After my recent blog post on Social Mobility where I touched on the Finnish education system, I received an email from a Singaporean living and working in Finland. I invited him to share with us a comparison of the Singapore and Finnish education system from the perspective of one who has experienced both systems first-hand.
Written by A Singaporean Observer in Finland
Finland is a quirky country, known for Nokia and Angry Birds. The Finns spend less than Singapore on defence and yet shares a border with Russia, who has a nuclear arsenal. The latest fad about Finland though, has been its education model.
Singapore and most countries have been studying the Finnish model to see if they can adopt and adapt it for themselves.
As a Singaporean living in Finland for the last four years, I had the opportunity to learn, understand and experience the Finnish education system in detail. My son has just started his own education journey here as well. It is a purely academic exercise to learn and read about a model, but profoundly illuminating to experience it first-hand.
Comparison between the Finnish and Singapore Education Model
“In Finland, the basic right to education and culture is recorded in the Constitution of Finland. Public authorities must secure equal opportunities for every resident in Finland to get education also after compulsory education and to develop themselves, irrespective of their financial standing. Legislation provides for compulsory education and the right to free pre-primary and basic education. Most other qualifying education is also free of charges for the students, including postgraduate education at universities.” – Finnish National Board of Education (http://www.oph.fi/english/education)
For Singaporeans reading this statement, it must certainly raise intriguing questions. Free education and yet still the best? University education is free even for foreigners? How do they do it? Why do they do it? Personally, the oddity for me is that this statement is in English. There are very few official Finnish websites in English although more of it is now being introduced as a result of immigrant inflows. I believe that the Finnish government sees it as an advantage to be understood rather than be dogmatically defending its stance. It is a politically brave move but a superbly wise one.
The Finnish education system depicted below:
The Singapore education system depicted below:
Source: http://www.moe.gov.sg/about/files/moe-corporate-brochure.pdf (page 3)
If you put them side by side, it would not take a genius to figure out which is simpler to understand.
There are three key differences here that can be identified immediately.
The first is the start and end points of the models. The Finnish model has a pre-primary education aspect in it and the ending point is actually a doctoral degree, whereas the Singapore model starts with primary school and ends at the undergraduate level.
The second is that work experience is only introduced at the end stage. If you take a look at another version of the Finnish education model here, you would see that work experience can start after ISCED level 3.
The remaining difference is that polytechnic degrees are on par with university degrees in Finland. Perhaps, those with keener eyes will also note the absence of private entities in the Finnish model. Education is not a big commercial entity yet in Finland. There are private schools but few in comparison with Singapore. Those opting for private schools are still subsidised by the government, i.e. the government pays the equivalent sum as accorded for attendance in public schools, and parents pay the outstanding amount after the offset. Meritocratic enough?
It is not difficult to postulate from these differences, how one model will exceed the other. The Finnish model starts from a strong foundation at 8 months and finishes strong in the higher educational hierarchy. The Singapore model starts building foundations (officially) at age 7 and ends at the basic university education level. In Singapore’s case, MOE also does not have any focus on adult education since that is parked with the Ministry of Manpower instead. The Finnish model embraces adult education in its system.
Starting Young the Finnish Way and Never Finishing?
The Finnish daycares or päiväkoti (literally meaning day home in English) takes in children as young as 8 months. (Finnish maternity leave is 9 months, but you start your leave a month before the birth date. Once your maternity leave has expired, you either extend your maternity leave or send your child to the daycare.) From 8 months to 6 years old, the child is already learning through play. There is no formal teaching or learning at all. They sing, play indoors and outdoors (rain, shine or snow). My son willingly goes to school. My problem is now is getting him to leave school and remind him that school does not open on weekends. Perhaps, this is the Finnish way of cultivating a desire for school by associating it with fun times.
At 6 years old, all kids go through a pre-primary phase.
“The general principles set forth in the core curriculum emphasise the child’s individuality and the significance of active learning and the importance of acting as a group member. Pre-primary education is based on the child’s own knowledge, skills and experiences. Its focus is on play and a positive outlook on life. From the educational point of view, working methods that accustom children to teamwork are of the utmost importance. Another central consideration is to promote the child’s own initiative and to emphasise its significance as the foundation for all activities.” – Finnish Board of Education
In contrast, Singapore’s preschool is outsourced to the private sector with the following desired outcomes as listed here.
