The Finnish education system has won plaudits in recent years, off the back of high scores in the international PISA tests. Since Finland's success became apparent, there has been a stream of visitors eager to learn the lessons of the Nordic education leader.
One of the more controversial ideas was that Finland performed well because there are comparatively fewer immigrants here. That idea was quickly debunked: although just three percent of Finland's 2006 PISA cohort had an immigrant background, they still scored an average over 50 points higher than immigrant children in other OECD countries.
In December, The Guardian reported on how Finnish schools integrate immigrant children. The structures and policies in place for newly arrived children are indeed impressive, but educators are beginning to notice a difference when children reach upper secondary school age.
High exclusion rates
A lukio, or high school, education is a passport to university and a well-paid working life. In 2009, some 100,790 students attended Finnish upper secondary schools, but just 2,718, or 2.7 percent, of them had a mother tongue that was other than Finnish or Swedish. The figures for exclusion are worse: in 2010 the percentage of pupils leaving basic education without a further study place was three times greater for children with a migrant background.
Vuosaaren Lukio in eastern Helsinki is ranked 146 out of 182 Finnish upper secondary schools in terms of getting pupils into university, with just 7.5 percent of school leavers entering university according to a 2008 Yle high school comparison.
The school's intake reflects the high migrant population in eastern Helsinki, and as such has a different set of problems to other schools. Principal Marko Paju says that hard work to help students graduate, even if they do not go to university or get the best grades, does not show in the league tables.
He cites the community's socio-economic problems as a factor, rather than immigration. Many of his students simply don't get the same level of financial support as their contemporaries from more affluent districts.
“It's very hard to work here during the daytime, and in the evenings somewhere else,” explains Paju. “The average duration of upper secondary school in Finland is three years, but 60 percent of our students can't do that. We have a lot of students who study for three and a half years, or four years, because they have to work at the same time.”
Tenth grade for migrants
Even so, the multicultural environment poses some specific difficulties. Student counsellor Katja Mannerström runs a project at the school to try and help migrant children who might otherwise drop out. Her job is to ensure that they are able to attend an upper secondary school after completing basic education.
It is a migrant-focused version of the Finnish 'tenth grade', a year after nine years of basic education in which Finnish kids can improve their grades and written Finnish to try and get in to their preferred upper secondary school.
The problems are often bureaucratic, rather than educational. One girl in Mannerström's group wanted to go to the prestigious Sibelius Music School—and had good grades—but was unaware that she should list back-up choices on her application. The kind of tacit, passive knowledge that Finnish families take for granted is often not available to migrant children.
“The parents don't really know anything about this,” says Mannerström. “How to apply, when to apply, where should you apply, where you can get in. There are a lot of questions that the parents ask me.”
This is the first year of Mannerström's pilot project, but it is expected to continue. Once the children make it to the next stage of their education, however, many of them will face the same financial problems as Finnish kids from their suburbs.
No money, no books
Principal Paju points out that books for a whole year of upper secondary education cost more than a thousand euros, no small sum for many families in Finland. Although funding is available for the school to buy and lend books to poorer students, admitting the need is a barrier for many children.
“I teach one history course, and I have a few boys who don't have books,” notes Paju. “So I asked 'where is your book?' First they said it is at home, but then I said it can't always be at home, it needs to be here. Then they summoned up the courage to say they don't have money, but it took many weeks. It's very difficult to teach without books.”
Although financial difficulties also affect Finnish families in Vuosaari, migrant children sometimes need extra support. Parent engagement can be difficult, but Mannerström has achieved good results.
“Katja has called every parent directly,” says Paju. “Maybe it is a cultural problem with those parents, that a more personal approach is necessary—email is not enough.”
Mannerström describes young people that are socially gifted and have wide networks, but sometimes have a disconnect with their parents. They are comfortable in Finland and speak Finnish fluently, but they're not always entirely at ease in their parents' culture. Mum and Dad, however, also want a say in their child's education. Sometimes Mannerström's role is to give the parents a voice in discussions about their child's future plans.
In a poll conducted for the main teacher's union, 41 percent of respondents said they would support a quota of between 20 and 30 percent immigrant children in each school, while a third said they would not support such a plan. Similar polls have found backing among parents for quotas, but Mannerström rejects the idea out of hand.
“It's such an absurd question. I don't understand why it would be such a big problem. If you are here in Vuosaari, there are immigrants everywhere. It is not something we can now escape from and say the school system can't cope with it.”
“If we go with the parents who are afraid of black people, I don't want to live in this society anymore.”
With results due on the second of June, Mannerström is happy to report that most of her students should get a place in lukio or a vocational course in September. The best grade improvement is from 6.8 to 8.1 (out of ten), and three of her students have made big progress in their previously weak Finnish language skills.
The pupils now face an anxious wait until June, when they hear the results of their applications. Many of them would not have come this far without the extra help, but are now ready for new academic challenges.
The programme will continue in the next academic year, with a new crop of 15 youngsters looking to find their place in the Finnish education system. Applications open in July.