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By age 14, Finnish children have spent 5,500 hours in class, 2,000 hours less than in Canada. The result: better grades, less anxiety. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Associated Press)
By age 14, Finnish children have spent 5,500 hours in class, 2,000 hours less than in Canada. The result: better grades, less anxiety. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Associated Press)

Why my children were lucky to get accepted to a Finnish school in Qatar Add to ...

I had set my alarm for 2 a.m. the night before and awoke in utter panic. I mentally rechecked the time difference between Toronto and Doha, fumbled for the phone and made the call on which my children’s educational future depended.

“Is this Juha? Juha Repo?” I asked the Finnish man who answered.

“Yes, this is Principal Juha.”

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I launched into the same speech I’d given a dozen others before him: My family is moving to Doha. I am seeking school placement for our daughters. Yes, I realize it is late to enroll. I know, your school probably has a wait list, and my daughters don’t have a hope in hell of getting in. But my children are bright (!) creative (!) gifted even (at least I thought so).

I was one breath short of nominating them for a Nobel Peace Prize when he interrupted: “Actually, you’re one of the first parents to call. We’d be delighted to meet with your girls,” he said.

Two weeks later, my children and I boarded a plane for Doha on a quest to secure them a Nordic education in the Qatari desert.

My daughters have spent most of their lives happily ensconced in Toronto’s west end, a neighbourhood filled with farmers markets and some of the best public schools in the city. But when my husband was offered a job in Doha in Qatar – a tiny Persian Gulf country roughly twice the geographic size of Prince Edward Island – their educational trajectories veered off course.

On one level, this was devastating. Our children – Annie, 7, and Jane, 5 – loved their schools and thrived there. On another level, we were thrilled at our upcoming move to Doha and the opportunity to expose our children to life abroad.

The emirate is a land of superlatives. It sits atop some of the world’s largest gas reserves, has the world’s fastest growing economy and the world’s highest per-capita income.

In the past decade, it has channelled some of its staggering wealth into realizing its outsized ambitions: the World Cup in 2022; a sprawling new airport terminal; a state-of-the-art transit system.

Admissions problems

When it comes to education, Qatar really goes to extremes. Education City, a 14-square-kilometre complex on the outskirts of Doha, wants to be the Ivy League of the region. Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University have all opened satellite campuses there. Doha’s drive to become the Middle East’s hub for education has filtered all the way to the primary-school level.

In theory, we would have our pick of prestigious international schools for our daughters. But as our departure date drew closer, I realized with gnawing horror that we weren’t the only expats seeking school placements. Five hundred new people move to Qatar every day, often with children in tow. Virtually every school I called to inquire about admissions was either full or oversubscribed. Even the Canadian School firmly – but politely – turned us down.

The most sought-after schools were British and American. They also had the most punishing admissions process. One asked for my daughter’s class rank. “She’s in junior kindergarten. She doesn’t have a rank,” I explained in vain. Virtually all of the schools demanded proof of our children‘s academic prowess. They emphasized behavioural discipline, competition and measured learning outcomes.

“Tell them your children are prodigies at math, or that they’ve memorized the periodic table or something,” one mother advised. The insanity of it all was off-putting, to say the least. Jane’s most recent report card stated: “Her understanding of the physical world is an engaging mixture of science, magic and personification.” In most of these schools, I worried her spirit would be suffocated. But the truth was our school options were quickly disappearing.

Then a friend sent me a link to a story from the Doha News announcing a brand new school: The Qatar-Finland International School would admit students five to seven years old. It promised a more progressive approach to education than the British and American systems, modelled on Finnish child-centric education principles.

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