2010–2023 Writings
by Michelle Margaret Fajkus

The Best Education in the World?

Written in


Both Cuba and Finland have created effective educational systems based upon the simple idea that every child would have free access to a good public school. In both cases, this idea and its implementation came out of an urgent need to for the nation to survive and thrive, economically, politically and culturally.

Schooling in Cuba and Finland is evolving yet maintaining focused on lifelong learning that provides quality, free education from preschool to post-graduate studies as well as informal adult learning.

cubaIn Cuba, education is required for children from the ages of 6 to 16. In Finland, compulsory schooling takes place from ages 7 to 16. In both countries, students attend primary school for six years, after which they proceed to high school. Both Cuban and Finnish teachers are highly qualified and respected. A majority of Cuba’s 150,000 teachers have a minimum of five years of higher education; about half have a master’s degree. All teachers in Finland are required to have a master’s degree.

When the Cuban Revolution brought the rule of Fidel Castro, the education system in Cuba became 100% government-subsidized, enabling all Cuban students to attend school for free. This has helped enable Cuba to achieve universal literacy.

Castro stipulated that anyone who received this free education would have to actively promote government policies. As Cuba became officially socialist, children were taught to follow the Marxist tenet of combining work and study. This was achieved through widespread school and community gardening and agricultural cultivation efforts.

According to a 2014 World Bank report, Cuba has the best education system in Latin American and the Caribbean and has achieved great success in the fields of education and health, with social services that exceed those of most developing countries. The three main factors that have allowed Cuba’s education system to perform so well are: 1) continuity in education strategies, 2) sustained high investment in education, and 3) a comprehensive and carefully structured system. According to UNESCO, Cuba spends a generous 10 percent of its central budget on education, compared with 4 percent in the United Kingdom and 2 percent in the United States.

The Cuban school system makes every effort to reach all students, regardless of where they live or whether they have special learning differences that require extra support and services. Distance education is available for students in Cuba to study for a professional career and obtain a degree in history, law, finance and accounting, economics, science, and technology. “Mobile teachers” are even deployed to homes for children who are unable to come to school.

Of course, Cuba’s education system is not free from problems. Many teachers are leaving the classroom in favor of jobs in higher-paying industries such as tourism. The government still has much control over its citizens who wish to enter into higher education. Before they are allowed to take the university entrance examinations, students require clearance from the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Those with a “poor” political standing may be blacklisted from furthering their education.

Despite the December 2014 agreement between the United States and Cuba, the Cuban government is unlikely to release its monopoly on education materials and its control of the curriculum. Informal opinion polls report that Cubans support the free public-education system developed under the revolution.

finlandOver in northern Europe, the transformation of the Finnish education system began in 1963, when Parliament chose public education as a key part of their economic recovery plan as they emerged from decades of Soviet influence. Most children left public school after six years. Only the privileged and fortunate were able to receive a quality education.

Finnish educators didn’t realize how successful their efforts had been until the early twenty-first century, when standardized test scores put them at or near the top ranking globally in reading, math and science. Schooling in Finland began making more headlines after the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman contrasted it with dysfunctional public schools in the United States.

There are no required standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of high school. There are no rankings or competition between students, schools or regions. As in Cuba, Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of highly trained educators. Because teachers are required to have master’s degrees, Finnish teachers enjoy equal professional and societal status as doctors and lawyers.

“The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

According to a publication produced by the Finnish Board of Education entitled “Finnish Education in a Nutshell,” educational autonomy is high at all levels. Education providers are responsible for practical teaching arrangements as well as the effectiveness and quality of education. There are no regulations governing class size and the education providers and schools are free to determine how to group pupils; local authorities determine how much autonomy is passed on to schools. In addition, the report avows that every child has a subjective right to attend early childhood education.

All 6-year-olds have the right to participate in pre-primary education; it is free and voluntary for children, but municipalities are required to provide pre-primary education. Finally, the report affirms the value and importance of teachers, stating that teachers are recognized as keys to quality in education, therefore continuous attention is paid to both their pre-service and continuing education.

Finland continues to adapt and evolve its education system to the needs of modern society. They are moving away from the traditional subject and toward a more integral method of teaching by topic. Subject-specific lessons on isolated subjects like history, geography, math, and science are already being phased out in Helsinki’s upper schools and being replaced by “phenomenon teaching,” which means teaching by topic, e.g. a “food services” lessons, integrating elements of math, language arts, writing skills and communication skills or a project on the European Union merging elements of economics, history, languages and geography.

How do the systems in Cuba and Finland compare to the one in your country?

What makes for an ideal education system?

How is public schooling evolving to become more effective for learners? (Or is it?)

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