Posted by: Principal/Editor | November 7, 2013

Empowered Education Systems – Finland and South Korea

What can other countries learn from the top two education systems in the world?

Finland and South Korea are two very distinct countries – in terms of demography, culture and economics but they share the same limelight when it comes to their education systems because of their continuous dominance as the best school systems in the world.

They both consistently top the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams (run by OECD – Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), which evaluates students worldwide on their Reading, Math and Science abilities. Both countries feel that education is THE instrument to steer their country towards economic growth and development, and they have both overhauled their schools to an equal-opportunity system promising to educate every child regardless of their social, economic or cultural status.

This article aims to critically examine both these education systems from the point of view of their similarities and differences in order to document best practices that could work for other countries.

Similarities in funding, role of teachers and parent & community participation

Active government role in funding: As per the Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB), funding responsibilities in Finland are divided between the federal and municipal governments with the federal government assuming about 57% of the financial burden of schools and municipal authorities assuming the remaining 43%. There are very few private schools and those that exist are granted the same government funds as public schools and are required to use the same admissions standards and provide the same services as public schools [1].In South Korea school funding is very centralized, with local school systems deriving 80% of their revenue from the central Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) budget. The local systems are also funded to a much smaller degree through revenue transferred from local governing bodies, internal assets, locally issued bonds, school admission fees and tuition[2].

Focus on role of teachers: Teachers play a very important role in the success of the education system. In Finland teachers are selected from the top ten percent of university graduates and are given an opportunity to earn a master’s degree in education before they can teach and compete, as the competition for these spots is fierce. Out of 6,600 applicants, only 600 were admitted to the program in 2010 [3]. The teachers are given the autonomy to prepare their own curriculum, which includes art and music as well, and are empowered to make the right choice for their students. The scene in South Korea is also very competitive. Only 5% of hopefuls are accepted into the elementary school teacher-training program[4]. Teachers enjoy high social status, are paid very well and have great job security. This is one of the reasons why this profession is most revered in both the countries.

Parent and community participation: In Finland, parents are expected to take an active interest in their child’s performance, and teachers are held accountable to community standards and values. The level of participation of parents can range from dropping their children to school (Finnish schools do not normally have a school bus system) to volunteering at school events to sitting on the school board (each school’s board requires the participation of five parents)[5]. Like Finland, South Korea also welcomes and values the participation of the parents in their child’s education. There is a parent group, which the parents can access to liaise between parents and school. MEST has unveiled initiatives to expand parents’ role in their child’s education. These initiatives ranges from school monitoring programs, in which parents can get a clear sense of what is happening in their child’s school, to parents’ training programs and support centers.

The above three similarities between Finland and South Korea point towards a potential list of three pre-requisites that every school system must put in place in order to elevate its stature at a global level – (i) Centralized and well governed funding mechanism, (ii) Focus on quality teachers and (iii) Active community and parent participation.

But then the question arises, do these prerequisites mean that they will work in every environment, in every country for every system. To examine this, let’s look at the things that make Finland and South Korea different

Differences in funding, role of teachers and parent and community participation

Study time: The students in South Korea invest lot of their time studying both inside and outside the classroom. They are in the school from 9am to 5pm and then attend additional classes in the night. Additionally they are also given lot of homework. The only breaks Korean kids get is the 10 minutes they have to shuffle between classes[6]. In Finland, the students spend only an average of 5 hours in school. Additionally, children get a 75minute recess per day to play. They have very little or no homework, which gives the child enough time to be with family, friends and also spend time on other activities that the child is interested in[7]

Academic pressure: The students, parents and teachers are all equally under pressure to get good grades. For the South Koreans they perceive education as an important instrument to secure their future. Everything from their social status to their marriage prospects to their job depends on education. Parents spend all their savings in educating their children and this puts immense pressure on the children to get good grades. In Finland it’s a relatively easier view as the students and teachers care more about learning than grades[8]. The teachers prepare their children for life and not just to get good grades.

Testing: The students in South Korea are subjected to massive, high pressured standardized test to secure a place at each level of education be it primary secondary or college[9]. Unlike South Korea, Finland has only one standardized test in their academic career at the age of 16. They are more oriented towards learning and understanding than towards marking and evaluating. The students are evaluated through the course and a positive feedback is given to the students to promote learning.

