When it comes to providing a quality education, money isn’t everything.
But one country is showing that providing a quality education is about much more than money.
That country? Finland.
About 5% of Finland’s gross domestic product (GDP) is spent on education, lower than neighboring Norway and Sweden, as well as other countries such as South Korea, Brazil, and Colombia.
That comes out to just over $10,000 per student, which is right about average for an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country.
Nevertheless, Finland has put together one of the most respected education systems in the world because of two simple reasons: focusing on teachers and focusing on students.
Read More: 10 Barriers to Education Around the World
Education is one of the best ways to eliminate extreme poverty. Increasing access to education can lead to stronger economies, reduced inequalities, and even spark climate action — three of the most important Global Goals for Sustainable Development, a set of 17 principles for ending extreme poverty by 2030.
While the connection between increasing access to quality education and eliminating poverty couldn’t be clearer, the means of providing a quality education to all students is not always so obvious.
Finland’s innovative approaches to education include reducing standardized testing, improving equity across the spectrum, and supporting teachers. Here are seven reasons Finland may be the best country in the world for education:
1/ They start late
Although the Finnish school day starts around the same time as it does in any other country, the same thing can’t be said about elementary school.
In Finland, students do not begin formal schooling until they’re 7 years old. Instead they spend ages 3-6 in preschool, and because preschool is required by law in Finland, this means that 97% of students aged three to six are enrolled in school.
In comparison, only four out of ten US 4-year-olds were enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs, according to the Department of Education.
According to the World Health Organization, increasing access to early childhood development can positively impact life expectancy, improve health indicators, and lead to economic security later in life.
2/ All children are included, regardless of ability
“Every child has special needs,” Janet English, a former Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program winner, wrote in a 2014 essay on the “secrets” of Finnish education.
According to English, the Finns have “designed an educational system to optimize learning for every child, regardless of a student’s educational needs.”
All Finnish schools have a full-time special education teacher who works part-time with about 23% of students, as well as a group of staff that meet bi-weekly to discuss students’ comportment in class, which includes the principal, the school nurse, the special education teacher, the school psychologist, a social worker and the classroom teachers.
3/ Teachers are treated like royalty
According to multiple sources, Finnish teachers are some of the best treated around the world. Not only are Finnish teachers paid more money than American ones on average, they also work nearly half as many hours.
In the classroom, teachers are free from inspections — and have been since the 1990s — and are not required to prepare students for standardized testing, giving them more flexibility to teach students the lessons they deem appropriate, The Guardian reports.
That said, becoming a teacher in Finland is a quite competitive process, with only 7% of applicants accepted to the country’s top teaching program in Helsinki in 2015.
4/ Fewer tests
Finnish students only have to take one standardized test throughout their adolescence, and it’s not graded by a computer, but by educators themselves.
Called the National Matriculation Examination, the exam is taken at age 16, and topics “span across subject areas and often require multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills,” The Washington Post reports.
Taking the focus off of testing and putting it on learning has had positive developmental effects on students, including critical thinking skills, without taking a toll on Finnish students’ abilities to fare well on the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is given across 40 developed countries, according to Smithsonian.
5/ More recess
Finnish schools mandate that all primary school students have 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of class. According to a study by Stanford researchers, increasing time spent out of the classroom actually has the effect of creating a positive learning environment for all students.
“Positive school climate has been linked to a host of favorable student outcomes, from attendance to achievement,” the researchers found.
On top of their plentiful recess time, Finnish students kids are also not overburdened with homework after school,spending about one-third as much time on after-school homework activities, on average.
6/ It’s the most equitable school system in the world
There are no private schools, and students of different abilities are not separated into educational levels in class, The Independent reports.
This has given Finland the distinction of being the most equitable school system in the world, with the smallest gap between its lowest- and highest-achieving pupils, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.
“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 Smithsonian’s LynNell Hancock wrote.
7/ They mind the gender gap
Where many developing countries have big gender gaps between male and female students when it comes to science education, with male students generally achieving higher in this field, Finland is bucking the trend.
In fact, according to the OECD, Finland is the only developed country where girls are outpacing boys in science scores overall and where the majority of top-performing science students are girls, as well.
Educators in Finland attribute this to the country’s generous maternity leave policies, gender equality policies across the board, and guidelines for ensuring female representation in science.
Cheers to Finland!