The city of Tampere provides schooling in languages other than Finnish. The options include English, German and French and interested parents can apply for a place at one of four schools offering foreign-language tuition for their youngsters via the city’s website.
Foreign-language studies run from the first to the sixth grade, and students are taught the Finnish school curriculum in the target language. From the seventh grade onwards, they continue their studies in Finnish or in the selected language.
However only those youngsters who've been able to pass an entrance exam are admitted to the programmes. In Tampere, the child must attain at least 40 percent of the maximum score to pass the test. Students are then selected on the basis of tests, with priority given to the highest scores.
Strain and disappointment for young kids
Turku University researcher and educational sociologist Piia Seppänen says entrance exams such as the ones administered for foreign-language school programmes expose young children to feelings of suspense and disappointment.
"Small children shouldn’t be placed in those kinds of competitive situations," she said.
Seppänen pointed out that it’s difficult to determine in advance which students are best suited to specialised learning. She added that entrance exams could see children part from their familiar group of friends if some sail through the screening test while others don’t.
Tampere defends entrance tests
Aptitude tests appeared on the Finnish educational landscape in the mid-1990s. Tampere city production manager Kristiina Järvelä said that the entrance tests are necessary. She stated that in the case of the language tests, they help ensure that children can follow the language in which they are being taught, and which for some will be a foreign language.
"Children are conscious of their own abilities, and there should be certain criteria in life. A lottery wouldn’t be any better," Järvelä added.
"Entrance exams lead to inequality"
Researcher Seppänen said that data from 2010 show that 21 percent of Tampere’s seventh graders were in specialised classes – a significant proportion, she added. In Turku the corresponding proportion was 37 percent and in Espoo 23 percent.
She pointed out that research from other countries shows that entrance exams for primary education often led to societal inequality.
"Children taking part in aptitude tests depends a great deal on their parents’ skills, courage and desire to explore different options. Our research shows that highly-educated parents know better than others where and how to apply," she explained.
Seppänen's comments are based on a study conducted in Helsinki, Turku, Espoo, Tampere and Vantaa for a new publication due out in September. The survey interviewed the parents of 2,600 sixth graders.
Three years ago the teachers’ union OAJ conducted a survey among teachers on the same subject. The organisation found that teachers were divided on the issue of entrance exams, with some saying that specialisation provided clear benefits. Others felt that it contributed to inequality.