South Africa takes ‘valuable lessons’ on education best practice from Finland

South Africa takes ‘valuable lessons’ on education best practice from Finland
Finnish education minister Li Andersson. (Photo: Alet Pretorius)

A ‘best practice’ education system is the foundation for the European country’s economic success and its ranking as the world’s happiest place. Now Finnish experts are coming to share their insights.

In the face of future challenges and changing labour markets, global society cannot afford to lose sight of the importance of a strong and equal education system. Countries need politicians who see education as an investment, not simply an expenditure.

This is the view of Finnish education minister Li Andersson, who spoke to DM168 during a recent official visit to South Africa. She described education as the foundation of economic success and happiness levels in Finland, which topped the World Happiness Report’s ranking for the fifth year running in 2022.

“Out of all the things you can do in government, my number-one wish was to be the minister of education, because I think… Finland is a very inspiring example of how important education can be for a society,” said Andersson. “It can create societies – not only transform them, but really can create them.”

Andersson’s official visit to South Africa between 1o and 12 October was aimed at deepening Finnish-South African cooperation in education through the launch of a new partnership between the two education ministries, focused on teacher training and early childhood development.

“Especially when it comes to early childhood education and care, already in 2021 there was this bilateral dialogue between our countries for sharing expertise and… experiences,” said Andersson. “Now we are taking it one step further… through the Finnish agency, the Finnish Centre of Expertise in Education and Development [FinCEED].

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“Through FinCEED we’ll be able to have Finnish experts participate in long- or short-term projects here, sharing their expertise on early childhood education and care, especially in… the quality assurance system and… the development of curricula.”

The Finnish system is an example of “best practice”, according to Basic Education Department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga, and the South African education sector aimed to extract “valuable lessons” from the partnership.

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The department took over the early childhood development function from the Department of Social Development on 1 April 2022, so “all the support that can be derived immediately is welcome”.

“From time to time there is a need to exchange information, and with change having taken place regarding [the department] and the [early childhood development] function, it becomes necessary to brief each other as countries in a partnership.”

Crucial shift

In Finland, early childhood education and care services were transferred from the social affairs and health ministry to the education and culture ministry in 2013. This has been an important step in developing these services, according to Andersson.

“In Finland, we’ve seen quite a fast increase in participation in early childhood education and care, which I think has to do with the fact that after [it] was moved on under the ministry of education, we have started to talk about it differently,” she explained.

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“It’s not a social service for the parents – it is a right of the children, and it’s part of their educational path.”

At the level of early childhood education and care, teaching is largely focused on the development of areas such as socio-emotional and language skills, rather than skills such as maths or reading, she said.

“Many researchers that do educational research in Finland… emphasise the importance of the early years. We have been investing more… during this government term in our services [for early childhood education].”

Where the money goes

The budget for the administration under the Finnish education ministry was €7.4-billion in 2022, out of a total government budget of €64.8-billion, according to Liisa-Maija Harju, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Finland in South Africa. This equates to about R130.9-billion.

The ministry’s mandate covers a number of areas, including early childhood education and care, education, research, arts and culture, copyright, sport, youth work, libraries and religious affairs.

The 2022 medium-term expenditure framework budget allocation for South Africa’s Basic Education Department was R29.6-billion, according to Minister Angie Motshekga’s adjusted budget vote speech for the 2022/23 financial year.

“I always talk about the need to invest more in education, but actually, if you look, Finland has never been the biggest spender on education. So, we do not spend the most, but… that’s also why it’s important to think about what you put money in,” said Andersson.

“Investing, for example, in teachers’ education… is a very good investment in education, policy-wise. I think you will get the biggest return in terms of learning outcomes, focusing on that.”

The role of teachers

Finland invests a lot of money in in-profession training for teachers, so that they continue learning and developing their approach to teaching while working, according to Andersson.

“The role of teachers is absolutely one thing that I talk a lot about with my international colleagues… investing in teacher training, investing in teachers being able to train in schools while they are studying to become teachers, and also investing in in-profession training,” she said.

A decentralised education system means there is significant power at municipal and even school level in Finland. Principals and teachers have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to teaching methods and assessment.

“They do their own curricula based on the national core curriculum, and for this to work for us, it means cooperation,” said Andersson. “We have, for example, a teachers education forum where the ministry participates and the teachers union participates and the universities participate, and then we have a dialogue together around… how we want to develop teachers’ education.”

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Andersson emphasised that it is not possible to simply “copy” features of education policy from one context to another. Rather, there is a need to evaluate how principles are applied across different societies.

About the value of cooperation and shared expertise between the South African Education Department and those of other countries, Mhlanga said: “South Africa operates in a global environment where cooperation between countries is… [a] need. It is… to ensure that children from our country are equipped with the skills necessary to study and work anywhere in the world, as global citizens.

“The nature of international relations requires that we learn from each other. Nobody knows everything, so education is a lifelong journey.” DM/MC

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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