Management and administrative structures in education in Finland and in Singapore


A comparative look

This article compares similarities and differences in two national systems both of which have produced excellent results in international comparisons.

  • Introduction
  • Comparative visions and social covenant
  • Singapore and Finland, similarities and differences
  • National educational organizations and management models
  • Drivers of success and view on the future of learning
  • Approach to evaluation. Measuring school performance and attainment of learning objectives
  • Education as potential export industry
  • Challenges and improvement priorities
  • Conclusions
  • Sources and credits


Finland and Singapore are miles apart, but despite many differences there are great many similarities as well. Both countries have in recent years topped several international comparisons in the field of education. This article will examine possible drivers of apparent and measurable success from the point of view of administrative structures and education management in these two countries. The aim is to identify some of the factors that have led to good results and to examine how the education management structures could have contributed to the results. In recent PISA surveys Finland and Singapore have held top positions in reading, writing and mathematical skills. Both countries have also been well placed in the World Economic Forum competitiveness reports (2008 – 2009 and 2010 – 2011).

Comparative visions and social covenant

The goal of both countries and both educational systems is good education that will ensure continued success and prosperity of the country and will contribute to the well being of its citizens.

It would be justified to say that both countries also ultimately want to create a business model around education related services. In Singapore plans are drafted to make education the next industry. In Finland some efforts have been made to transform the educational model and innovations into exportable expertise and know-how.

The countries differ from each other culturally, politically and economically in many ways yet they both have produced outstanding results in international comparisons. These outstanding results have been achieved starting from two different management systems. Some lessons can be learned and some conclusions can be drawn from comparing these two systems.

Singapore and Finland, similarities and differences

Singapore was chosen as an object for a comparative study (VTT, see sources below) for several reasons. There are important similarities that make the comparison interesting. The population of Singapore is equal to that of Finland (about 5 million). In the World Economic Forum’s education system ranking, both countries are extremely well placed. The educational system in both countries has been considered exemplary.
There is also a valid letter of intent (1997) on cooperation in education and training of between these two countries. Singapore has prospered with know-how in spite of a lack of important natural resources. This is true for modern Finland as well.

The two countries also differ from each other in important ways. They are culturally, sociologically and administratively very different. The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index paints a very different picture of these two countries. The steering mechanisms and mechanisms for public participation are obviously very different.

Singapore is much smaller than Finland (about 2/10 of 1% of Finland’s landmass). Consequently the number of schools in Singapore is radically smaller than that of Finland. Singapore is served by 350 schools (employing 29,000 teachers), whereas Finland has 4,000 schools (employing 40,000 teachers). For obvious geographical reasons Finland has a vast network of schools that covers the entire country and some of the schools are very small.

The educational spending in Singapore in 2008 was around 1000 USD per capita and in Finland it was reported to be 1,900 USD per capita. Singapore uses about one-fifth of total budget on public education. Finland spends about 12 % of the budget on education. Due to complexities and differences in structures it is possible that these figures are not directly comparable. Both countries value education highly and invest in it, but in international comparison the expenditure is not extraordinarily high. ( Tähän: OECD figures / comparisons / educational spending per student)

The Finnish educational system is the key to the country’s successes. It is a relatively new system created over the last generation by an act of will. The director general of the National Board of Education 1972 – 1992, Erkki Aho, believed that reforming the conservative and divisive educational system and guaranteeing access to quality education for all would create a more fair society and provide equal opportunity. Finland now has a 9 year basic education after which the students choose the upper secondary or pursue vocational interests in other educational institutions. Further studies in universities are accessible to students after graduating either from upper secondary or from a vocational school.

The key to the reform was good teacher training. Teaching has always been a well regarded profession in Finland and currently there are approximately 10 applicants for each place in the universities that train teachers.

The ambitious objectives of the Singaporean Ministry of Education are clear. It states the the wealth of a nation lies in its people. Part of the mission statement reads: “The mission of the Education Service is to shape the future of the nation, by shaping the people who will determine the future of the nation. The Service will provide our children a balanced and well-rounded education, develop them to their full potential, and nurture them into good citizens, conscious of their responsibilities toward family, society and country.”