Use of Technology: South Korea is a world leader in integrating technology in the classrooms. They topped PISA’s digital literacy test in 2009. Every school in South Korea has access to high-speed Internet. They also have digital textbooks to make learning materials more accessible, especially to lower income students. The MEST has also created a Cyber Home Learning System, an online program designed to help students with their after-school learning[10]. In Finland, students spend majority of their time in the “real” world. They often take their studies out of the classroom and into the outdoors. Technology adoption is growing but is not considered a pre-requisite for good quality education [11].

The above examples indicate marked differences in values and implementation between the two countries – and yet they have similarly successful education systems. It can hence be inferred that if the foundation for education is established properly with appropriate funding, empowerment of teachers and involvement of parents, success can be achieved in diverse societies.

What else can other countries learn from these two powerful education systems?

Having researched various sources for this article and conversed with a few friends from these countries, this is how I summarize my key takeaways about what other school systems can adopt:

•Respect teachers for their service to the community and the youths of the country at large by rewarding them with incentives to choose teaching as a profession.

•Give teachers the training and the autonomy to do the best for the child.

•Reconsider standardized testing and adopt continual assessment through positive feedback.

•Promote equal and standard education for all children irrespective of their social and economic background.

•Encourage children to take part in extra curricula activities in school and relieve them of the intense pressure subjected on them through standardized tests, additional tutoring and home works.

•Integrate technology in the classroom to promote e –learning but keep a good blend of real world learning.

•Government to paly an active role in funding the schools through subsidized programs to provide quality education for all.

The above are some peripheral takeaways, but my key argument is the need for three key pillars in establishing a sound education system – (i) appropriate funding, (ii) empowered teachers and (iii) involved parents.


[1] Center on International Education Benchmarking. “Finland system and school organization.” Available from (accessed November 5, 2009).

[2] Center on International Education Benchmarking. “South Korea system and school organization.” Available from (accesses November 5, 2009)

[3] Dalporto, Deva. “Finland’s A+ schools.” Available from (accesses November 5, 2009)

[4] Dalporto, Deva. “South Korea’s school success.” Available from (accesses November 5, 2009)

[5] Ibid, “Finland system and school organization.”

[6] Dalporto, “South Korea’s school success.”

[7] Dalporto, “Finland’s A+ schools.”

[8] Dalporto, “Finland’s A+ schools.”

[9] Dalporto, “South Korea’s school success.”

[10] Dalporto, “South Korea’s school success.”

[11] Dalporto, “Finland’s A+ schools.”

Posted by Sindhya


  1. I thought another important difference between the two systems may be the size of the schools and the class sizes. In Finland, it is easy for the Principals and the teachers to know every child a the schools are small. When the sizes of the schools and the classes are much larger, it will matter, especially when it comes to the pedagogical approaches adopted by the teachers. Student-centric approaches are easier to apply to small class sizes, in my opinion.

    I was also intrigued by the learning attitude adopted by the Finns, after hearing so much from friends who know them. This passion to learn is instilled in them for life. Not having high stake examinations allows both teachers and students to focus on the true spirit of learning and turns assessment into one for learning or as learning, but not of learning and thus learning is a fun and enjoyable experience for teachers and students. Teachers are highly regarded by the society and given the autonomy to design the curriculum to cater to their students’ needs but I am also curious how teachers there are being appraised and whether their pursuit for teaching excellence stems from mainly intrinsic motivation.

