Thank God it's Friday

21st May 1999 at 01:00
MONDAY I visit a Finnish sixth-form college and decide the Finns are very different from us. Even the teenagers in school corridors speak their trochaic, liquid language with its 17 cases quietly, and stand as stiffly apart from each other as if they were still wearing their heavy coats. They are silent in class too, except when asking polite questions in unnaturally accurate English.

TUESDAY Attend a student reading in a pub, followed by a quiz. The Finns are fond of quizzes. They are also, I learn, the most literate nation on Earth (99 per cent), the one that makes the most use of library books (two per Finn per week over the winter months) - and extremely fond of statistics.

WEDNESDAY I lead a creative writing class at the university. Some of my students are trainee teachers, five, six or even eight years into their degrees. They are concerned about a brutal proposal to limit the number of years of university study to a mere five years at undergraduate level. This, they feel, would really limit the quality of teachers coming into the profession.

THURSDAY The comprehensive I visit in Espoo seems unnaturally clean. Didn't they, I asked, ever have trouble with the loos? The cleaners? The janitor's moods? Ah, they said, embarrassed. I had noticed the building was from the Fifties. Actually, I said, buildings like that in Britain were often falling apart. In any case, they continued, the school was moving to an entirely new building next year.

FRIDAY Still in Espoo. Friday must be Whinge Day, even in Finland. I tried out a few pet British moans. The national curriculum? Was this a problem in Britain? They brought me theirs. It filled a modest A4 folder.

The Government? Finland is governed by a coalition. Of course, everyone agrees that education is most important. All the minister's children go to state schools. What other schools are there? The government, it's true, did intervene in the mid-Nineties. They extended free lunch provision to sixth-formers.

Time, then ? Surely, they were chronically short of time. Oh yes, several teachers nodded. Eighteen hours contact time is really quite a lot. Sometimes you cannot prepare as creatively as you would like.

Well, then, I said, defeated, what did they worry about? Many things, of course. The European Community. The Social Chapter has such low standards! What if Finnish child care, or minimum wage, or education levels were lowered, to say, French levels. It was shocking to think of.

Kate Clanchy is writer-in-residence at the University of Helsinki, a postsponsored by the British Council

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