The view from here - Finland - Egalitarianism gives way to 'school shopping'

Ed Dutton

Finland is famed not only for its excellent Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results but also its highly egalitarian education system. Until now, comprehensives have been dutifully attended by children in the local catchment area. But picky parents are beginning to puncture this system, rejecting schools with high immigrant numbers and supposedly underqualified teachers, and even demanding to sit in on lessons. "School shopping" is on the rise in Helsinki.

Until a few years ago, Ritva Tyyska was headteacher of Meri-Rastila Primary School in the poor east of Helsinki. "Forty-five per cent of the children were from immigrant backgrounds and another 30 per cent had special educational needs," she says.

Ms Tyyska found that parents of preschoolers would openly ask about the percentage of immigrants or SEN children. "They were afraid that the teacher could not help their child and that the school would not have enough resources," she says. "They were concerned about how the child's Finnish will develop if so many pupils speak it as a second language."

She adds that, in some cases, it may simply be parents wanting their children to be with other Finns and may also reflect something like a social class divide developing in the proudly classless country.

In addition, parents are increasingly sitting in on lessons to assess the quality of the teaching. According to Finnish law, they do not have to ask to do this but can just turn up and watch.

Timo Heikkinen, head of Kallahti Comprehensive School, also in east Helsinki, has had very similar experiences. "Thirty per cent of our pupils are from immigrant backgrounds," Mr Heikkinen says. "When we reached 30 per cent we started to see a little white flight. But this now seems to have stabilised because the nearest school to us, Meri-Rastila, is now 50 per cent immigrant, so parents would rather come to us."

According to Mr Heikkinen, some parents of preschoolers want to know the immigrant percentage, and it clearly influences their decision. In the early 1980s, when he began teaching, "parents would just send their child to the local school". The law was changed to allow more choice in the early 1990s, but only since about 2000 have parents "become more aware of 'good areas' and 'bad areas'" - the latter being shorthand for poor, immigrant communities.

Part of the change may be increasing socio-economic polarisation. "I hope it is not happening, but I think we are moving in that direction," Mr Heikkinen says.

But according to Tuomas Kurttila, director of the Finnish Parents' League, school shopping in Helsinki is about far more than class or race.

"Parents want to know how qualified the teachers are, how many of them are student teachers or don't yet have their master's degree," he says. In Finland, all teachers are supposed to have master's degrees but can be employed on temporary contracts while finishing their theses. Parents also demand to know how long teachers stay at a school, reasoning that they will stay longer at a "nice" school.

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Ed Dutton

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