The Finnish Education Model – Should Singapore emulate it?

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 (

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:

Finnish Education System


The Singapore education system depicted below:

The Singapore Education System

Source: (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.


28 comments on “The Finnish Education Model – Should Singapore emulate it?

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 16 Sep 2011 « The Singapore Daily

  2. The purpose of Singapore’s education is to identify the next generation of elite that will form the new generation of cadre for leadership.

    Why would Singapore be interested in an egalitarian education system?

    One way to build the tallest building is to actually build it.

    The other way is to demolish all the other buildings.

  3. It really depends on what Singaporeans want for Singapore and what limits the current ruling authority to look into emulating the Finnish model.

    Suppose the objective is to ensure Singapore can constantly sustain itself via creating new business opportunities and getting its own people to run it, maybe the Finnish model coupled with the Israelite sense of opportunity and the courage of the Silicon valley landers will bring Singapore to greater heights. This is assuming that the Singapore government remove the existing assumptions in their education model: 1. education model is efficient and self sustaining only if it is run by capitalism. 2. reliance on safety net is almost the last resort.

    Finland education model focuses on putting human capital at its core rule in running its country. Human capital will evolve overtime as technology create job creation and job destruction. The Finnish education understood that by reducing the explicit cost for its people to be retrained. The Singapore education model believe that higher education is a consumer product so this cost is being distributed in the financial markets. For instance, higher education is free in Finland but not in Singapore. Singaporeans need to pay an upfront cost to attend higher education with the ever increasing belief and fact that no job is ever secure. With constant belief that they need to keep paying to educate themselves, they will tend to exhibit precautionary saving behavior and one of which is to delay marriage and babies. Such implications will generally lead to Singapore having a problem of bring in more foreign talents.

    In the past safety nets will pose moral hazard because jobs tend to be certain and governments want its people to be more self reliance. The post 2008 GFC has seen that the cyclical nature of job destruction and creation becomes more volatile. In addition, people who used to have certain experience and education may find themselves undergoing more education and taking a longer time to secure employment. Safety net at this juncture in this era actually reduces the pain for dignified individuals to restart their career. Without this safety net, people will self insure themselves by saving more and taking more precautionary actions. The question would be what’s the optimal safety net and how to structure it with more labour market reforms.

  4. Singapore government is so obsessed with growth be it economy, world ranking and what not. Everything they do and plan is all focused on this one single objective. This is not about nation or citizen building to them. They manage this country like a business not nation building.

    • There’s nothing wrong in adopting a business like manner to run a country. However, there’s something wrong if they run the model with the wrong measurements and the wrong assumptions.

  5. I have a good laugh when I looked at the two flowchart side by side. Needless to see (in details) it says it all. You don’t have to look at Finnish system, pick one say from Dutch or Scandinavian and you’ll see that their egalitarian system is much more meritocratic and equal than what the Singapore govt likes to proclaim. Having lived and worked abroad for several years in various countries, I have long given up hope on our education system that is purely elitist, and like one of the reader mentioned, is to filter for a small group of cream-de-la-cream. They have no intention or interests to birth an educated and knowledgeable citizens. That’s not their aims. IT ‘s already so blatantly clear that I’m even surprised that people still have so much faith in our JCs & Universities. You just have to look at the civil servants or academic world or general population and see how robust or vibrant a discussions they are when it comes to debating or opposing against the ruling party. Who have come out to do so without fear or favor, or even with some strong demonstrations that they display great logical and critical thinking skills , without being labeled as destructive/despot/cynic? The controlling mechanism is so obvious it would take a decade/generation to undo the damages they have done to the population.

  6. I would caution against arriving at the conclusion that Finland’s educational system is superior to Singapore’s. Finland is ethnically and culturally homogeneous. Thus, their educational system has only to accommodate a less diverse student intake than Singapore’s.

    • Definitely Julian. The author stated so and I am of the opinion we need to see what are the useful things we want to take from any overseas system. I stated this in my earlier post on Social Mobility.

