Finnish-style play-based learning to provide alternative to Gulf’s hothouse education scene
DUBAI: Finland’s school operators are capitalizing on the country’s reputation for educational excellence by establishing a foothold in the Middle East.
The Finnish approach to education is grounded in the idea of providing schools with autonomy and support and giving teachers freedom to choose how they go about their work.
It represents a stark contrast to more rigid US and British curriculum schools in the region where many expatriates send their children.
“We don’t really want to compare the Finnish education with other systems,” said Jouni Kangasniemi, program director of Education Finland, in an interview with Arab News. “But it has one of the best education systems in the world and we are ready to share our ‘secrets’ openly. Finnish expertise is one of the late-comers in the market … and it is well worth exploring what kind of alternatives we have to offer. Education systems in most countries rely heavily on standardized testing and inspections. In Finland, we do not believe – nor need standardized heavy testing or school inspectors to supervise the quality of instruction.” he added.
Among the Finnish educational system’s key features is a national pre-primary curriculum that is focused on holistic, play-based learning and skills development.
“Our teachers are professionals of learning sciences and focus on helping every child flourish. The education methods are improved continuously. There is a lot of innovation happening in all our schools every day. Students learn and are happy to go to school at the same time,” said Kangasniemi.
Students start first grade education at seven-years-old compared with six for the American system and even younger for the British system where children have entered school by the time they are five.
“It is a very odd situation in an international comparison – as in many countries learning outcomes are good, but students are very stressed and tired of long school days,” Kangasniemi said.
The initial successes of Finnish schools and education providers which have established a foothold in the region do not mask the challenges they face.
Omnia Education Partnerships CEO Mervi Jansson recalls an entrepreneurial course it conducted for 130 Saudi high school students, most of whom had aspirations of careers with national oil company Aramco.
“They used to think entrepreneurship was only for those who failed university,” Jansson said. “We took the Finnish competencies and built this into a course suitable for Saudi Arabia, we localized it. We taught the Saudi teachers, we supported them and they taught the course in their own schools.”
“I think Saudi Arabia needs to look at their education strategy in terms of lifelong learning, in terms of how to provide upskilling and reskilling for a large variety of population but also to see what kind of program they should offer to the youth that is more interesting.”
Jansson was nonetheless heartened by the positive feedback from Saudi education officials and hoped the course would be “expanded into 100 Saudi schools,” plus a potential partnership in the UAE.
Meanwhile Finnish Global Education Solutions is starting the first early childhood education center in the MENA region, CEO Antti Kaskinen told Arab News.
“We cannot yet officially divulge which country it is because we want the Finnish and host country’s ministers of education to meet first, and make the partnership official,” Kaskinen said.
“We are also looking into schools and teachers’ education in Saudi Arabia. We are holding ongoing negotiations [at an early stage] and met in December concerning this. It looks quite good … by the end of this year we will have something,” Kaskinen added.
Helsinki International Schools and its Saudi partner EduGuide for Education and Training, meanwhile, signed two new agreements to open three Finnish-based schools in the Kingdom – one in Riyadh this year, and one each in Jeddah and Dammam by the end of 2021.
Other Finnish education companies are looking forward to open in the region despite tough competition, and which Education Finland’s Kangasniemi said the Nordic government is actively involved in.
“An important part of our work is to maintain a constructive dialogue between the decision makers and ministries of education both in the Gulf and in Finland, aside from providing training on cultural and business aspects in the Gulf markets,” he said.