then I spent time in Helsinki with a co-worker en route to Latvia. I stood outside the University of Helsinki for a long time, got chatted up by new immigrants, etc, and acquired the taste for smoked mackerel (eaten with boiled potatoes and some peas).

My Finnish hostess spoke fluent English. She also speaks Finnish, Swedish and Estonian. I enjoyed staying in her tiny studio apartment, available for rent to singles at reasonable prices.

(Like I've said before, if we want our singles to mingle, what better way than to let them live in tiny homes with shared leisure and laundry facilities?)

The public transport in Helsinki was also excellent.

I like Finland. I might go work there myself.

So I nosed around a bit more to learn about the Finnish education system. This is what I discovered:

The current system was started some 40 years ago and the government mandated that all teachers must have at least a masters' degree. There was, effectively, a paradigm shift in thinking and policy.

Children only start school at age seven. Before this, most children are in government provided childcare.

Come the age for pre-school, or kindergarten, children do what the originator (Friedrich Fröbel) of kindergartens (children's gardens) intended this transition period between home and school to be: for children to be "nourished" like plants in the garden (note, not "hothoused" as in a greenhouse).

Instead of times tables children learn self-reflection and social behaviour (which I imagine to mean being gracious, being courteous, respecting teachers, being able to empathize, etc). They learn to behave before they are taught to read.

Class sizes are often about 20 or fewer. If pupils are too difficult to teach (eg if they have special needs), then the class could have a second teacher, and a third adult as an assistant teacher. That is three adults to 20 children. [Why do I suspect that the children are actually taught in "sets" in class?]

The children take no national exams but are graded by the teachers who are trusted to do a professional job.

Teachers are a highly regarded profession in Finland where only the best and brightest are recruited. (I have not discovered where they recruit their doctors and lawyers from.)

Finns are polyglots. They speak Finnish and Swedish (one as mother tongue, the other as "other domestic language", the latter of which has to be spoken to a very high level of competence). Many speak English and another Germanic, Nordic or Baltic language.

The Finnish population stands at about 5.4 million with a school population of about 600,000. There are 10 universities, 7 specialized universities and 27 universities of applied sciences (polytechnics). Because everyone is well educated, no one looks down their noses at someone else.

You might be a house painter (or painter/decorator as they would say in Britain), but at least you are a numerate, literate painter/decorator who have post-secondary education and we respect you.

Well, we aspired to "a Swiss standard of living" some years ago. Maybe at the next election we can aim towards "a Finnish standard of education".

However the Finnish education system is not just/only about teachers and schools. One has to take the whole package -- it's my famous anthropological 'holistic approach', or 'joined-up thinking again -- starting with maternity leave.

Stress-free pregnancy with no fear of losing one's job. Affordable and high quality childcare when one is ready to return to work. Subsidized health provision. Employment legislation which is family-friendly (I imagine). A wide choice of universities and polytechnics catering to the natural talents and skills of all individuals. And no mention of the foreign domestic worker, mate.

But how do you legislate against parents being "kiasu"? You cannot.

How do you stop people from looking down at people who are not similarly qualified and have to do ostensibly "dirty jobs"?

The Finnish people appear at one level to be more homogenous than Singaporeans. But dig a little deeper and you'd find that there are distinct ethnic differences. However a school system that requires the study of national languages and cultural knowledge has ironed out these differences, even amongst the new arrivals.

You want to live in Finland, you speak Finnish (or Swedish).

Singaporeans used to have a national language. It was called Bahasa Kebangsaan. I learned it till I was in secondary two. I used to be able to hold simple conversations in BK. And that is why our parade commands are ke-kiri pusing and all that.

Would the Finnish system translate into Singapore?

Why, we could not even cope with ONE national language, let alone two. English is ostensibily the main business language and yet Singapore-born Singaporeans cannot even speak the English language properly, how can they expect us to speak two like the Finnish?

So can we ever be like the Finns? Yes, we can. We only have to think "Singapore River".

We used to be able to smell Singapore River before we came anywhere near it on a bus and saw the copper green (or was it chocolate brown?) water filled with detritus of every description.

In 1977 Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, "Clean it up!" By about 1988-9 the river was transformed. I played with the NUS Orchestra on a barge at its re-opening ceremony, complete with fireworks and all that.

It took political will, adminstrative gumption, and not a little bullying (uhm cajoling), as lots of people had to be moved from their sources of livelihood from either side of the river, lock, stock and barrel to other locations. (Were these folk merely relocated or were they also dis-located? Discuss.)

People shift? Business shift? Education shift? Paradigm shift? All of the above.

Singapore River took more than ten years. The Finnish education system started changing 40 years ago. Where do we start?

Class numbers? Three teachers to a class of 20?

Teaching children (and parents) to behave before they start to read and write?

No more exams?

Reverse the foreign domestic worker culture?

Incidentally the Finns pay up to 30% in income tax, another 16% to 21% local tax (depending on where you live) and a church tax. The tax on investment income (earnings from capital income, stocks and shares, etc is 28%).

They also say there is not a vast gap in household incomes.

Ah! I guess this is where us Singaporeans come unstuck.

I asked my son whether he would like to be taught in a class of 20 where children of mixed abilities learn together. I can't describe the look of horror on his face. But that is just my son. Ignore him.

Are Finnish schools the best in the world?

Several Lessons to Be Learned from the Finnish School System

1 comment:

Chin Leng said...

I think the biggest challenge will be changing the attitude of parents towards grades and such. Maybe I'm pessimistic but I don't think any political will can change the parents view towards education. Didn't all the new generation parents want to let their children have a childhood? Then why are there so many enrichment schools now?