The school system in Singapore is divided in primary (grades 1 – 6) and secondary (grades 1 – 4) followed by post-secondary education i.e. college or university (usually four years). Singapore describes itself as a meritocracy, a society where the citizen’s own merit is a guarantee of success. A 5-year Master Plan1 for promotion of ICT use in schools also emphasizes improved teacher training and increased appreciation for the teaching profession as well as increased autonomy for individual schools. The goal is to encourage teachers to be creative in teaching and learning. Teacher training in Singapore is centralized and the responsibility rests with the National Teacher Training Institute which operates under the Nanyang Technical University. About 2000 new teachers are graduated each year all of whom can usually find work. This may be a sign that the turnover rate in the teaching profession is quite high.

National educational organizations and management models

The job of the Ministry of Education, the highest education authority in Singapore, is to monitor and improve basic education.  All regulation and development of activities as well as direct funding are the responsibility of the ministry.  State funded primary and secondary schools operate directly under the ministry, although all operational decisions are made in schools.

The basic education in Singapore is divided into four districts (north, south, east, west) and inside these areas there are clusters within which schools co-operate. The ministry’s centralized procurement entity takes care of most purchasing. This is mostly organized through framework contracts from preselected suppliers. However, the schools are not required to use the central procurement function and they can manage their own purchasing. All operational decisions are made in schools.

The decision making and management structures in Finland are far more decentralized than in Singapore. The Ministry of Education and Culture is responsible for strategic policies and legislation concerning education, allocates budget resources and is responsible for branch performance and information management. The ministry implements the government program and prepares laws. The ministry can issue decisions, orders and instructions, but is not directly involved in organization of education on local level. Regional government agencies are responsible for evaluation of all basic services, including education.

The Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) is a future oriented development- and service agency. Its role is to guarantee good conditions for quality education. The Board fulfills its responsibility by establishing the criteria for the curriculum and by developing education and training through a variety of projects, including further education for teachers. The board also assesses learning outcomes, coordinates information services for education and produces indicators for forecasting.

Municipalities have the operational responsibility for organizing education on local level. The municipal educational administration acts as an operational unit and has the responsibility for financing, procurement and organising support functions for local schools. In each community the municipal educational administration can organize procurement independently without steering from the state. Municipalities also engage in local planning and development work for the education within the community. Within the allocated budget resources individual schools and teams of teachers make decisions concerning learning materials and other issues affecting pedagogy and daily life at school. Municipal self-governance guarantees a relatively free hand in organizing basic education, which is their legal obligation.

In short it can be concluded that the Finnish basic education system is decentralized in various functions while the system in Singapore is highly centralized. The Singapore Ministry of Education employs approximately 2700 people. In Finland the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Board of Education together employ around 640 people, However, in addition to that municipalities in Finland employ a large number of staff for organization of education.

Drivers of success and view on the future of learning

One of the most important strengths of the Finnish PISA success is an effective selection mechanism for teacher training and their relatively good starting salary. Teachers in Finland are professional and highly motivated. The variance between schools is also relatively low. An additional explanation for the success is efficient support- and special education, which guarantees weaker pupils’ learning.

The main points in the Finnish government policy are to develop the quality of the education and to prevent and mitigate the social exclusion of children and adolescents. In order to achieve this it is important to reduce group sizes in both remedial and special education and increase guidance counseling and to strengthen pastoral care and increase cooperation between the parents and the school. Private and third sector service providers will have more opportunities to to produce afternoon activities. It is important to keep local schools alive and enable school attendance across municipal boundaries. The status of art- and skill subjects needs to be elevated and the goal is to increase the number of different options in these subjects. Access to a wide range of language programs in schools is also considered important. The starting point for organization of basic education is the comprehensive school (primary and secondary school) and basic education organized by municipalities, which is complemented by private schools.

There are several initiatives and a lot of ongoing research both locally and on national level concerning the future of learning. The Ministry of Education and Culture work group published in 2010 a vision “Information society development in education 2020 “. According to this document Finnish educational institutions will be progressive users of IT where skilled teaching staff and motivated students use modern and eco-efficient ICT to support their studies. There are flexible services in place to promote life long learning and interaction between education and the rest of the society and working life is rich and transparent. These ambitious goals need resources to anchor them in real life.

