I was shopping at Lifestyle (an upmarket fashion store) last Saturday with my friend. They were running a campaign called “Back to School” targeting children. One small boy accompanied by his parents stopped in front of that section and shouted “Daddy, I am not coming. It says Back to School and I don’t want to go”. The people around burst in to an instant laughter and I smiled too. But the boy was serious. He just stood there until his Father convinced him to move. Majority of Indian children don’t like schooling. My neighbour’s son cries every day. Let’s admit, we completed schooling not because we wanted but we were made to. Have we made our schools so terrifying?

Pic courtesy: Smithsonian Magazine

Recently, I read an article on mental floss about 10 countries that might become super powers in the next 50 years. Finland was rated as one of them and the reason was their educational system. I was really surprised to see that. Never in my dreams, I could connect Finland and exemplary education system.I started researching about it and my findings were startling. It made me think about our education system too.

Think about schools where children could go as they like. No exams till high school. Compulsory education starts only at 7 and the child has to be 6 before joining the school. The children can wear whatever they want. There will be at least 75 minutes of recess every day. Students are not measured until 6th year of their education. No home work. 93% of them pass the high school exams and 66% of them go to college. Mind you, getting in to a college in Finland is as tough as getting in to IITs in India. The difference between the weakest and the strongest student is lowest in the world. In the PISA (Programme for International School Assessment) tests, they were in the top 3 along with South Korea, Japan and China (2009 results, 2012 results yet to come). Oh! India was in 72nd place out of 74, that too students from “educationally inclined” Tamil Nadu. Finland doesn’t even care about those rankings. We too don’t need to care about those rankings but the larger problem is not about rankings.

Finland’s history is bit troublesome. They were kicked from one monarchy to other because of their geographical position. They switched hands from Russia to Sweden many times. Although they got their independence in the fag end of World War I, they had to fight many wars including their civil war. Only post World War II, they got a real chance at reviving their country. They decided that education is the trump card for their growth.

All those emphasis on education is paying rich dividends only now. But it all started almost 60 years back. The story of how they built such a desirable education system is pretty interesting. Not so surprisingly, this educational reform started as a strategy for survival. Finnish Parliament decided in 1963 that education is the mode for economic reform. Before that, students dropped out when they were 6 or went to private schools. Only those living in towns or larger municipalities had access to a middle grade education. There was no common curriculum. The country was going thorugh a transition from rural to urban society. There was a huge clamour for private schooling and people thought that will help children to grow. But most of them couldn’t afford them. After many debates and tribulations, Finland parliament voted for a common comprehensive educational system in 1968. Although they enacted the law, the implementation was carefully done as they were moving from a parallel system (like ours) to a comprehensive system.

They created a comprehensive system through various consulations with 100s of teachers over five year time period. The transition started with smaller municipalities and then moved to bigger ones. The process was completed in 1977. Finland brought every school in to a single public curriculum. This curriculum was developed by teachers and contained generic guidelines rather than specific details. For instance, there was a guideline that every student have to learn 3 languages Finnish and Swedish (as they are national languages) and a third language – primarily English to make them globally employable. But it doesn’t prescribe how each school should do it – a school with primarily immigrants might have higher emphasis on learning the local language than English and vice versa for a school with more locals.

The whole educational system was divided in to 4 major categories

  • Peruskoulu – ages 7 to 16
  • High school education – here you can choose to go for a school or a vocational training
  • College level – universities or polytechnics
  • Doctoral degrees

The image below will give you a detailed map how it happens

There is only one exam at the end of schooling – in that 93% of them pass (highest in world) out of which 43% take vocational training. There are district level exams for each grade but a class would take it only if the teacher likes to. The results are not published but given to the teacher for assessment.

After plugging the curriculum part, in 1973 Finland took a mandate to plug the teachers part. The teacher selection process is standardized unlike their curriculum. Every teacher needs to have at least a master degree. The teachers start at lower entry salary levels but within few years the salary levels increase more than professionals.

They have the same status as Doctors and Lawyers. Last time, when Finland chose their teachers 6600 people applied for 660 primary school teaching positions. It’s one of the toughest selection procedures. You can compare it with the Tamil Nadu State Teachers selection exams – people are asking to lower the standards to get eligible.

How did this help their economic growth?

Like many other countries, Finland went in to a recession during early 90s. This pushed the government to roll out policies that fostered private sector innovations and strong emphasis on new age sectors like Telecom (read Nokia). Where did they get the workforce from, I don’t think you need to make a second guess. For instance, in 1991 only 5 finnish workers out of 1 000 were in the research and development (R&D) labour force. By 2003 this number had increased to 22, almost three times the OECD average. By 2001 Finland’s ranking in the World economic forum’s global competitiveness index had climbed from 15th to 1st, and it has remained at or near the top in these rankings ever since. This is just an example, Finland’s innovation is world renowned and of course, it’s rated as one of the best places to live in this world. Even the Angry Birds are from Finland.

Why every state in India can copy this?

