Famous for its outstanding results in international league tables, Finland is often regarded as a paradise for teachers. Not so, says a controversial book by a Finnish primary school teacher that has become a media sensation.
Talented children are left to stagnate, parents do not care about their children's education and many send them to school starving, according to Maarit Korhonen's What's Wrong with School? A teacher for 30 years, she wrote the book because "in the media everything bad that happens is the school's fault. I wanted to tell the reality of life in a Finnish primary school."
With no private schools, Finnish classrooms reflect the extremes of the country's socio-economic hierarchy. "There are some children who are very rich and others who have had no food over the weekend," Ms Korhonen explains. The book highlights cases of eight-year-olds "going to the shop, getting food and preparing it for themselves". It also refers to a child with rich parents who told Ms Korhonen that she went to New York and "mum drank in the aeroplane, drank in the hotel and drank by the pool". Parental alcoholism is an even more acute problem if the parents are poor, the author adds.
Schools regularly run out of food at mealtimes because children are not fed at home, with particularly severe problems on Mondays because pupils have not eaten properly over the weekend, Ms Korhonen claims.
"Children as young as 8 regularly get up, get themselves ready and come to school, which begins at 8am, while their parents sleep," she writes. "It's just laziness. They should wake up at 7am to get the child ready. At about 10am, they'll ring the child on her mobile to make sure she's made it to school."
Only about 10 per cent of the wealthier parents ever come to parents' evenings: "They claim that they're too busy, but I find that about 100 per cent of the poorer parents turn up."
Finnish schools also reflect extremes of ability. "If you are a genius then you don't get the education that you need," Ms Korhonen says. "That's our biggest problem and it's why we do well in Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment). The system makes everyone strong, but it means that the talented kids just have to sit there bored."
Dr Pasi Sahlberg, of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (part of the education ministry), is critical of Ms Korhonen's conclusions, arguing that the Pisa results, which are compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, show that Finland is highly successful. Ms Korhonen's focus on parental alcoholism is "extreme and is not what we should be talking about now in Finnish education," he says, although there are wider concerns about parental cooperation and pupil behaviour.
Ms Korhonen is worried her provocative book may lead to parents "coming and shouting at me" and even pressure to resign. "But I was so frustrated," she says. "I had to say my opinion. If this is not allowed, I am more than willing to leave this job."