View from here - Tradition takes a battering

28th May 2010 at 01:00
The reputation of Finnish schools as a haven of good behaviour and orderly teaching is becoming a thing of the past, as Ed Dutton reports

Finland is widely recognised for its excellent education system, but its teachers are complaining that formerly respectful classrooms are becoming increasingly unruly.

According to a recent questionnaire issued by the TV discussion programme 45 Minutes, secondary school teachers are deeply concerned about increasing classroom disruption.

Three-quarters claimed that "maintaining order" took away from their ability to teach. A quarter reported having to deal with aggressive "shouting out" and verbal abuse of other pupils every day, while 72 per cent claimed to have had heated arguments with pupils. Only 1 per cent of the 600 teachers surveyed from Finland's larger cities did not report "disturbances".

The survey results correspond with a questionnaire conducted by the Trade Union of Education in Finland (OAJ) in 2008, which found that more than half of teachers felt that pupil behaviour had declined over their careers. They blamed "excessive class sizes" ("classes with more than 20 pupils") and "objectionable behaviour" by parents.

Finnish newspapers are full of examples of pupil-teacher conflict. Recently, in eastern Finland, a court found a 16 year-old boy guilty of "harassment" because "he shouted at his teacher about the teacher's appearance". The boy received a fine, though the OAJ acknowledged that this was a rare example of extreme behaviour.

Helsinki University education expert Professor Hannu Simola is sceptical.

"Teachers always and everywhere claim there are catastrophic changes in pupils' behaviour and that appreciation of teachers has declined," he asserted. However, he has found that "It is still possible to teach in the traditional way in Finland because teachers believe in their traditional role and pupils accept their traditional position.

Teachers' beliefs are supported by social trust and their professional academic status." All secondary school teachers are educated to at least masters level, and "pupils' approval is supported by (Finland's) authoritarian culture and mentality of obedience."

However, Turku University law researcher Dr Henrik Elonheimo believes that the survey results chime with his own examinations of youth crime in Finland. He finds that a quarter of men and boys aged 16 to 20 have a criminal record, but that 70 per cent of youth crime is committed by just 4 per cent of young men.

"Youth crime is not really increasing, but there is a polarisation. The level of crime committed by a small percentage of the population is increasing, and it is becoming more violent.

These criminals will already have problems in early life. I suspect that what teachers are really seeing is an increase in bad behaviour by a small minority of pupils."

For Dr Eloheimo, this development reflects recent changes in Finnish society. "The whole society has become more polarised. Traditionally, there were few social differences in Finland, and it was quite equal in terms of income. This has definitely changed in recent years, and it has changed more rapidly in Finland than in many other European countries."

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