Why The Finnish Education System Works.

I’ve previously written about my admiration for the Finnish education system.

I just finished reading Cleverlands, a book by a London teacher, Lucy Crehan. Lucy decided to visit five countries with top-notch education systems: Finland, Japan, Singapore, China and Canada – spent time there with teachers and tried to understand what it was about the culture, the education system, the philosophy and the approach that have allowed for these nations to be amongst the top for quality of education.

Upon reading this very informative and thought-provoking book, I revisited the topic of Finland’s education policy and thought it’d be useful to share some pertinent details.

Start of formal education

Formal education in Finland only starts at the age of seven, significantly later than in most other countries.

The late start of formal education has had no impact on the competency attainment in literacy, maths or science by the time Finnish children turn 15. Finland still ranks amongst the top nations in the PISA rankings.

Before the children turn seven in Finland, quality time is spent on creating the right conditions that support the children’s holistic growth and development. There is a predominant focus on the development of social skills, positive self-affirmation, reflection on right and wrong and creating the basis for much more positive interaction with their peers.

This emphasis on holistic development before they start school has allowed for Finnish students to rank amongst the top of their peers globally despite starting formal school later than in most countries. This is further supported by a generally high staff to student ratio and where the teaching and support staff are all highly trained and qualified professionals.

Free compulsory and comprehensive education

Finland also runs a free comprehensive education system for all children for the first nine years of their formal education (from seven to sixteen).

All of the children are trained to the same curriculum during their time at comprehensive schools.

In their first few years in their comprehensive schools, children with additional or special needs are identified early by their teachers. These students are then given greater support and guidance with teachers who are equipped with the right training and skill sets. These children may then be placed in smaller classes where they are given greater bespoke support and guidance by teachers. Beyond this though, there is no further ‘streaming’ or classification of students into different ability groupings and the children remain in class together till the age of fifteen/sixteen.

Despite the relatively late start of formal education (from the age of seven), Finland not only has one of the highest ratings of their children’s performance in international education rankings, it also achieves one of the top scores in terms of equality across students – where the gap between the best and worst performing students is narrow.

Another important aspect of Finnish education at the comprehensive school level is that schools have a multi-disciplinary approach to children’s development. All schools or clusters of schools in each area have a support team including a nurse, dentist, speech therapist, psychologist and counsellor. This child welfare support team form the base support for all schools where each child’s progression is considered.

This approach to education has a significant investment outlay. However, the Finnish attitude to this is that it is much most costly (and wasteful) when any Finn is excluded from active society due to a poor start during their schooling years.

As Ilpo Salonen, Executive Superintendent of Basic Education in Finland (in an interview to Crehan) says, “When we are five million (population-wise), we cannot afford to drop anyone.”

Empowering the teachers who are educating the youth of the nation

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to year for the vast and endless sea.”

Anotine de Saint-Exupéry

The Finnish approach to the development of their teachers is a fundamental underpinning of the Finnish education system

There is a significant emphasis on teacher training. All aspiring teachers need to first go through a rigorous and robust training programme, to Masters level, at one of eight prestigious Finnish universities.

Here, the teachers are all deeply immersed in understanding the pedagogy and educational approach towards a nationally coordinated curriculum.

Following this rigorous training programme, in their initial years, they observe senior teachers and have a programme of mentoring that help them further develop and refine their skills.

They are subsequently given greater autonomy when they are in schools (there are no lesson observations, no school inspections for example), and have the freedom to grade students to the age of fifteen (when they are in comprehensive schools) and even have the freedom to choose their own books for children!

This autonomy and trust provided to the teachers provides them with greater motivation and passion. In return for the trust shown to them, the teachers have a very disciplined approach to continuous professional development, where they spend time each year to learn new concepts and best-practices in teaching.

This Finnish approach of providing all teachers with the mastery in the art and science of education and teaching, creating a peer community of teachers, continuous training and respecting them by providing them with greater autonomy has reaped significant benefits for the education of children in Finland.

The power of culture

One cannot underplay the role culture plays in ensuring the overall approach to a high-performing education system.

