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Early childhood education debate animates Tampere election panel

Tampere's Koskikeskus shopping centre was the setting Saturday for yet another panel discussion ahead of Finland's local elections on April 9. The leaders of eight parliamentary political parties were on hand to offer their opinions on schools, city planning and mould, among other things.

Puheenjohtajat Koskikeskuksessa
Party leaders, left to right: Andersson, Essayah, Hendriksson, Niinistö, Orpo, Rinne, Sipilä and Soini. Image: Kai Pohjanen / Yle

An election panel featuring the chairs of Finland's top eight political parties, hosted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle and the Tampere newspaper Aamulehti, drew a crowd of over one thousand to Tampere's Koskikeskus shopping centre on Saturday. 

The party leaders in attendance were in agreement that, in the future, the primary tasks of municipal government in Finland will be schooling, community vitality and zoning.

Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, chair of the Centre Party, said education is the single-most important responsibility of local government in Finland, followed by nurturing a dynamic local business and work culture and providing great leisure opportunities. 

The Swedish People's Party head Anna-Maja Henriksson and centre-right National Coalition Party's leader Petteri Orpo indicated that they were on the same page with the premier.

"Education is the foundation of wellbeing," was clearly the group's shared message.

More money, not less

Opposition leaders Li Andersson from the Left Alliance, Ville Niinistö of the Greens and Antti Rinne of the Social Democrats expressed their concern, however, about growing inequalities in Finland's system of schools, mentioning government cuts to vocational institutions and a marked rise in social exclusion among young people. In conflict to the current government, they called for more investment in early childhood education and education across the board.

Finns Party Chair Timo Soini argued that proper city planning is the key to local success.

"City development plans determine what will be built where and who will pay. Day care centres, traffic solutions and the rest are incidental in comparison," he said. 

Urbanisation is here to stay

The party leaders also agreed that urbanisation is inevitable in Finland, but disagreed on how quickly it should be allowed to accelerate.

Christian Democrat head Sari Essayah despaired over the fact that 90 percent of the population already lives in the triangle connecting the southern cities of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku.

"Commercial policies must be developed elsewhere, too. We've made some grave mistakes in terms of our housing policy; people are living in high-priced flats in Helsinki with the help of state-funded housing support," she said. 

Rinne said the problem could be broken down in three sub-areas.

"There's the metropolitan area that should be reinforced. There are strong growth centres like Tampere, and then there are the declining cities and towns with problems that must be resolved," he said.

Finland can only grow if the cities lead the way, Rinne stated, saying that it is part of a global megatrend. 

"Despite the transfer to larger regional administration, municipalities will continue to have a strong role in policy on local commerce. Without cities, we can't have development," NCP chair Petteri Orpo chimed in.

Free preschool now or later

Once the looming social and health care administration reform takes responsibility for these services out of municipal hands, community schools will be one of the local council's main focuses.

The idea of free early childhood education in Finland proved controversial in the Saturday debate, with some of the panellists ready to move to a universal no-cost service immediately, and others prepared to do so gradually as the economic situation progresses. There was a general consensus that helping children on the path to education early would be in the best interests of both the children and society at large.

But Finns Party head Timo Soini reminded his fellow panellists and the crowd that nothing is free.

"Someone always ends of paying! I would like to see the fees made incremental. I don't understand why people like me should receive free day care services for their kids. We have to put an end to this hate towards stay-at-home moms! Children are raised at home, the rest is frosting on the cake," Soini said.

The panellists discussed how day care fees are currently an incentive trap for middle-income families.

"We have to work towards at least a half-day of early childhood education, and then over time, to free services. Now the people that need it most are left out," said Orpo.

"We've done what we can in the economic framework we've been given. We can't make empty promises in this regard," Prime Minster Sipilä said.

How about the mould-infested schools?

Public buildings that have been overrun by mould and mildew – schools in particular – were also a topic of concern. Members of the Tampere audience demanded that money be found to fix schools in need of renovation, or build replacements.

Sipilä said that financing for repairing mouldy schools would be earmarked as soon as the national economy got back on its feet.

"We'll also explore whether we can find the money in the budget," he said.

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