      Having said that, I think what’s useful is we should critically examine the foundation of our education system and our brand of meritocracy. While these have been useful for keeping us employed and growing the economy in the past, we may have run so fast with the model that we are not aware of the many negatives that have come along with our systems.

      Finland has a very different philosophy and it is working as well. So there should be a number of positives to learn.

  7. It will be quite hard to totally bring the Finnish model to Singapore because that will be very highly disruptive to the existing education system. The thing I dislike is the school ranking system. Those schools which have high ranking, in order to maintain this , they will try to kick out those perceived academically weak students. For a school just to punish a student in this way instead of trying to help the student to cope is very inhumane.

    At the Internet Age, where there are tons or loads of information on the Net, I think the emphasize of the education system should be refocused from stuffing the students with knowledge to teaching them how to make use of the knowledge, how to organize their thoughts and stop emphasizing on standard answers. I think Singapore education system should also take the Finnish model of cultivating the sense of team spirit by putting some importance on sports which are quite good ways to encourage people to work together. This nurturing of the team spirit will prepare students to work better with others in their working lives later. With certain knowledge getting obsoleting fast, life long education should be encouraged and state-supported.

    For Singapore context, being a small island that needs to link to the outside world, I advocate encouraging students to learn more than 2 languages. Being bilingual is no longer a strong competitive edge for Singapore, as this bilingual capability is increasingly happening in China and India too. Knowing as many languages as we can will help our to open ourselves to ‘more doors of opportunities’. A lot of the small European countries actually can speak more than 2 languages. Actually, our people in the past had this capability to speak a lot of languages and dialects and sad to say this capability is being destroyed in the name of Speaking Mandarin Campaign. Sad to say, after many years of this campaign, I don’t see the standard of Chinese improving but feel the language capability of our people deteriorating. You just turn on the TV and/or radio and you just listen to the way people talk when being interviewed, the language capability is horrible.

    Singapore education system to me, is being run like a big manufacturing operation. The government is a molding machine and the outputs are of course the students that have to conform to this standard mold. Those that don’t conform to this standard mold will be sort of condemned before been given the chance to prove themselves. Our education system only produces diligent, ‘obedient’ workers, but will never give chance to the existence of people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. Maybe that serves the purpose of the government.

    The big question is – Are people willing or ready to change or are they afraid of change?.

  8. I wonder how much money this government of us is willing to spend when come to education. They probably think it is enough how enough really is enough? Maybe that is the reason why we have to use our parent’s CPF to pay for local education.

  9. Apart from the education system, the University Cohort Participation Rate is important as well.
    The Finnish is at least 50% (that could be part of the reason why university is not in world-class ranking), as compared to our current 26%.
    If including our Poly Upgraders (admitting to non-4 publicly-funded U), it would be 26%+20%=46%.
    Anyone would like to comment what is the ideal cohort for Singapore? Education policy for all (who are able to upgrade) or Education policy to satisfy market needs?

    • The ideal cohort is a function of the global demand for talents contingent on the long term expectation of shifting changes in each sector which is dependent on continuous technology. Reforming university intake is just one part of the labor market reform. One also need to look at rate of growth and shrinkage of sector due to global changes in the long run and set up measures to ensure that each individual can transit from one sector to another with as little pain and as little cost. This is one of the biggest challenge for any ruling government in the new era. The greatest difficulty lies in the government willingness to establish transparency in this area.

    • Thanks Gi, for the speech by former MOE perm sec Lim Siong Guan.

      Interesting thoughts about the 15-year cycle in education reforms in Singapore. It’s time to take a hard look at what we need to do to continue our progress in light of the new challenges of globalisation and rapid changes in the 21st century. MOE has put in 21st century skills into the education process. However, as long as fundamentals of assessment methods and the way we evaulate schools do not change, there will be no serious attempt to incorporate these skills.

      We have achieved good basic literacy. Schools are now well equipped and educators have good training. Can we now look at how to move forward, even if it means sacrificing some sacred cows in the system? Have we just become more exams smart but not really learning?

      Lim Siong Guan called for Values of Discovery, for a greater spirit of inquiry and enterprise in our students. He called for confidene to try new approaches, deal with failures and pursue again. These are great values, essential in the 21st century.

