In what way is Fiji like Finland?

  • The language? – nope.
  • Both countries have names that start with ‘Fi’? – yes.
  • A love of cross country skiing? – err, no!

However, I would like to talk about where I believe Fiji should aspire to be like Finland and that is in their education system.

A Newsweek article in 2010, rated Finland the number one country ranked by health, quality of life, politics, economics, and of course education (by the way the USA ranked #11). It has the highest graduation rate in the world and the highest proportion of graduates of a population in the world. From results gathered in 2009 and published earlier this year, standardised tests compared children at age 15 across many countries. Finnish children overall outperformed their counterparts. They came just behind China is maths and second to South Korea in reading comprehension, and outranked everyone handsomely on science results. I guess this makes sense from the country that gave us Nokia mobile phones. Remarkably Finland is able to do this by providing less school contact hours than their European counterparts.

Shouldn’t Fiji aspire to cite those statistics for itself? After all prior to the political upheavals since the late 1980s the mantra for Fiji was ‘… the way the world should be’.

If so Fiji would do well to learn from what Finland has done. Just to be clear, Finland is not a large country by population (about 6 times Fiji’s) although the land area is large and therefore the population is very spread out and sparsely populated. During the cold war Finland was neutral and therefore had some strategic importance as a viable conduit from the ‘West’ to the USSR. That strategic importance disappeared with the disappearance of the Iron Curtain. In other words by European standards, they are not a country with special mineral, geopolitical or economic trade route resources to justify their number one position. Until the 1950s the Fins were pretty much an agrarian society.

I’m not qualified to make a sociopolitical analysis, but I believe I’m on solid ground when I say that Finland appears to have made smart decisions to utilise what they have to maximum effect – and overall be happy about it too! Again I believe that I’m on solid ground when I say that I believe that the educational reforms that Finland underwent in the 1950s is a very significant factor in this.

So here’s what I’ve learned about Finland’s education system. 

  • Firstly it does not formally start for children until age 7. Until then children are encouraged to simply play. Formal school still likes to let children explore the world in order to learn. 
  • The atmosphere in the schools is more informal and relaxed (teachers are addressed by their first names). 
  • They take responsibilities in the school which includes cleaning, gardening, tending to the beautification of the classroom & school; this is not to save money but to give them more authentic learning environments. 
  • The focus is on understanding rather than rote learning. 
  • The teachers in both primary and secondary have at minimum of a masters degree. 
  • The ratio of teachers to children is very low (about, 1:16 for primary and 1:13 for secondary). 

Judged on these last two points alone, I guess we can say that Fins clearly value education.

In summary, I guess Finland’s example that we in Fiji might take note of, is that investment in education needs to come first. Only then will the economy, political health of a nation, quality of life and so on will improve because we will have an nation of people who think ‘smart’. Just to underscore this, recently Arne Duncan, US President Obama’s Education Secretary, who on discussing Finland’s educational top ranking indices in April said ‘… if education is expensive, try ignorance’!

Certainly at our school we are taking more than a few pages out of the Finnish book on education (low class sizes, integrated curriculum focussed on understanding, child centred approach). We are hopeful that the whole education sector in Fiji will be choosing a similar path to the one that we and some of the other progressive schools in Fiji, have done. Perhaps in the near future we’ll have more in common with Finland other than both countries start with ‘Fi’. 

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant