Can South Africa learn from Finland’s renowned education system?

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Finland’s education system has been in the news recently with sensational headlines declaring that they will be the first country in the world to do away with school subjects.

Firstly, the reports are not entirely true. Finland is not actually doing away with subjects but is going to be giving more time to exercises that will involve synthesis of knowledge from various subject areas. Clearly, this is a creative way of encouraging learning, and is typical of the innovation that makes Finland a recognised leader in education.

In study after study, the country ranks in the top 5 – 10 of world education systems and is regularly number one in Europe.

By contrast, varying reports list South Africa near the bottom in world rankings for everything from literacy to maths and science education.

The immediate question is: Can we fix what’s wrong with our own education system by taking lessons from the Finnish system?

Let’s begin by looking at some of the reasons why Finnish school children get such great education:

Finland’s recipe for success

  1. Free education for all: Education is free and is applied equally to all schools. This means that all children, no matter their socio-economic background, get the same quality of education. Children also get subsidised meals at school. This dramatically reduces the achievement gap between rich and poor students.
  2. Manageable work load: Finnish children start school at age 7. They only get homework at high school and almost never take standardised tests. This helps students and teachers focus on learning without the pressure of exams.
  3. Teachers are respected: Teaching is an honoured profession and only 1 in 10 applicants for teacher training are accepted. Teachers need a Masters degree in order to teach, and they earn decent middle-class incomes.
  4. Less is more approach: Teachers spend only 4 hours in the classroom. Lessons focus on hands-on learning and there is no cramming for exams.
  5. Class size: Average class size is around 20 students.
  6. Fewer social ills: Finland is a relatively wealthy country with high employment rates. Income inequality is low and there is a wide social security net ensuring all students are well fed and have access to quality education.
  7. Cultural homogeneity: Finland is a largely homogenous culture, meaning students and teachers speak the same language and have similar expectations and life assumptions.

Looking at the reasons for Finland’s success it becomes clear that South Africa has a mountain to climb if it wants to get anywhere near to competing at the same level. Given our history and our status as a developing nation, how do we provide the level of teacher expertise, the quality of school infrastructure and the levelling of opportunities to even begin playing on the same field?

It would seem the answer to our question is a straight no – at a practical level, there’s very little of the Finnish magic we can apply to our own system. If Finland is the model of what an education system needs in order to succeed, then South Africa is going to stay stuck in the mud for quite some time to come.

However, maybe that’s a bit of a cop-out.

In an article in the Daily Maverick*, Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane makes the point that fixing the problem is not just about money – South Africa spends 7% of GDP on education, allotting more money to basic education than any other government function. And it spends more on each child than just about every country in Africa – but the results are dismal.

Maimane refers to the book “How to fix South Africa’s schools” co-authored by Professor Jonathan Jansen, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State. In it, the authors list several mistakes South Africa is making:

  1. Overburdening schools and teachers with complex policies and demanding curricula
  2. Introducing innovations in environments that lack the stability to carry them out
  3. Lacking the will to challenge teacher unions and dysfunctional provinces
  4. Failing to provide teacher development and support inside the classroom
  5. Failing to provide a solid foundation in the early learning phase
  6. Failing to learn from what works
  7. Investing in small-scale initiatives that benefit only a few students
  8. Misleading the public with inflated stories of success

All of the above issues can be resolved, or at least improved, with the resources South Africa already has. In this light, we would argue that before we go abroad to learn how to fix our education, we should start by addressing the problems that are within our grasp. We’ve got the money to make a difference – we just aren’t spending it properly. And that’s a political and moral problem, not a question that Finland or anybody else can help us with.

What do you think?

* https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2015-11-08-fixing-basic-education-its-about-more-than-money

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