Parents leave ethnic diversity out in the cold

4th February 2011 at 00:00
Finland: A rise in immigration has led to a growing number of Finns taking their children out of ethnically mixed primaries

Finland's schools have long been regarded with envy by British politicians for their ability to perform well in international league tables.

But behind the impressive results is a growing problem of social unrest, with Finnish parents taking their children out of primary schools that have large numbers of pupils from immigrant families. Some are even demanding a cap on the number of non-Finnish children in any given classroom.

According to the Finnish news agency YLE, some families are quite open about moving house to avoid having to send their children to a primary school with non-Finnish pupils.

A school in southern Finland, which wished to remain nameless because it "already suffers from a poor reputation", told the broadcaster that parents began withdrawing their children when the concentration of immigrant pupils reached 40 per cent.

"We didn't see a flight when the number of immigrant children was 30 per cent," claimed the school's headteacher. "But when it reached 40 per cent, the exodus began."

Some parents were blunt about why they had withdrawn their children. "In one case, the parents said that they had pulled their child out because the child's class did not have a single ethnic Finnish boy, which the parents said contributed to their child having no friends," explained the head.

Finland experienced relatively little immigration until the early 1990s when it accepted refugees from Somalia. In 2001, it took in asylum-seekers from Sudan and, later that decade, from Iraq. The number of immigrants in the country, especially from Estonia and Russia, has steadily increased over the last 10 years.

Most immigrants eventually settle in the south - and especially in Helsinki - and currently 15 per cent of Helsinki schools have children who are not ethnic Finns. However, Finland's comprehensive system of education means that those schools are concentrated in the poorest areas of the city. On average, immigrant children make up 25 per cent of their intake.

In 2009, the southern Finnish city of Espoo suggested a quota system whereby no school should have more than 15 per cent non-ethnic Finnish pupils. A poll by Finland's biggest newspaper in January 2011 found that one-third of parents in southern Finland agreed with the idea.

According to Swedish-language Finnish think-tank Magma, polling indicates that, nationwide, Finns are more open to immigration in areas where there are relatively few immigrants. However, this attitude changes when they are asked about their own area.

Conservative education minister Henna Virkkunen has said she "understands" why parents favour a quota system, saying that "if more than half of the pupils are not Finnish it becomes more difficult for the immigrant children to learn Finnish". She claimed that the situation simply reflects a phenomenon across Europe of "people wanting to be with people like themselves".

Politicians in England might swoon over some of the best aspects of Finnish education - but if quotas on immigrant children in school gain support, the days of the love-in may be numbered.

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