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Is the Finnish school model gaining traction in India?

Seerat Chabba New Delhi
May 23, 2022

With no standardized tests and shorter school days, Finland's school system is sparking debate in India.

Students attend a class in Bangalore following an 18-month closure
The Finnish system emphasizes later start times and more teacher-student interactionImage: Xinhua/picture alliance

Eight-year-old Natasha (name changed) wakes up at 5:30 every morning to make it to school before the bell rings at 7:15 a.m. In order to avoid last-minute school traffic, her parents try to drop her off at 6:45 a.m. Her school day ends at 3:00 p.m., only to be followed by private remedial classes.

Close to no emphasis is placed on physical education or extracurricular activities, as her future will be decided by standardized tests.

Natasha's story is not unique, but it accurately represents the school life led by millions of children across India. Rote learning, centralized syllabuses and standardized testing remain the cornerstones of the country's education system.

But as word of Finland's special approach to education spreads, some Indian schools are looking to improvise and adapt.

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What is the Finnish model of education?

Finland's globally acclaimed model of education relies on common-sense practices and a holistic teaching environment to promote equity over excellence.

In a break from traditional Indian models of education, school in Finland starts later, between the ages of 6 and 7. Schools also start later in the day, usually after 9 a.m. By contrast, Indian children as young as 3 often go to some type of educational institution, and older children may be expected at school as early as 7 a.m.

With no standardized testing, the Finnish school system emphasizes cooperation over competition and encourages more student-teacher interaction.

"The curriculum in Finland is reformed about every 10 years, in line with reports produced by futurologists," Minna Marika Repo, the principal of Finland International School in Pune, Maharashtra state, told DW.

The curriculum also places a greater focus on building skills. "The era of generalized jobs is over, giving rise to an emphasis on specific skills instead of information learned by heart. The focus has moved to competence," explained Repo.

Can it be replicated in India?

Traditionally, Indian classrooms have a few salient features: centrally drawn curriculums, blanket implementation with little room for flexibility and a high-pressure testing environment.

At a young age, children are taught to take standardized tests that prepare them for national level examinations in Grades 10 and 12. With cutoffs for top-ranked colleges exceeding 99% year after year, the spirit of competitiveness is inculcated in the early years of schooling.

However, this system often ignores the divergent capabilities and skills of different students, attempting to apply a one-size-fits-all approach instead.

At the outset, there are glaring differences between the two systems. But experts believe that India offers a base of students ready for a change.

As more educational institutions look to inculcate principles of the Finnish system, Ashish Srivastava's Finland Education Hub is helping them make the transition.

"We want to take the best practices from the Finnish education system and localize them into user-friendly options for the Indian K-12 ecosystem," Srivastava told DW. This involves providing a cultural context and the "necessary alignment" required to adapt these Finnish practices, he said.

In addition to state boards, India largely has four accepted versions of centralized curriculum: the Central Board of Secondary Education and the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, International Baccalaureate and International General Certificate of Secondary Education.

As schools cannot change the curriculum altogether, some are using consultants like the Finland Education Hub to incorporate elements of Finnish techniques into their existing systems.

The Finnish approach , however, has a long way to go in a country where the per capita gross domestic product is currently under $2,000 (€1,877). The top 1% of the Indian population held more than one-fifth of the total national income in 2021, making the yearly fee of Finnish schools — close to $7,000 on average — inaccessible for the majority.

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Starting by shaping younger students

Repo's Finland International School is set to open its doors to students in August. Admitting students only till Grade 4 this year, the school team hopes these children will grow with the school.

"It is easier for students to grow up with us, rather than jump onto a moving train," said Repo. This is mainly attributed to the method of teaching adopted by the school. The change can be challenging for students who have already developed their understanding of how schooling works.

"By admitting younger children and allowing them to grow with the institution, the process of learning is most effective," said Repo.

Ashish Srivastava agrees. "The pre-primary and primary years are the crucial period during which children are most receptive to newer formats," he said.

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Several obstacles to implementation

One of the biggest obstacles to establishing the Finnish education system in India is convincing parents that their children will not be at a disadvantage in the highly competitive environment outside the schools.

While some parents are ready to make the shift to a more sustainable method of learning, others are apprehensive about choosing a model that shifts attention away from standardized testing.

"For our 'Early Years Program,' there are no textbooks, which leads to a lot of resistance from parents," said Srivastava. "We then explain that there are a number of things that children learn beyond textbooks — through activities, by doing, by being outdoors."

The goal is to build skills and competencies in the real world, added Repo.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "the Finnish system shows a clear commitment to the public provision of a quality education which is responsive to local needs."

"The system is highly decentralized and most education-related decisions are taken at the municipal or institutional level, with strong stakeholder participation," said the organization's 2020 education policy outlook for Finland. This allowed the country to perform well above average in reading, mathematics and science on the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, rankings.

Edited by: Leah Carter