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South Africa vs Finland: Education System Showdown

by Staff Reporter

Finland has a pretty good reputation when it comes to education. So what lessons can we as South Africans take from the Finns to improve our own education system?

The South African and Finnish education systems are extremely different. The current Finnish education system has been in place for the last 40 years and they’ve done it by breaking the education-mold that almost every other education system in the world follows. If it works so well, why aren’t we all doing it?

South Africa vs Finland

Before we try to think about the differences between our education systems, we have to take a look at the differences between the two countries.There are few countries that are more different from one another than these two.

There are many websites that illustrate the differences between countries, such as Find the Data. When comparing Finland to South Africa, the differences between the first and third world become very clear:

  • South Africa is a much bigger country than Finland, with a population of around 55 million. That’s nearly 10 times bigger than Finland’s 5.48 million.
  • South Africa has a lower GDP (gross domestic product) per capita, higher unemployment rate, higher inflation rate and weaker currency.
  • South Africa also has a much higher GINI index, which is a measure of the economic equality in the country. Finland has  GINI index of 27.12, one of the lowest in the world, where South Africa’s GINI index is 63.38 – the highest in the world.
  • We also have a much lower life expectancy and the overall health of our population is much poorer than Finland’s.
  • In Finland, nearly 93% of people use the internet, where in South Africa, only 52% of the population are internet users.

From these statistics alone, it is clear that these countries have very different economies and that we cannot expect the same things from government. Finland is a well-developed country with a thriving economy and very few of the issues that South Africa has to deal with. South Africa has an array of issues to deal with beyond their education system and doesn’t have the same freedom to experiment that Finland has.

The Two Education Systems


The Finnish education system is a little unorthodox, but is still consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. It is broken into six main parts:

  • day care
  • pre-school
  • basic comprehensive school
  • secondary general academic and vocational training
  • higher education
  • adult education

There are no tuition fees at Finnish schools and full time students are served meals that are fully subsidised by the government. Here is a break down of how the schooling system works:

  • Daycare and Pre-school

Early childhood education is considered critical in Finland. Children take part in this preparatory phase of education until age seven. This phase is aimed at instilling a culture of learning, as well as teaching the children vital communication and co-operation skills that the child will use throughout their life. This phase of schooling is not mandatory, but it is still widely used. The education is not formally structured, it rather focuses on teaching the children how to learn.

  • Basic Comprehensive School

These 9 years (from the ages of 7 to 16) of schooling make up the only phase of schooling that is compulsory. Most of the schools are funded by the Finnish government, but there are some private schools which are usually religion-based. Homeschooling is also allowed, but it is uncommon. The state sets curriculum guidelines, but teachers are given a lot of freedom in terms of how they present the work and what learning material they use. During the first few years of school, grading is mostly verbal and informal. The local government decides when the formal assessments will begin. Students are given progress reports twice a year, but they do not write any high-stakes tests (like final exams in SA).

  • Secondary Education

This phase of education is not compulsory. It typically lasts three to four years and students are able to choose whether they receive vocational training or a more academic education. The vocational training is aimed at getting the student occupation-ready, but they can also choose to study further at a polytechnic institute (which is similar to a university of technology). The academic training (or upper academic school) is designed to prepare students for university studies and to pursue professional degrees, such as law, engineering or medicine. People who have studied at vocational school are not limited to studying at a polytechnic school, but may also apply to study at a university and vice versa.

Upon graduation, students from vocational school are awarded a vocational school certificate. Whereas students at academic school receive a secondary school certificate and undergo a matriculation exam.

  • Tertiary Education

Tertiary education is split into two main sections: traditional universities and universities of applied sciences. Traditional universities are more research focused and give a theoretical education, and many of their programmes are combined undergraduate and Masters programmes.

Universities of applied sciences are more focused on producing industry-ready individuals and give an education more focused on the skills needed in the world of work, kind of like universities of technology in SA.

