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APN this week: Can Finland meet the growing demand for English-language education?

Finland says foreign labour will help salvage the economy, but does the country really serve international families?

Koululaiset opettelevat kellotaulua oppitunnilla.
Image: Jaana Polamo / Yle
Yle News

Children's education is a top priority for families contemplating an international move. As the school year gets underway, our podcast All Points North will on Thursday ask how well the system caters to international families, particularly in regard to English-language education.

Prime Minister Antti Rinne's government has set a target of increasing the employment rate to 75 percent during its term in office. To reach this goal the state is introducing initiatives aimed at increasing work-related immigration, meaning many new international families could potentially be settling down in Finland.

Finland offers a range of bilingual primary and secondary programmes, including in English, French, Russian and German as well as native language upkeep classes outside the school day.

But parents told Yle News that the reality on the ground is complicated. Families we spoke to raised concerns ranging from intense competition for places in English-language programmes to problems arising from native upkeep classes only offered after the school day and far from a child’s regular school.

“I know there is more demand than can be met by our schools,” Anu Halvari, a counsellor of education at the Finnish National Agency for Education, told Yle News.

Fresh figures from the city of Helsinki meanwhile show that foreigners account for two-thirds of the city’s population growth, a trend that looks likely to continue.

"Demand higher than supply"

“There is very limited access to English-language education in Finland. Demand is higher than supply,” a parent who wished to remain anonymous, told Yle News.

Halvari from the National Agency for Education said the body does not collect information on acceptance rates for different programmes as individual schools manage their own intake.

“It’s not just international families who want their children to receive their education in English, it's a growing number of Finnish families too. But instead of increasing the number of spots, administrators are focusing on making the test more challenging, which has in turn weeded out native speakers,” the parent, whose British child is in the Finnish-language system, explained.

Multicultural heritage

Nationwide, the Finnish education system provides native language upkeep classes in 56 different languages, with more than 18,000 pupils attending, the most recent figures from autumn 2017 show.

Russian-speakers made up the largest mother tongue lesson group (5,193 participants), followed by Somali (2,321), Arabic (2,198), Estonian (1,348), Albanian (949), English (782) and Chinese (586). These classes usually gather for 90 minutes every week before or after the school day.

While many parents told Yle News they appreciate these free opportunities for their children to hold on to their linguistic heritage, many criticised the system as too loose, with no set curriculum, and mixed-age groups impeding learning.

English, please

This week the city of Helsinki unveiled a plan for developing English-language services in the city, including in the field of education. The report notes that English is the fifth most-spoken language in the capital, and nearly 16 percent of residents speak a foreign language (other than Finnish or Swedish) as their mother tongue.

Helsinki has acknowledged that it needs to better serve its growing multicultural population. This includes catering to globally mobile families who do not plan to stay in Finland for extended periods and for whose children an English-language education makes the most sense, also beyond comprehensive school.

An initial step is Finland allowing students to pass the high school matriculation exam in English--a point Helsinki says it plans to lobby the government on.

What’s your take? How well do you think the Finnish education system supports international families?

Anu Halvari from the Finnish National Agency for Education and British father in Finland Steve El-Sharawy join us for this week’s All Points North podcast on Thursday. You can send comments or questions via WhatsApp on +358 44 421 0909, on our Facebook or Twitter accounts, or at

Sources: Yle News/Zena Iovino

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