In the case of Finland, the educational framework has a thoroughly egalitarian approach – where both vocational and academic pathways, post the basic comprehensive education phase, are deemed to be equal.

Children are also reinforced with positive affirmation and motivation rather than be shepherded early only in their childhood towards educational pathways which they may not necessarily understand.

The Finnish traditions also consider teaching to be a highly respected profession (despite the average pay) and hence the teachers who join the profession are intrinsically motivated and are committed to delivering public value through their custodial responsibilities of their nation’s youth.

For long stretches of their history, Finland and her people have been ruled by various colonial powers and were subjugated as second-class citizens. From the onset of independence, the Finnish people were determined to ensure they would never again be second-class and education was seen as an important lever to enhance themselves and their sense of self.

Finland remains a model of education for educators and regulators everywhere and has much for us all to learn from.

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The Wheels Are Off – the Italian Referendum Results

The majority of Italians have voted against the constitutional reforms proposed in a national referendum and Italian Premier Matteo Renzi’s “experience of government” is now over as he steps down.

The Italian economy has been like a Ferrari with its wheels slashed – its economic performance has been the worst amongst any of the Eurozone country with the exception of Greece; it’s government loans sit at 130% of GDP and unemployment exceeds 11%.

This failure of the referendum is now akin to the Ferrari with its wheels completely off the axle – and the casualties won’t just be the Italians in the Ferrari but indeed the whole of the Eurozone.

Early indicators are that the Euro has fallen sharply against the Dollar and the Asian markets are spooked by what is to come from Europe.

What does this result mean for Italy, Europe and the world?

1. Brace for a hard landing of the banking sector.

We could see the demise of a few banks in Italy, starting with the Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) – the world’s oldest bank – which has already lost almost 90% of its value this year. MPS is already one of Europe’s weakest banks and they are subject to a bailout plan which may now not come to fruition.

Italian banks are struggling with about €360 billion of bad loans and are significantly undercapitalised. There will be a huge sell-off of Italian and European banking stock once the markets open.

The problem is that the scale of interconnectedness means that a hit to the Italian banking system will leave a trail of destruction across the rest of the European and global banking sector starting with the largest European lenders such as Deutsche Bank.

2. The EU and Euro are both going to go through an existentialist phase

Brexit dealt a big blow to the EU project. The rise of the Five Star Movement, a Eurosceptic opposition which has already claimed ‘victory’ in this referendum means that over time their views on EU and the Euro are going to gain even further traction. Even if the Five Star Movement do not win in any early elections called as a result of this referendum (they have a campaign promise to hold another referendum on Italy’s membership within the EU), their views are going to be, over time, become mainstream.

3. Imposition of capital controls?

In 2015 we saw capital controls applied in Greece to stop a run on the banking system and see a flood of capital out of the country. A run on the Italian banking sector will have a colossal impact and a pre-emptive series of capital controls, though damaging from a reputational perspective, may be required for reasons of survival.

4. An Italian sneeze will cause an European contagion.

This result will no doubt cause another slump in the Eurozone economy and will cause a negative investment sentiment. Unemployment will continue rising and living standards will fall, not just in Italy but across Europe.

The people have spoken and have demonstrated a willingness to face a hard landing. Whether they are prepared for a hard reset is another matter altogether and this is going to be the start of a period of extreme uncertainty, economic uncertainty and hardship.

What Italy needs now is an expert driver who is going to be able to manouvere the Ferrari with no wheels skillfully so that it causes the least damage both to the Ferrari’s passengers and other Eurozone travellers.

 

 

 

Seven beneficiaries of UK’s Brexit

Following the  proxy class war that was the EU referendum, I was reflecting on who I think will be some of the beneficiaries of UK’s Leave or Brexit result besides the obvious parties like the Leave campaigners and Boris Johnson.

As a slight aside my personal view is that the root cause of this result is inequality which has led to a disenfranchised populace that is reacting against the increasing economic marginalisation an increasing majority of citizenry are facing. Even the issues of migration are being amplified against this backdrop of growing economic inequality. This is one of THE policy challenges of our time. Resolve this huge issue of rising economic inequality and I suspect we will find in it the panacea to a large number of other issues we are facing.