Singapore has a clear vision and strategy to become a great power in education.
The plan is to enhance use of information technology with five- year implementation programs, increase school autonomy and increase the degree of freedom and creativity in teaching and learning, develop teacher training, increase the appreciation of teachers for example by giving out national recognitions such as the Presidential Award granted to a teacher as well as several community awards that are sponsored by large companies. They also want to improve cooperation between schools, homes and businesses.

The current vision for education in Singapore dates back to 1997 and is largely based on the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation”- vision. The core of it is to teach less and learn more, engage learners and prepare them for life. It puts the child in the center and challenges teachers to remember why they teach, reflect on what they teach and reconsider how they teach.

In Singapore it is understood that pure knowledge-based learning, whether it is computerized or traditional, is not the only necessary skill in the future society. Building creativity has been recognized as lacking in Singapore’s school system. The vision addresses this shortcoming. It is acknowledged that development of the other brain half is also needed and as a result for example sports and arts education is being increased. This is important for creative problem-solving ability in addition to the emphasis on knowledge. The Ministry of Education establishes the framework for the curriculum within which the schools can write their own curricula according to their own specific needs and objectives.

Approach to evaluation. Measuring school performance and attainment of learning objectives

The school evaluation system used in Singapore is derived from the business world and has aroused an intense debate and attracted criticism, because in the world of business quality directly serves business goals. Evaluation is mainly carried out as a self-assessment by school management and there is a system of rewards in place. A rough ranking list is public, although a detailed placement list is not published and ranking of basic education is not done at all.

The Finnish National Board of Education is responsible for the overall development of basic education and carries out surveys and organizes questionnaires for a variety of ad hoc projects. The Board could take a more active role in building a quality control- and measurement system. Careful testing of a possible quality control system is needed so that these comparisons and findings would serve long term planning and school development instead of becoming a crude and socially divisive ranking.  Evaluation and performance control in the Finnish context must be thought through with care bearing in mind that the operational authority rests not with the government agencies, but with the municipalities. The principles for quality management where more attention is paid to the process than the outcome could be more useful.

It can be added that the Finnish media has in recent years published an annual list of all high schools ranked by average results the school’s students achieved in the national matriculation examinations. These tables are based on information that is made available by the Matriculation Examination Board, but they do not represent any official ranking and are not a result of any comprehensive study concerning the overall quality of  the schools.

Education as potential export industry

Singapore aims to be number one in education, teaching and learning. This benefits the nation as a whole and helps make education the next big industry. When referring to higher education the term university business is often used.

The Finnish school system could be an export product. Know-how has probably one of the highest value-add of all commodities so export should be in the interest of the national economy. There is a lot of competence and a number of interesting businesses in all areas of education that have potential internationally. Businesses, government and state-owned companies could set up joint export companies that sell Finnish know-how to the world market. Main segments of the business could be mandates from development banks and nation states. Alongside with the competence, export of learning materials, equipment, software and systems would be possible. Unless there is a strong corporate interest the National Board of Education or other government agencies could take on the coordination and leadership of these export efforts.

Challenges and improvement priorities

The role of the administration has certainly played a role in the success of the school systems, although it cannot be considered extremely decisive, not at least based on the examined material. The extra value produced by the administrations value chain can be more clearly seen and interpreted in the structure in Singapore when moving along the chain towards the schools. Judging the effects of the administration in the Finnish multi-tier governance is more difficult.