FYI: Finland have decided to change things up by replacing traditional subject learning (i.e. learning physics, math and geography) with “Phenomenon-Based Learning”. 

Basically instead of learning subjects because the system says so, students will choose a modern, real-life topic (phenomenon) to study; with only relevant subjects included to help them excel in that topic. Example: If someone chooses “The African Union” as their field of study, subjects such as economics, languages, geography and history of African countries would make up their learning areas. 

Finland’s plan is to have this approach completely implemented by 2020.

South Africa

The South African education system is controlled by two departments: 

  • The Department of Basic Education (DBE)
  • Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

The DBE controls two bands of basic education. Namely grades 1 to 9 (General Education and Training (GET) phase), and the Further Education and Training (FET) phase. South Africa’s basic education is subsidised by the government, but students from higher income areas are expected to pay some fees if they have the financial means.

  • General Education and Training Phase

The GET phase is further split into three groups: foundation phase, intermediate phase and senior phase. This is the only phase of education that is compulsory for all students. It begins in pre-primary at the age of 6.

  • The foundation phase of education is from pre-primary to grade 3, and this is where students learn basic reading, writing and numeracy skills.
  • The intermediate phase, grades 4 to 6, is when the education becomes slightly more formal. Students are introduced to formal subjects and begin writing exams.
  • The senior phase, or grades 7 to 9, is the final part of compulsory schooling for South Africans. In these grades, students study 10 subjects and are expected to write formal exams in these subjects twice a year. After completing grade 9, most students continue to pursue further education, either by continuing to matric at their high school, or in the form of a vocational qualification.
  • Further Education and Training Phase

This phase consists of two streams: academic and vocational qualifications. If a student chooses the academic stream, (traditionally grades 10 to 12), they will be expected to take seven subjects – four of which are prescribed by the government. The four compulsory subjects are English, a second language, Mathematics or Mathematical Literacy and Life Orientation. The student is then free to choose the remaining three subjects from whatever is available at their school and according to what will be most useful to them in their future. At the end of grade 12, students are expected to write a series of standardised exams in each of their subjects and are awarded a national senior certificate upon passing these exams.

The vocational stream consists of occupation-orientated subjects that will give the students the skills that they need to enter into the workplace. Both of these streams can qualify a student to pursue tertiary education, either at a university or university of technology.

  • Higher Education

SA has a wide range of tertiary institutions, with traditional universities and universities of technology. Traditional universities offer academic and professional degrees, where universities of technology offer vocational diplomas or technical degrees.

To enter into a university to university of technology, a student will need to have received a national senior certificate. On top of this, higher education institutions set other academic requirements that the student must meet.

  • What lessons can we learn from the Finnish education system?

As we can see, the two education systems have a similar structure — a compulsory phase of general education. This is followed by an optional phase during which a student can choose between a vocational or academic stream.

However, the rules of assessment are very different.

In South Africa assessment is more formal, with high-stakes examinations written twice a year, where in Finland’s assessment is more continuous with few high-stakes tests. The problem with the South African education system is not in its structure. The frame is there for South Africa to have a thriving and competitive education system. South Africa’s problem lies in the implementation of the system.

In this regard, there is one vital difference between Finland and South Africa. In Finland, teachers are respected professionals who earn a good salary. One is not allowed to become a teacher without a master’s degree — entrance into an education degree is extremely competitive. In SA, teachers are paid relatively low salaries and most talented students leaving high school are often not keen on the idea of becoming a teacher.

This is where we can learn from Finland. Teachers are the people who mold young students’ minds and have a huge influence on the next generation. They should be treated (and paid) as professionals. This will encourage talented students with a passion for teaching to enter into the education system and give the South African education system the people it needs to become great.

EduConnect 2Cents

If you are interested in making a significant difference in South Africa and have a passion for it, you should definitely consider becoming a teacher. Educating the next generation is the most effective way to have a positive impact on the next generation. If becoming a teacher is an idea that interests you, then take a look at this article.

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