Don't feel too jealous of Finland's education system...

17th July 2015 at 01:00
Teachers face unpaid summers on short-term contracts

Finland is lauded by education experts around the world for the high status it gives its teachers, so you wouldn't have thought that those working in the country's classrooms had much to complain about.

But, as the end of the summer term arrives in the UK and British teachers' minds turn to holidays and a well-earned rest, spare a thought for educators in the home of sauna and Sibelius - many of them will spend the summer unemployed.

Finnish schools are increasingly saving money by hiring teachers on 10-month contracts and reemploying them when the new school year starts in August, a practice known as "furloughing". In addition, some teachers simply find that their contracts are not renewed at all and senior management is under no obligation to explain why.

According to Mika Visnen, an economist with the leading Finnish teachers' trade union the OAJ, 4,200 qualified teachers were unemployed in Finland in any given month in 2014.

However, in the summer months that number almost doubled to 7,300, reflecting a summer without pay for many Finnish teaching staff. All of these would be among the 20 per cent of teachers in Finland who are on annually renewable contracts.

`There is no security'

Leena Makel had taught at the Oulu International School in the north of the country for nine years when she was told that she was being dismissed "just six days before the end of term".

"It meant I had no time to apply for other work and there was no time in the school year for people to react," she said.

Ms Makel felt the system allowed senior management to "control the staff". "You have to be quiet otherwise your position might be in jeopardy," she said. "It's an awful situation. It's very stressful, there is no security. At the end of every year you wonder, `Do I have a position?' "

According to Ms Makel, almost nobody at her school had a permanent contract when she worked there.

The situation for a 34-year-old female primary school teacher in Kokkola on Finland's west coast is less severe but still has a profound impact on her life. She did not want to give her name as she feared that speaking publicly could affect her chances of obtaining a permanent contract. A qualified teacher since 2007, she has survived on a series of fixed positions, including covering maternity leave. Her most recent contract ends on 31 July with a new one commencing on 10 August (when school begins), leaving her unemployed for only 9 days. This contract will last only until 31 May 2016.

"Of course the summer unemployment is annoying on a personal level," the teacher explained. "The wage loss is a major dent in my finances. Finland's social security system compensates this, but only to some extent."

She added: "I think teachers being on these kinds of contracts has an impact on the school climate. Teachers who are on fixed-term contracts may feel they are in an unequal position."

Nina Lahtinen, a development manager and lawyer at the OAJ, said the practice was a problem throughout Finland. "If schools do this to teachers, we think they are not treating them fairly," she said.

According to a report by the Finnish national broadcaster YLE in 2009, Finland was the only European Union country whose education authorities responded to the financial crisis by furloughing teachers. Petri Lindroos, chief negotiator for the OAJ, felt that temporary contracts and summer furloughing were highly detrimental to Finnish schools.

"If a teacher's rights and obligations commence only from the first working day of the academic year, no teacher can plan the curriculum or safety procedures before term starts," he said.

"Special pupils' needs, such those with diabetes or learning difficulties, will be confidential, so the teacher cannot know about them until the term begins. This problem has led to certain classes having to be cancelled altogether."

Legal discrimination?

Mr Lindroos maintained that the "unfair" contract system could potentially "discourage people from becoming teachers in Finland at all" and he suggested that keeping some teachers on continuous short-term contracts may well contravene Finnish non-discrimination legislation. He also pointed out that the savings gained were "very small".

Hannu Freund, chief negotiator for Finland's local government employers' association, stressed that many short-term contracts were a result of maternity leave cover and that teachers who were unemployed for the summer received 20 days' salary as compensation, although the break is about 70 days long. His organisation has proposed a solution to what he concedes is an "injustice" - specifically that teachers should take a pay cut to fund more "compensation days" in the summer.

Finnish facts

Finland won a global reputation for excellence in schooling after finishing top in at least one category in the first three Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings in 2000, 2003 and 2006.

Many attributed its success to its well-qualified teaching profession and a schools system that operated with a high degree of autonomy and few accountability measures.

But others warned that the achievements of a prosperous and homogeneous nation might be difficult to replicate. And as Finland slips down the rankings, debate is growing over what really led to its original success.

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