Human Capital: The Formula That Makes Finland's Schools So Good

Though the country spends less per pupil than many other developed nations, students here consistently test better than nearly all their global counterparts. Here's why.

Helsinki's a playground...
Helsinki's a playground...
Céline Zünd

HELSINKI — After a while, it starts to get really annoying. The Finns are always at the top of the class. They top the international testing scores conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which every three years since 2000 has evaluated the performance of 15-year-olds throughout the developed world in math, reading and science.

The most recently available results of the so-called PISA tests (2009) placed the Finns — once again — among the best in the world. They came close to No. 2 South Korea (Shanghai, China was No. 1), even without employing the kind of sleepless nights and corporal punishment that would be unthinkable in the land of Father Christmas.

And what’s more, Finland also tops the list of the best places for children to live, according to UNICEF’s ranking of child well-being in developed countries released in April. It is in many ways thanks to its schools that the country is a kind of children’s paradise.

So much so, in fact, that delegations from all over the world come to Helsinki to get training in education. These delegations include a number of Swiss experts, according to the University of Helsinki’s Patrik Scheinin, who is charged with analysing the results of the PISA survey.

A popular profession

In Finland, the teachers are what dreams are made of. That’s not difficult to believe when you see Omaia Zakik, 38, entering the Esplanad café located on one of the capital’s bustling roads. Summer dress, golden hair, almond eyes — the secondary school teacher looks like a princess. But she’s also extremely smart, because here all teachers, at both primary and secondary levels, must have at least a master’s degree (the equivalent of five years of university study). Teaching is a very popular profession, and extraordinarily competitive: Only 10% of candidates earn a place at university.

But that has nothing to do with the salary, which is just barely above average. Teaching is so popular because of the social recognition. “They trust us,” says Omaia Zakik, who teaches French and English to teenage students in Espoo, Finland’s second city. “We have a lot of freedom in the way we teach. I chose the textbooks and the methodology. Nobody controls what I do,” she adds.

The National Office of Education, which decides the educational framework, “is not a handbook and is left open to interpretation,” the office’s Tiina Tähkä says. “Originally, we copied the Swedish school system, but they didn’t take the push for teaching excellence as far.”

Kristiina Kumpulainen, education professor at the University of Helsinki, adds that teacher freedom is only limited by that of the students. Teachers must carry out their own research to find out what works best,” she says. “Teaching is not just a vocation, it’s a science.”

A recent incident in Helsinki relit the debate on discipline in schools: After a verbal altercation, a teacher pushed a student in the cafeteria. The scene, filmed by students, found its way onto the Internet, and the teacher immediately lost his job. In Finland, teachers are forbidden to touch students. Parliament is currently developing a new law to expand teacher rights. If it passes, they will be able to physically remove a student from the classroom, for example. As it is, teachers don’t have the right to force a student to leave the room, to confiscate telephones or to open bags to inspect them. The worst punishment available to them is sending for the head teacher. What’s more, the students’ right to express themselves is protected.

No pressure, kids

In Finnish schools, students address teachers informally and use their first names. The atmosphere is relaxed and the hours not terribly demanding. The school day starts at 8 a.m. and finishes at midday for young children. Older students finish between 2 and 4 p.m. And because the winters are so harsh, Finns have 10 to 11 weeks of vacation in the summer, and many other days are added throughout the year.

Finnish schools don’t promote competition. There are no marks given for the first few years of a student’s schooling, and no national exams conclude the school year. “It’s up to them to decide if they do their homework,” says Zakik, the teacher. Teaching expert Mikko Myllykoski says that other countries place too much importance on tests. “The secret is freedom.” And yet, results count.

All students follow the same course from seven to 16 years of age. And virtually no one fails. Students who encounter persistent difficulties are allowed to work with special assistants who helps them through the lessons step-by-step or in small groups outside of classes. Because of this it is almost of unheard of in Finland for students to repeat grades, and 93% of students complete their obligatory studies successfully, compared to 80% in countries that are OECD members.

Interestingly, students’ socio-economic background has much less influence on their performance in Finland than it does in other countries. Schools that welcome migrants receive more funding to teach Finnish as a second language. “The Finnish school system is a pillar of the Nordic model according to which everyone should have the same opportunities, regardless of where he or she is born,” says Kumpulainen.

Yet the experts say students retain a sense of individuality, and special funding is given to schools that develop innovative projects. “Students are encouraged to develop their own skills rather than simply racking up knowledge,” Kumpalainen adds.

Everything is bankrolled by the governement: supplies, cafeteria, transport, health care, support classes. But money alone doesn’t explain the success, experts say. Finland spends 8,651 francs ($9,248) per student a year, less than the average of the OECD countries (9,004 francs or $9,625) and significantly less that the U.S. (12,133 or $12,970) and Switzerland (15,126 or $16,170).

Even the teachers’ union has little about which to complain. “It has been a long time since we have had to fight for something,” says teacher Ritva Semi. Harmony reigns between the Ministry of Education and the member organzation to which 96% of teachers belong, she adds with a smile.

Semi, a short bespectacled woman, was involved in all the reform battles of the 1970s that led to the birth of the current school system. She doesn’t hesitate to praise the schools.

“Finland has no diamonds, no oil, no coal. So our politicians decided that we had to invest in human capital. And it was there that the idea of free education for all was born. Later, the Right wanted to establish a national exam and encourage the privatization of schools. When the first test results were released in 2001, all those projects were frozen, and today not even the most conservative politicians want to remember that they were opposed to the current school system.

And yet, nine-year-old Parus is stone-faced amid all the international acclaim: “School? I prefer football and baseball.” In the country at the top of the class — just like everywhere else — it seems that the students don’t really like school that much.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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