A Finnish School for Every Georgian Child!

A Finnish School for Every Child in Georgia!

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Georgia’s national curriculum is remarkably similar in spirit and content to its Finnish equivalent. There is only one “small” problem: Georgia lacks the teaching workforce to make this curriculum a reality. Luckily, a new private sector initiative is underway to build a model Finnish International School and use it as a practical training camp for new Georgian teachers and education sector leaders.

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In 2016-2017, according to the World Economic Forum survey, Finland was ranked the #1 educational system in the world, #1 in primary education, #2 in higher education, and #3 in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in science. To set things in perspective, among 72 countries participating in PISA (2015), Georgia ranked #63 in science. It was not any better in math (#60) and reading (#65).

When Aieti Kukava came into the world in 1971, Finland belonged to a parallel universe on the other side of the Iron Wall. Growing up in Sukhumi, Aieti’s universe had its center in Moscow, and that’s where seven of his cousins have been sent off, eventually going on to become medical doctors. Aieti’s father did not want his three sons to lose their Georgian roots. Thus, all three ended up studying in Tbilisi’s prestigious Public School #51, the go-to place for kids of Georgia’s well-connected families.

Equally quick in math and rugby, Aieti does not have many fond memories from his days at School #51. He was forced to study subjects, such as drawing and chemistry, for which he had no talent. And even his math teacher did not appreciate his independent spirit, treating him in a mean and off-putting manner.

The Tbilisi State University chapter in Aieti’s life left no memories whatsoever. His amnesia could be blamed on severe concussions he suffered as a rugby player. But, more to the point, he hardly attended any lectures. Georgia’s early independence years (1989-1994) were not a time to study Soviet Planning (or, anything else, for that matter).

Rather unexpectedly, Aieti’s educational journey ended in a remarkable way. In 2000, supported by a generous Muskie Fellowship, he landed in Clark University’s MBA program. “Challenge Convention. Change Our World.” reads the university’s slogan. Two years of American MBA education certainly changed Aieti’s world and challenged him to try and change the world outside.

The idea of doing something for the education of Georgia’s future generations has been on Aieti’s mind ever since returning from the US. But, first, he had to establish himself as a businessman. And, second, not being an educator, he had to find the right partners.

The stars aligned in 2016, when Aieti, by then the CEO and owner of Alliance Group Holding, met his namesake Alex Kukava, a San Francisco-based banker. At that time, the hype about Finland’s education system has probably reached its peak. Michael Moore’s “Where To Invade Next”, which came out that year, divulged its biggest secret (or, rather, myth) – no homework! What fascinated Alex and Aieti, however, was the idea of early learning without the stress and (potential) stigma associated with grading.

Alex, whose young children were about to start school, was looking for a way to come back to Georgia with his family. Thus, he had the incentives, and luckily, also a bit of time to explore the concept of Finnish education and find potential partners and consultants.

In September 2017, the two Kukavas went to Finland, visited schools, attended education workshops, met government officials and engaged consultants representing a consortium of more than 200 service providers. The idea of establishing a Finnish International School in Georgia was thus born.

 

A PRIVATE FINNISH SCHOOL???

For about a year, the partners proceeded with their plan to establish a private Finnish International school in the rustic environment of Tbilisi’s upscale suburb in Saguramo. According to the initial blueprint, the School was to operate away from Tbilisi’s pollution, offering healthy, locally-grown food, Finnish school architecture, a modern Finnish, student-centered program of study, and excellent Finland-educated instructors.

The business model underpinning the project borrowed from other private international schools operating in Georgia’s capital. A relatively small student intake (up to 500 students in total); fairly high annual tuition fees (with partial scholarships for kids meeting certain criteria); English as the main language of instruction; a mix of local and international teachers; state-of-the-art facilities and technological solutions; and, last but not least, international (Finnish) certification.

The school was to directly compete for students and teachers in the very tight market of private education for Georgia’s emerging middle class and expat families. Its competitive edge was to rest on its eco-friendly out-of-town location, and the Finnish education brand.

Critics could spot many potential weaknesses in this approach. For example, an out-of-town location could be as much of an asset as a liability. But, even more importantly, the very notion of a private Finnish school is an oxymoron: there is no place for private schools in the Finnish education system. Indeed, the Finns designed their public education system to deliver excellence and equity, and prevent schools from “laundering privilege into qualification” (to paraphrase Walter Benn Michaels’ The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (2007)).

So, how could one square this circle and bring Finnish education to Georgia without losing its very essence?

FINNISH EDUCATION FOR EVERYONE!

Perhaps the greatest surprise awaiting Kimmo Kumpulainen and his team of consultants from Polar Partners was that Georgia’s national curriculum is remarkably similar in spirit and content to its Finnish equivalent. There was only one “small” problem: Georgia’s national curriculum was an exercise in wishful thinking. Georgia absolutely lacked the teaching workforce to make this curriculum a reality.

Kimmo’s visit to Georgia in September 2018 coincided with the Georgian government’s unveiling of a new educational strategy. With the ancient Academy of Ikalto in the background, Georgia’s new Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze and his Minister of Education Mikheil Batiashvili vowed to double and triple teachers’ salaries over 3-5 years, addressing a key bottleneck for any quality improvements in Georgia’s public education system.

This was an Aha! moment for Kimmo, Aieti, Alex and their partners. What if the Finnish school, to be built in Saguramo, is used as a practical training camp new Georgian teachers and education sector leaders? What if it serves as a lab to test international pedagogical approaches and adopt them to the Georgian realities? What if the school’s 7-hectare compound includes a guesthouse and a Finnish-style teacher training facility serving hundreds of aspiring young educators? What if the whole project is restructured as a public-private partnership involving the Georgian and Finnish governments, other international donors and interested private companies?

All of a sudden, everybody felt they are part of a much more important project: to bring Finnish quality education to every child in Georgia.

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There are many ‘urban legends’ about Finnish schools, such as that Finland scrapped traditional subjects or that students have no homework. But, as explained by Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons (2011) and a world-famous education expert, “Finns have not invented any supercharged teaching methods that lead to stellar learning results.”

Instead, Finland invested, and quite heavily, in people. Whereas Georgian school teachers are held in very low esteem (and are very poorly compensated), Finns consider the teaching profession to be in the top 10 among 450 jobs. As a result, Finland can set a very high quality bar for the teaching profession: a master’s degree issued by one of the research universities.

Additionally, Finland’s education policy has a strong focus on securing equal opportunities for all children, and making sure they all do well at school. At the national level, this means that kids growing in Helsinki get more or less the same deal as those growing in a remote provincial community. At the school level, the emphasis on equity translates into balanced curricula reflecting the fact that children have different, academic and non-academic talents. Thus, Finnish schools give arts, sports, music, manual skills, and other non-academic areas the same importance as traditional school subjects.

Combined with an effort to address special needs, this approach helps make sure that no child is left behind while giving everybody the opportunity to discover their unique talents, gain in confidence and excel. Quite unlike Aieti Kukava’s experience at Georgia’s elite public school #51.

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If you happen to hold a glass of wine in your hand, this is the time to raise it to those great teachers and educators who appreciate our differences, and know how to get the best out of each and every one of us!

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