Pupils lead and teachers play a supporting role

28th March 2008 at 00:00
Alppila is a school with an experimental ethos; that was a stated aim when it was founded in 1959. But many of its noteworthy features are common to schools throughout Finland, such as the favouring of continuous assessment over exams - national exams only come with upper-secondary school after the age of 16 - and the existence of an optional 10th grade before upper-secondary, which allows pupils to take another year to think about where their life is headed and improve their grades.

The 360-pupil school is not without problems familiar to teachers in Scotland. Pupils who might otherwise drift unhappily through education - those likely to join what in Scotland is called the Neet group (not in education, employment or training) - are helped through the Omaura programme, which loosely translates as "My own career" and is based on work that started in the United States and came to Finland via Germany about 10 years ago. It has helped cement Alppila's good reputation for work with special needs pupils, of which it has 60, often with severe difficulties. "Some can't even tell the time," says Kirsi Ihalainen.

Petri Hanninen (above), the special needs teacher responsible for Omaura, says the Neet issue - although less problematic than in many other countries - is "taken very seriously, because we think we need everyone to be productive". It is a typical attitude in Finland, where policy-makers long ago saw that the country's small range of natural resources meant it had to invest above all in its people's skills.

In keeping with the whole-school spirit, children in Omaura - who tend to have social and emotional problems - are encouraged to take charge of the programme from the start. If they do not want to take part in the programme in the first place, they are not forced to; it is crucial that they have chosen to do so. Those who make this choice spend time in anything from an opera company to a shop or kindergarten, working with a mentor to "build a bridge between what we're doing in school and real life".

"It's important that the individual plans should not be very detailed, that pupils have more and more control, and lead the process - our role is to support," Mr Hanninen says.

"What's interesting is that they might only have their problems in school. They can be very talented kids - they just learn in another way.

"Omaura is like a second chance, very often the last chance."

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