So on to who I suspect will be benefiting from this:

  1. Scottish independence campaigners – The will of the Scottish people is reflected in the results – they want to remain in the EU. During the last independence referendum, there was a clear statement that any exit from the EU by the UK may trigger another call for independence. Whilst 2014’s independence referendum was deemed a once in a generation campaign, I suspect the result of the 24th of June 2016 may bring forward the next independence referendum to as soon as the next two years.
  2. The United Irish brigade / and IrelandSinn Fein have been quick off the mark to argue their case for a union of the Northern Irish with the Republic of Ireland. Similar to the Scots, the Northern Irish were also in favour of remaining with the EU and there is a case for them to argue for independence and fulfil the long-held dreams and aspirations of Irish nationalists.

    Any push towards reunification will also lead to the levels of investment and pump-priming of both Irish economies leading to further growth. Furthermore, in the near term, I suspect some of the investment meant for the UK may be diverted to Ireland, particularly in the financial services and outsourcing sectors.

  3. First time home buyers – With the expected fall in asset prices, it may finally become easier for people trying to get onto the property ladder. Furthermore, a reduction in immigration will also dampen demand for housing and rental yields, leading to more affordable homes. It is also widely expected that the Bank of England will not be hiking rates any time soon to carry on fostering demand as well, making the overall cost of home ownership more affordable.
  4. Lawyers and accountants – Over the next two years, as major UK enterprises and companies seek to understand their legal, tax and financial planning positions vis-à-vis the EU, they will rely on an army of lawyers and accountants to make sense of their obligations and required strategies to maximise profit and minimise liabilities (legal and financial).
  5. Management consultants – I am fairly sure BCG, McKinsey, Booz (PwC), and other management consultants heard a loud ker-ching of cash registers going off collectively as they seek to become the ‘experts’ in EU law and supporting both the public sector (particularly as they become overnight subject matter experts in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that governs EU exit) and private enterprises as they help organisations make sense of what Brexit means for them (by first asking them what it means for them and then re-writing it into 100 PowerPoint slides and charging them a fortune for it…).
  6. Trump’s policy advisors and US isolationist/protectionist campaigners – The Donald will point to UK’s EU referendum results to his domestic base and use it as an argument about why his protectionist and isolationist policies are for the best and will help “Make America Great Again (TM).” It could also be a powerful argument against the likely Democrats’ positions about open economies and trade reforms.
  7. UK exporters – At least in the short to medium term, as there is a downward rebalance of the UK Sterling, I suspect it will help improve UK’s exporters (particularly seeing as 50% of UK’s 15 export partners in volume are outside the EU). However, it has to be also noted that UK’s net deficit is roughly £300 billion and given the higher level of imports, it is also likely there will be a strong inflationary pressure with little monetary tools or options at the Bank of England’s disposal.

The tragedy of the Sinti and Roma

I have been reflecting over the last few months over the persecution and murders of defenceless Yazidis and Christians in ISIS-controlled territory; over the rising intolerance towards minorities in India; Islamophobic political commentary being delivered by far right segments of the political spectrum, be they in Europe or in North America. The age of immediate transmission of wanton murders, genocide and hateful rhetoric has a multiplier effect in terms of how the news is consumed and acted upon.

I was in Berlin last week and as I made my way towards the Reichstag (or the German Parliament) from the Brandenburg Gate, I walked past an unassuming little garden with a small plaque that read, “Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe murdered under the National Socialist (Nazi) regime.”

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Entrance to the Memorial to the Sinta and Roma of Europe at Tiergarten, Berlin.

Against the backdrop of a haunting violin music played by Romeo Franz, a German Sinti, I learnt about the fate of the Sinti and the Roma people, who were part of the “gypsy” community that was systematically murdered by the Nazis.

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A reflection of the German Reichstag upon the Memorial pool.

A brief history of the Sinta and Roma.

