Principal Juha Repo defends Finnish school values even when the paying customers are not pleased.
In June 2014, Juha Repo circled the premises of his future school in Doha, and was terrified. The Qatar–Finland International school was due to open in less than three months, and the area was still a construction site.
However, with a speedy final spurt, the first Finnish International school was opened only two weeks later than scheduled.
Initially there were seven classes with the total of 80 children in the school. During the first academic year, the number of students increased to one hundred, the second to 300, and the third to 650.
"In the beginning of this academic year, we have about 750 pupils, and we are full", Principal Juha Repo says. "We are discussing with the local Ministry of Education about expanding the school."
The co-operation school set up by the company Educluster Finland and the government of Qatar has a good reputation. It is the flagship of Finnish education exports in the Gulf area. Delegations from different countries visit the school regularly.
The second Finnish International school is about to open in Muscat, Oman in the fall of 2018.
"All the countries of the Middle East are now undergoing school reforms," Juha Repo says. "Although the fall in oil prices has affected investment, this is still a very potential market for education exports."
Raised by a traditional public, non-profit Finnish school system, Juha Repo has had to learn what it means when education is suddenly a business.
"Our agreement with the Qatar Ministry of Education is not based on business. This is a co-operation project", says Repo. "We work with the ministry. For example, we train some of their employees."
For parents, however, the school appears as a business: they do have to pay for it. Sometimes Repo has to set attitudes straight.
"For some, bringing the children to school is a bit like taking a car to repair shop. It’s like ‘do not call me about my car failures, handle them’”, Repo laughs.
In these situations, Repo needs to remind that education responsibility can not be outsourced, even if the school costs a lot of money. Fathers and mothers have to do a lot themselves.
"Co-operation is the key. We want to engage parents. And yes, they are committed: an attentive and active crowd", Repo says.
Nearly one third of the school’s children are Qatari. Other big groups are Canadians, Americans, British and Spaniards. Finns are also represented by a dozen students. On total, the school has 70 different nationalities.
Repo believes in the Finnish style of speaking directly and honestly, even with people from different cultures.
"Our school communicates the values, ways of action and rules very effectively. We say: this is what we’re offering. It’s okay to walk out of the door, if this isn’t what you want."
The school wants to share the values and ideas about education as well as teaching methods with like-minded families.
"School must preserve its identity. By trying to please everyone, the original idea will be lost."
Repo thinks that the concept of a holistic education is the most important value in the Finnish school system. Academic and art subjects are on the same level.
"Sometimes, for example, parents may want to reduce the teaching of 'the less important' subjects", says Repo. "Then I ask, what are they? 'Well, Music and Visual Arts ...' "
"I always say that in the Finnish curriculum they are just as important as academic subjects, and that they create great skills for life."
In the Qatar-Finland International school many things are learned by playing and doing, instead of sitting at a desk. Children also get two half-hour recesses every day.
"During a recess, kids learn a lot of things they can’t study in a classroom."
The hot weather, however, creates a challenge for outdoor play.
"This is an amazing business idea for Finns: come and build air-conditioned sport halls. They would always be fully booked!"
Achievements are, however, bigger than any kind of challenge.
"Values of the Finnish school system can be adjusted to a wide range of places", says Repo. "Not by copying, but reasonably modifying."
"It is a pleasure to see the children develop; to see the effects of the Finnish education."