The leader of Al Raqiah School, Eija Valanne, wishes to provide teachers with more freedom and children with more recesses.
Text: Laura Kaapro
This time of the year darkness lies over Eija Valanne’s home town, Rovaniemi, and the ground is covered with snow. But here in Al Ain, garden greens in the school principal’s backyard.
Neither the palm trees nor the sunshine were reasons enough, though, to leave Finnish Lapland behind. Valanne wanted to put the Finnish style of schooling into practice in a completely different culture.
Seven years ago, ADEC (Abu Dhabi Education Council) and the Finnish education export company EduCluster Finland established a partnership program.
This EPA programme was introduced to create a pedagogical fusion combining both the Abu Dhabi and Finnish experience, leading to the creation of world-class flagship schools in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
Valanne became interested in the principal role of the Al Ain school. At that time she was working as the principal of Training School of the University of Lapland.
After being accepted, Valanne started leading a girls’ school in Al Ain in 2010. In the UAE government schools, boys and girls are usually educated separately for cultural reasons.
However, with the strong support from ADEC, Valanne’s school opened its doors to male students in 2014, and started developing a coeducational model.
Today, Valanne is the principal of Al Raqiah School with 700 Emirati primary school female and male students.
"Economically, it makes sense not to separate girls and boys," says Valanne. "The biggest advantage, of course, is to find a natural way to interact with one another, and to achieve gender equality in education and upbringing."
The UAE is now strongly renewing and improving its school system. ADEC seeks to replace the old-fashioned teacher-led system with more child-centered methods.
The new curriculum consolidates best-regarded practices of foreign school systems with latest educational trends and pedagogical views.
There has been a lot to take in, for Valanne and other Finnish school teachers in the UAE.
"It is sometimes very hard to keep up with this rapid pace of change," Valanne laughs.
The everyday life at school is busy, too. Al Ain pupils spend seven hours at school daily, whereas in Finland the length of a school day is 4–6 hours. Finnish children have a 15-minutes recess after every 45-minutes lesson. Here, students go out to play only once during the day.
"If we had been able to bring the Finnish system here, we would have reduced the length of school days and added recesses," says Valanne.
Another great difference between the Finnish and the Emirates school culture is the implementation of curriculum.
"In Finland, teachers have the freedom to individually decide about teaching methods; for example which tools and materials they want to use", says Valanne. "In this country the school organization is developing, and of course it is understandable that everyone follows the same structure for now."
Valanne hopes that after twenty years or so Emirati teachers will be able to organize teaching as they wish.
However, says Valanne, it would be wise to upgrade teachers’ education to Master's degree level. Today, students only perform a bachelor's degree.
"In Finland, teacher’s education is very strong. That’s why the system there can lean on trust in a completely different way."
Nevertheless, Valanne is usually very satisfied with the Emirati student teachers that conduct their internship period at Al Raqiah School.
"I would have loved to recruit the young woman that graduated from our school last spring."
Valanne came to the United Arab Emirates not only to teach but also to learn. She’s impressed with the way gifted children are offered opportunities in this country.
"In Finland we don’t really emphasize talent. I wonder if we should reflect and debate more on that issue", says Valanne.
The UAE supports talents and builds up ambition by national competitions. Prizes are often certificates, and even money. Success in competitions is often an advantage when applying to universities and jobs.
"Especially girls compete well, and that empowers them significantly. Today, there are more Emirati women than men studying at universities."
Many of Valanne’s school students nowadays indicate a desire to grow up to be a teacher.
"Few say they just want to get married and have children. That was in fact the most popular vision a few years ago", says Valanne. "Becoming a teacher is something that Finnish kids dream about, too. They see success in their teachers."
In Valanne’s opinion this is the main task of school: to have the children to open their eyes and ignite in them the desire to do something meaningful in their life.
"In a fusion school children start to see the world from a broader perspective," Valanne says. "They also develop an enthusiasm for travelling and seeing the world."