The Sinti and Roma people have lived in Europe for over six hundred years and are believed to have travelled from India through Iran. Their languages are rooted in Sanskrit but have lived a nomadic lifestyle in Europe and were commonly referred to as gypsies. They also generally had slightly darker coloured skin, hair and eyes.

The gypsies identified themselves by the various groups they belonged to, including the Sinti, Roma, Lallere, Lovari or Manouche. The Sinti and Roma were the largest groups and numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

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Roma boys in the Warsaw ghetto (1941)

The Sinta and Roma people were indeed persecuted even before the National Socialists took over. They were singled out and discriminated by not only the Germans, but indeed across Europe for centuries.

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The triangular stone in the centre of the pool symbolises the badges that were work by the concentration camp prisoners. The stone is retractable and fresh flowers are placed upon it daily.

 

 The Nazi atrocities

The Nazis however took the persecution to a horrific level and it was a very steep descent into hell for the Sinti and the Roma.

As part of their racist and puritan ideologies, they sought the active annihilation of these minorities as they were considered racially inferior. These poor and defenceless people were first subject to internment, then forced sterilisation and were all subject to forced labour. Men, women and children were seized and taken away or murdered in their hometowns, ghettos or concentration camps or killing centres.

A decree was issued in 1936, as part of the Nuremberg laws on race and citizenship, where the gypsies and Jewish people were formally defined as “Alien Races” and were forbidden to marry, have children and excluded from most professions and jobs.

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Senta and Sonja Birkenfelder, deported from Ludwigshafen to Poland in 1940 with other Sinta and Roma children (Photo probably taken in the Radom Ghetto in 1941)

Two years later, over 2000 Sinti and Roma people were taken away to various concentration camps across the country as the Chief of the German Police, Heinrich Himmler, sought the “final solution to the Gypsy question.”  In 1940, entire families were deported from Germany to occupied Poland and to various other concentration camps. In the camps, they were all required to wear an armband bearing the letter, ‘Z’ which stood for ‘Zigeuner’ or ‘gypsy’ in German.

 

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Lodz Ghetto 1941/42: Assembly point at Krawiecka Street. Waiting for transport, probably to the Chelmno (Kulmhof) extermination camp. (Photo from the Jewish Memorial in Berlin)

The systematic mass murder of the Roma started in occupied Soviet Union in 1942 by a mobile killing unit (or ‘Einsatzgruppe’of the Security Police and Security Services of the SS). More were gassed to death in specially equipped vans at the Kulmhof killing centres.

More forced mass deportations of the gypsies from across Europe to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Thousands died due to hunger, disease or horrific cruelty by the Nazis.

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Warsaw Ghetto, August 1941 (Photo from the Jewish Memorial, Berlin)

It is estimated that as many as 500,000 people identified as ‘gypsies’ were murdered under the Nazi regime. There is no way of ever determining the final number.

Reflections

The memorial site was a source of immense pain, solitude and remembrance.

As I reflected on the atrocities meted out to these poor people, whose only crimes were that they were born into a different creed and caste, I thought about the people of our times going through the same horrors. A truly strong society looks after its most vulnerable and helpless, not oppress them further.

Particularly over the last couple of years, I have been getting increasingly worried about the rise of far-right extremism across the spectrum. The savagery exhibited by terrorist death cults such as the IS is well-known. However, to see politicians such as Donald Trump voice out hateful ideology is frightening. In Singapore, an ex-nominated member of parliament, Calvin Cheng, suggested all children of terrorists ought to be killed along with their parents, as a preventative measure.

It is already terrible that there has always remained within the fringes of society, a segment that feeds off hate and rancour. These groups of lunatics have either been outlawed or are regularly derided. To see this same hate and extremism enter its ugly head into the mainstream is tragic and has the potential to rupture the very delicate fabric of our society.

Humanity as a whole cannot afford to let this state of affairs continue. Lest we think that it is improbable that the world will witness another genocidal event, it is worth remembering the words of Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor:

Each and every one of us, whether we be Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Hindus Buddhist, Bahais or atheists, has a responsibility for the safety, fair-treatment and dignity y our fellow women, men and children, regardless of their beliefs, customs or creed.