  • Finnish municipal administration for basic education has apparently succeeded quite well in its task to create a good framework for the basic education despite the cost pressures. Finnish decentralized model gives much freedom to municipalities, schools and teachers. This can at best be a “source of creativity,” if the quality of teaching and learning are adequately taken care of. The ultimate quality is created on the spot – not controlled solely from the top. The best and most important quality guarantee is a good teacher and a good school.
  • The core values for Finnish education as stated by The National Board of Education: human rights, equality, democracy, natural diversity and viability, acceptance of multiculturalism, sense of community, accountability and respect for individual rights and freedoms do not appear in a larger number of documents and they are not presented in a very striking form. This should be a long term national effort, not a separate issue for each government. It can also be asked if the value base has any real impact on performance management? Implementation remains open ended because the link to the operational units in Finland is fairly weak.
  • The Singapore Ministry of Education clearly takes a leading role in the long-term planning of school development and its implementation and supervision. In Finland the strategic grip of the ministry or the central administration is not very results-oriented. Various visions concerning the future of the education and promotion of the information society have been drawn up, but the official mandate of the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Board of Education limits them to an administrative role. Strategic planning and the visionary end states are mainly written in administrative language, which has given them a slightly bland feel. The municipalities act autonomously and take operative responsibility within the guidelines set up by the Ministry and the Board of Education. As a result the actual supervision and the implementation of the lofty visions on the grass roots level in Finland seems to be lacking.
  • In Finland clearly more attention could be paid to incentives and awards with which excellence in teaching would be highlighted and rewarded. In Finland the teacher of the year award is granted by the Teachers’ Union whereas in Singapore he awards are presented by the president, which is a guarantee for extensive media coverage. The awards could be sponsored by IT companies and given out for creative use of  IT in learning, bearing in mind that involvement of corporations in the schools requires some rules.
  • The marketing of Singapore’s education system has clearly been systematic, starting with scientific visibility (numerous articles on education reform, objectives and results) and ending in diverse public acknowledgements (including awards granted by the president and corporations).  The international profile of the world class Finnish basic education could be raised and promoted. The concept of the Finnish school could strengthen the Finnish brand. Building the export concept has to be the responsibility of and in the interest of some entity. Finnish companies are often small or medium-sized and export is not their main goal. Unless there is no leader for the project on the corporate side, the Board of Education, for example, could take on the role.


Clearly both management systems have their merits and also their downsides.

Singapore’s highly controlled and centrally directed system ensures speedy and fairly efficient implementation of visions and decisions. Uniform evaluation and control mechanisms can be drafted and assessments can be easily executed. The drawback of a system that is based on compliance with regulations given from above is that it requires very little problem solving and creativity. It does not encourage independent thought, allow for agile reactions or attention to local differences. The main issue becomes adherence to given rules and guidelines. When schools in a system like this are evaluated and inspected undoubtedly most of them will pass. But if they have just “ticked the box” in order to get a stamp of approval it is possible that they have performed in a suboptimal way as a learning organization and possibly failed their core responsibility towards the learners. Singaporean authorities are now leaning towards more autonomy for individual schools and more independence in teaching and learning inside the schools. This is a welcome attempt to allow more plurality and creativity in education.

The Finnish system is more self-managing and it is based on trust. The central governance and guidance are comparatively loosely connected to the operational units. The assumption is that the operational units, the municipal educational administration and the schools within its domain honor the legal framework and have the best interest of the inhabitants at heart. The trust and the concept of self-management in this system has to penetrate the whole chain of actors in education all the way to the individual teacher whose professionalism is respected and trusted. The teacher is a valued part of this chain, not a mere deliverer of prearranged and assigned materials and knowledge, but an independent professional whose ability to create, guide the learning process and engage the learners with a variety of methods is respected and held in high regard.

Implementation of centrally agreed visions, core values and evaluation in a decentralized system is more complicated and less uniform than a strongly centralized system. In a geographically vast but relatively small society this system has worked relatively well because of the general consensus, shared values of the importance of education and the professional and committed teachers.

Regardless of the management and the governance of education it is essential to keep close touch with the practical work in schools and the everyday life at school. The purpose must be visions and strategies that position the learner, teacher and the school in relation to the surrounding reality. The administration is there only to serve education and its future goals.

All educational systems, if they are learning organizations in the truest sense of the word, can learn a lot  from each other.

Sources and credits

This article is based on a comparative study titled Basic education in Singapore and in Finland. IT vision and strategy of basic education in Singapore  –  benchmarking and comparison with Finland written by Pekka Leviäkangas, Chief Scientist, VTT, Raine Hautala, Senior Research Scientist, VTT, Allan Schneitz, teacher, City of Kauniainen, Lim Hock Chye, Head of the Trade Representation, Finpro, Singapore. Interviews at the Singapore Ministry of education and with other professionals in the service of the educations as well as visits to Clementi Town Secondary School an Ahmad Ibrahim Primary School during a  study visit to Singapore were a valuable part of  the study. Method used was mainly qualitative and heuristic based on researchers’ assessment of the data and the interviews. The interpretations represented in this article are strictly the authors’ own and generated by the study.

Sirkku Nikamaa-Berg


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