      Does our current system encourage these when we push so hard with one measurement of students’ success – examinations? We go through school learning there’s one right answer, and it’s at the back of the assessment book. He called for teachers to instil the Value of Discovery attributes into students. Can teachers do it under the current system without being penalised? Will schools’ evaluation suffer in the eyes of the assessors and the public?

      Have we become too conscious of our ratings? Have we become too obsessed with putting in standardised examinations just to sieve out the ‘top talents’ because we need them to run our country in the future? The speech contained bold thoughts by Lim Siong Guan. Do we have the boldness to take a hard look at our fundamentals and make changes if these are necessary for the 21st century? Do we have the boldness to implement changes, not just at MOE but also across our civil service and in the fundamental values our society holds?

  10. I feel so sad when I read your article. I wish Singapore could see how wrong we are with our system, and why we seem to be competing with South Korea, alongside their deathly consequences, instead of Finland, whose students actually seem to enjoy education.

  11. Some readers have commented to me about Singapore outsourcing pre-schools to the private sector. I thought this link in REACH might be useful:

    I was part of the REACH Policy Study Workgroup that recommended greater MOE involvement, greater quality in preschool and lowering of compulsory education to 5 years old. The Workgroup had picked this area to study in 2007, before some existing measures were adopted by government to increase salaries and teachers’ qualifications and to have preschool accreditation.

    More can still be done in this area.

  12. Thank you gisc for sharing the speech. I found it inspiring. I agree with Mr Yee that Spore education system produces people who are obsessed with the standard WHAT but struggles with HOW. In my previous job, my employer chose to recruit its talent from the Philippines & mostly India because they cannot find the right people who demonstrate the process of thinking in Spore. It’s sad but true.

    Part of the reason why I decided to move into the education sector is because my vision is to transform these very same WHAT obsessed thinking to HOW to think. And I do believe our people, especially the young minds can do that. They have demonstrated great enthusiasm when we introduced new ways of thinking we brought forth with our products. We just need to open or unlock the door, encourage them to try and you will see how they can soar.

    So far, we have seen that students with higher abiliy have a higher capacity to learn. While it is too early to conclude, we might see that there will be greater variation in average results of student. However, if there is no pressure or stigma in learning, the richness in the quality of thinking, might still be a better outcome because the landscape is constantly changing i.e world is getting more votile & complex whether we like it or not. For me, when we build the skills & knowledge or our children, we are preparing them for the real world. And the fact is, there are NO exams after they leave school.

    Lastly, former perm sec of MOE is correct in pointing out that there are more stakeholders in educating our people. Parents & students themselves have a role to play, which is often over-looked.

  13. Pingback: What’s good for our students? « A 21st Century Education by OURF

    • I respectfully disagree with you. I think the problem with our education system is that it produces people who are all too eager to jump to the HOW before they really understand WHAT is the problem or WHAT is the opportunity. I lead a team of consultants and I get very annoyed when they commit this mistake. We struggle with the HOW because we don’t ask the right questions to understand the WHAT. If only we can channel some of our obsession from providing answers to asking the right questions.

      • I think MOE tried to take the Finnish Problem Based Learning (PBL) approach some years back in 2006, not sure how that went. The PBL approach deals directly with what you have mentioned. You are given a situation, the problem needs identifying first then you look at various angles to solve the problem. Btw, there’s no single model answer.


    According to the above article, need good teachers, period.

    SG education system is the type of system which only wish to mass produce “apples” in various grades when the students can be any other “fruits”, and the system is fed in a complete vicious cycle by willing parents cos “apples” are perceived to have better “future”



    so simple and yet so hard to fulfill

  15. One problem we have in SG is that the best become administrators, not practitioners. So they are grossly underutilised while being grossly overpaid for their underutilisation. In the MOE system, they attempted to start a specialist track; this is a major failure — specialists with advanced degrees in esoteric but necessary arts like curriculum design and planning have no career advancement unless they become administrators. What a terrible waste!

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