  2. View of Finnish teachers versus view of Pasi Sahlberg
    Oxford- Prof. Jennifer Chung ( AN INVESTIGATION OF REASONS FOR FINLAND’S SUCCESS IN PISA (University of Oxford 2008).
    “Many of the teachers mentioned the converse of the great strength of Finnish education (= de grote aandacht voor kinderen met leerproblemen) as the great weakness. Jukka S. (BM) believes that school does not provide enough challenges for intelligent students: “I think my only concern is that we give lots of support to those pupils who are underachievers, and we don’t give that much to the brightest pupils. I find it a problem, since I think, for the future of a whole nation, those pupils who are really the stars should be supported, given some more challenges, given some more difficulty in their exercises and so on. To not just spend their time here but to make some effort and have the idea to become something, no matter what field you are choosing, you must not only be talented like they are, but work hard. That is needed. “
    Pia (EL) feels that the schools do not motivate very intelligent students to work. She thinks the schools should provide more challenges for the academically talented students. In fact, she thinks the current school system in Finland does not provide well for its students. Mixed-ability classrooms, she feels, are worse than the previous selective system: “ I think this school is for nobody. That is my private opinion. Actually I think so, because when you have all these people at mixed levels in your class, then you have to concentrate on the ones who need the most help, of course. Those who are really good, they get lazy. “
    Pia believes these students become bored and lazy, and float through school with no study skills. Jonny (EM) describes how comprehensive education places the academically gifted at a disadvantage: “We have lost a great possibility when we don’t have the segregated levels of math and natural sciences… That should be once again taken back and started with. The good talents are now torturing themselves with not very interesting education and teaching in classes that aren’t for their best.
    Pia (EL) finds the PISA frenzy about Finland amusing, since she believes the schools have declined in recent years: “I think [the attention] is quite funny because school isn’t as good as it used to be … I used to be proud of being a teacher and proud of this school, but I can’t say I ’m proud any more.”
    Aino (BS) states that the evenness and equality of the education system has a “dark side.” Teaching to the “middle student” in a class of heterogeneous ability bores the gifted students, who commonly do not perform well in school. Maarit (DMS) finds teaching heterogeneous classrooms very difficult. She admits that dividing the students into ability levels would make the teaching easier, but worries that it may affect the self-esteem of the weaker worse than a more egalitarian system Similarly, Terttu (FMS) thinks that the class size is a detriment to the students’ learning. Even though Finnish schools have relatively small class sizes, she thinks that a group of twenty is too large, since she does not have time for all of the students: “You don’t have enough time for everyone … All children have to be in the same class. That is not so nice. You have the better pupils. I can’t give them as much as I want. You have to go so slowly in the classroom.” Curiously, Jukka E. (DL) thinks that the special education students need more support and the education system needs to improve in that area.
    Miikka (FL) describes how he will give extra work to students who want to have more academic challenges, but admits that “they can get quite good grades, excellent grades, by doing nothing actually, or very little.” Miikka (FL) describes discussion in educational circles about creating schools and universities for academically talented students: 3 Everyone has the same chances…One problem is that it can be too easy for talented students. There has been now discussion in Finland if there should be schools and universities for talented students… I think it will happen, but I don’t know if it is good, but it will happen, I think so. I am also afraid there will be private schools again in Finland in the future … [There] will be more rich people and more poor people, and then will come so [many] problems in comprehensive schools that some day quite soon … parents will demand that we should have private schools again, and that is quite sad.

    Linda (AL), however, feels the love of reading has declined in the younger generation, as they tend to gravitate more to video games and television. Miikka (FL), also a teacher of mother tongue, also cites a decline in reading interest and an increase of video game and computer play. Saij a (BL) agrees. As a teacher of Finnish, she feels that she has difficulty motivating her students to learn: “I think my subject is not the … easiest one to teach. They don’t read so much, newspapers or novels.” Her students, especially the boys, do not like their assignments in Finnish language. She also thinks the respect for teachers has declined in this past generation. Miikka (FL) also thinks his students do not respect their teachers: “They don’t respect the teachers. They respect them very little … I think it has changed a lot in recent years. In Helsinki, it was actually earlier. When I came here six years ago, I thought this was heaven. I thought it was incredible, how the children were like that after Helsinki, but now I think it is the same.
    Linda (AL) notes deficiency in the amount of time available for subjects. With more time, she would implement more creative activities, such as speech and drama, into her lessons. Saij a (BL) also thinks that her students need more arts subjects like drama and art. She worries that they consider mathematics as the only important subject. Shefeels countries such as Sweden, Norway, and England have better arts programs than in Finnish schools. Arts subjects, according to Saij a, help the students get to know themselves. Maarit (DMS), a Finnish-speaker, thinks that schools need to spend more time cultivating social skills.

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