I pray that the light of our collective humanity overcomes the darkness of hate that some attempt to it hit on us all.

Below is a poem by an Italian Roma, Santino Spinelli at this most poignant of memorials which conveys more eloquently than I ever could, the sentiments I felt at the memorial.

 

 

Sunken in face

extinguished eyes

cold lips

silence

a torn heart

without breath

without words

no tears

 

 

 

Greece – Defiance in the wake of economic and policy waterboarding

The events overnight in Brussels have been nothing short of what can only be considered as a brutal attack against the Greek government and its people.

Watching the images of the embattled Tspiras and Tsakalotos, the new Greek Finance Minister, struggling in meetings with Merkel and the rest of Europe’s leadership, while doing their best by the people who elected them and also gave them a clear ‘No’ vote last weekend, was painful.

However, despite the struggles, I cannot but feel a deep respect for the Greek government who are trying valiantly to hold things together in the face of such steadfast adversity.

Germany and a raft of other nations are demanding that Greece pass a whole series of legislative reforms in the next 72 hours before they extend any credit lines. Some of the bills being demanded include:

  • VAT reforms
  • Changing the pension system
  • Implement spending cuts
  • Increasing the tax base
  • Establishing greater independence for the national statistics office
  • Privatising the electrical grid.
  • Return of the ECB, IMF and the European Commission to Athens

How this is meant to all be realistically debated, agreed and passed by the Greek Parliament in 72 hours is ludicrous. In essence, a gun is being held to Athen’s head and a series of demands are being made which, if not met, will lead to an economic and social collapse in the country. In circumstances such as these, what options do the Greeks really have?

Privatising national assets worth €50B

Amidst these changes, there is also a plan by the European Commission to privatise €50B worth of Greek national assets and use it as a trust to pay off their debt! Again, this is an example of a country that’s down being crushed in an absolute and merciless manner.

This call towards privatisation is worrying. If all basic services are privatised, who is going to buy over these national services and run them? The Greek people, already suffering from a 25% contraction of their economy over the last few years, massive unemployment and falling pensions, will be dealt with possibly higher prices and debt! How is this going to realistically alleviate the conditions of the Greeks?

The word ‘Europe’ is Greek

Where is the famed European solidarity? The European experiment was meant to be a showcase of unified achievement, progress and development. It was meant to highlight how Europe, as a whole, is greater than the sum of all its parts. However, tonight’s events have hardly been a ringing endorsement.

To their credit, Hollande and Dragi have been fighting Greece’s cause and maintain a united Europe, but it is a fight they are surely losing.

The IMF is also seeking to replace the Tspiras government with one that is more likely to carry out the painful reforms which are being demanded of Greece. If this does happen, it does make a shambles of the whole notion of democracy, ironically, in the birthplace of democracy as we know it!

What hope of espousing the values of democracy, fair-play and justice to the rest of the world which will see this and realise that in the end, the might of economic power will trample over the notions of decency and support every time.

It is no coincidence that #ThisIsACoup is trending on Twitter right now.

Supporting social mobility – a lesson from Croatia

Our friends in Croatia undertook an interesting experiment, codenamed, “Fresh Start,” a couple of months ago in February 2015. They decided to write off the debt of 60,000 of Croatia’s poorest citizens. This debt write-off was a one-time move by a leftist government (incidentally a government that faces a key election and one can therefore take a cynical view that this is merely an election ploy but I’ve chosen to focus on the wider social/economic benefits this initiative can provide).

“Fresh Start” was essentially a programme that was designed to help the poorest and most vulnerable citizens cope with an economic crisis for which they had little or no responsibility.

The initiative in brief:

Croats whose debts do not exceed 35,000 Croat Kuna (or 4,800 Euros) and whose bank accounts have been frozen for over a year can apply under the scheme to have their total debts written off.

Under the plan, only those with a monthly income in the last three months that did not exceed 2,500 kuna (340 Euros) are eligible.

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