The question to ask is: Is early education critical enough not to outsource to the private sector, including community foundations, religious bodies, social organisations and business organisations, especially when some of the desired outcomes are important and fundamental to the formation of an individual?
The follow-on question would be: How do you ensure that there is no disparity at the end of the preschool education and ensure that the principle of meritocracy is adhered to?
Actually, the answer is provided by MOE here. It is a 40-page framework for kindergarten curriculum in Singapore. It contains an abundant sample of great quotes about education and the importance of early education. Here lies the irony. If the formative years are so important and perhaps even critical towards nation-building, why is it outsourced?
With regards to the end stage of the Singapore Education Model, a good question would be: Why end at the first degree? Is Singapore not interested in birthing new knowledge through greater numbers of locals pursuing further education or would it rather buy-in new knowledge? Or should people focus on getting girlfriends or boyfriends, get married, and procreate after graduation?
Much more can be stated about the differences between the models and functions of education in the two countries. Those interested will find all the information about the Finnish system here. Another good article on the Finnish Education Model can be found here.
Is there a weakest link in the Finnish Education Model?
The short answer is yes. The weakest link is actually at the university level. You will not find any of the Finnish universities in the global top 50 ranking. The highest is theUniversity of Helsinki, which ranks globally at 89. NUS ranks at 28 and NTU at 58. The Finns are not obsessed with ranking and not overly perturbed by this fact. However, they do recognise that there is a problem. There are some major policies and plans now in place to address the issue with clinical efficiency.
This does not mean that they churn out graduates that are inferior to the rest of the world. In reality, graduates here have a stronger sense of team working and the ability to embrace ambiguity. The phobia of failure and obsession with control is largely absent here. Failure and ambiguity are often perceived as opportunities in businesses, social development or personal achievement in Finland. I had a torrid time in my first year of university education here. 14 years of formal education and 15 years in the civil service in Singapore prepared me badly for embracing ambiguity. The Finns do not believe in a right answer, just an answer that may evolve with time.
Creativity and innovation is birthed from the beginning of their early childhood. Both of which involve embracing ambiguity. The key to success for the Finns is that their education model feeds into their ecosystem, which in turns nourishes it. Education is not a means to an end, nor is it an end in itself.
The answer to the question is…
There are two key aspects to answering the question. The first is the comparison between the Finnish and Singaporean Education Model. The second is the context, i.e. the Finnish ecosystem vis-à-vis the Singaporean ecosystem. The former, as outlined above, while inadequate, given the limitation of a blog piece, offers some insights. If we want a reasoned discourse on its merits and practicality for implementation in Singapore’s context, we need to have a more in-depth study. Experiential knowledge of the Finnish model would add a layer of practicality. While education is supposedly a universal concept, implementation, methods and functions can differ from country to country, given its own unique ecosystem at play. This is something to keep in mind, before we adopt or adapt any component of the Finnish Education Model.
You cannot do a “plug and play” of components from any ecosystem element and hope that it works miracles, although the Singaporean government has honed this skill over the last four decades. As a friend once imparted these wise words –
“You cannot hope to achieve different results by doing things the same way. You cannot hope to avoid consequences if you do things differently.”
Education is a vehicle that can effect changes in the entire ecosystem, be it social mobility or GDP. If a government changes its education model, it cannot hope to avoid consequences in one or more of the elements. I just wonder how ready Singaporeans and the government are for change and consequences. Perhaps, the focal point of the Finnish government supports its education model – the people’s well-being. If you are unwell, what can you achieve? How can you achieve?
My answer to the question thus, from the Finnish perspective, would be yes and no. I will probably ask my son, year after year, if he still enjoys school. The Abu Dhabi government though, has already decided to pilot the Finnish education system in two of their schools.
– The author attended ACS & Nanyang Junior College in Singapore, graduated from the University of Manchester, served in the civil service for 15 years and is currently residing in Finland.