Finland doesn’t have a strict curriculum. They stick to develop the overall knowledge of the students in various subjects rather than exam oriented system that we have. Yes, there is competition only at the post high school level and children are able to cope up with that level of competition. Moreover, culturally none of the jobs is considered to be less important than the other. Finland education system also takes extra care on immigrants because it does have more immigrants like lot other European countries.

One of the arguments usually posed is “Finland is a small country and we can’t mimic them“. But not so surprisingly, we are in the same position as Finland when they started this. Young population, fast urbanisation and people expecting more from education system. In India, the education is mostly controlled by the state and not the centre. For instance,Tamil Nadu has 53722 public schools with almost 34180 of them are primary schools, far lesser than Finland. But the number of students and student – teacher ratio disparity is huge. We have 9878621 students and only 64793 govt teachers – that’s 152 students per teacher. The student – teacher ratio is an absolute improbability to plug – will take a long time to plan and execute. But there are two things that can be controlled and executed

  • The curriculum, teaching methodology and process
  • The quality of teachers – the state is trying to fix this particular issue but we have strong resistance from teachers themselves.

The curriculum needs to be more inclusive, creative and help students to understand concepts rather exam focused on final exams. We have been celebrating students who score 499/500 and 9.3 CGPAs but we can’t vouch for their knowledge. Knowledge can’t come based on exams. At least during my times, we had a strong entrance exam system in Tamil Nadu but it was abolished for a lot of reasons. Now, as we have students who just mug up and write exams, our Engineering courses are more skewed towards that. Whereas you can’t do the same in medical courses.The truth is our education is in a download spiral and in few years we would be creating identical human robots. The whole Indian students faring well in other countries are based on exceptions and I don’t buy that argument. It’s high time that we realise we have a faulty system and it needs some serious restructuring.

What we need to do is to mimic Finland’s education system based on our cultural sensitivities. Finland also has a strong backup system for children, free food, allowances and et.al., But those systems weren’t built overnight, all of them stemmed from their single minded focus of improving their education and in turn changing the lives of a generation.

I took Finland as an example to showcase how primitive and unfriendly our education system is. Their system has raised debates in countries like US and South Korea (it has a very strict education system) and sadly there is no one raise the red flag here.

What do you think about the Finnish system? Do you think it’s possible to mimic at a per state basis in India?

Your thoughts…

Further reading

1. http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/46581035.pdf

2. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html

3. http://www.uta.fi/FAST/US5/REF/wesfin90.html


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Posted by Sylvian

Marketing Analyst by profession, a quizzer by passion, a blogger by choice, a poet by chance, a non-conformist by gene and a rebel by birth


  1. In India, people treat education as a tool to get posh jobs and earn fancy money. The purpose of education in India is not to have a firm grasp of the concepts or to enable a better understanding of the subjects. But, it is to enable students to score as many marks as possible by hook or crook (that’s why mugging up and rote learning are considered skills, here).

    As long as parents, teachers, management are going to look at education this way, they will manage to modify any system to suit their needs.

    Destination Infinity


  2. A well researched article… it is quite interesting to see Finland had executed such a good system over a period of time. These changes can’t come from teachers or from the Government. These changes can be done only from grass roots level (i.e., Parents). Only then can we see a better education system emerging into place.


  3. wow! the other side of Sylvianism 🙂


  4. Wonderful! Patrick, it is always a delight to read your articles. A very well researched article. Interestingly my subject interest for research is about children with ads/ media. It is very interesting to see how much a country can do for its people.
    How are you doing btw?


  5. A society plans in making the system work. So, if we look at how Finland’s system works, it is because of the basic plan and how the society functions as a whole. It depends on how they look at education. The disadvantage I see in our country is the fact that we tend to look at education as means to get in to a profession that pays. So, usually it has to be engineering, business and medicine ! If we look at TN, the age at which the child begins her school is at 2 1/2 or 3 right? So, there are people who complete their pre school and start the 1st grade by 5. And they have exams right from then on. I totally think we can and should start by implementing the system but then it is a very hard path and will take a long time and struggle before we get to start cleaning up this mess.



  6. In a society where failure is taboo and risk-taking is generally shunned, you have to be put things in perspective and take a holistic approach. Agreed, the system is broken and we are producing human robots, as you call it, but if you want change for the good, it has to be inclusive and well thought out.

    We have to be driven away from the mindset of benchmarking students against a number or a grade, and appreciate him or her for their uniqueness. This uniqueness is harder to spot and even harder to nurture, but that has to be the end-goal – Finding something good in each student.

    Instead of doing a complete overhaul or any radicalization of the education system, I think it is important to get a buy-in from teachers, parents and most importantly from students. Launch model schools, get a core group interested, and be such that parents and teachers themselves evangelize the whole system, a system where students are taught that its ok to be imperfect, its ok to fail, but what is most important is the willingness to try, again and again.

    If we can get these model schools, low-cost if I may add, I think students coming out of such stable will be of immense value to the society as risk-taking entrepreneurs, or crazy scientists not afraid to fail, or simple value-driven and well-groomed human beings.

    It is difficult, but not impossible. And am sure we will get there, because at stake is the future of the country. No ordinary thing, right?


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