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Parents file complaints over "failure" of new school

Attempts to implement Finland's new core curriculum in Lappeenranta have lead to children switching schools.

Pontus school in Lappeenranta was one of the first in Finland to fully implement the new school curriculum. Image: Kari Kosonen / Yle

Parents of children at the Pontus school in the city of Lappeenranta in eastern Finland have filed a number of complaints with the Regional State Administrative Agency about teaching methods and practices at the school. In some cases, parents have decided to move their children to other schools where more traditional pedagogical methods are still being used.

The Pontus school is one of the first in the country to fully implement the new core curriculum (siirryt toiseen palveluun), introduced by Finland's Ministry of Education in 2016, which is based on the concept of 'phenomenon teaching' – the replacing of traditional subject-based classes like maths and history with interdisciplinary courses focusing on broader topics.

Under the new curriculum, children are also encouraged to become autonomous learners, for example by creating their own study plans.

The Pontus school's brand new building was completed and opened in the autumn of 2017, and the architecture was designed to support the objectives of the new core curriculum.

The building is divided into four units, with approximately 80 primary school children enrolled in each unit. The students within each unit are sometimes further divided into smaller age groups, or sometimes they all work together in one group.

"I didn't learn anything"

However, the teaching methods and the use of space at Pontus have not suited the pedagogical needs of all children. Sixth grader Aino Piironen found the need to create her own study plan an insurmountable challenge, after childhood epilepsy left her with mild memory difficulties.

Aino's parents believe that the school failed in its core task of educating Aino. In their view, the school's modern learning environment made it difficult for her to concentrate and that she would have also needed more help from teachers and staff to support her memory.

Another area of difficulty for Aino was when all the members of the separate units came together in the open space, or 'market square'. The children usually sought a place to sit on the cushioned seats while the teachers sat at a desk in the middle of the room.

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The tori, or market square, at Pontus school where children gather to make their study plans. Image: Kari Kosonen / Yle

"The beginning of the school day was chaotic," Aino recalled.

The most difficult thing of all, according to Aino, was the lack of teaching. Students began the day by working on their own weekly plan, approaching teachers in the middle of the 'market square' for advice when needed.

"It was hard for me that the teacher did not teach at first, but instead we should have been able to learn things by ourselves," Aino said. "I didn't learn anything."

No other option

For Aino and her parents, the situation became so bad that they eventually felt there was no other option but for Aino to change schools.

"At Pontus School, Aino was not given the opportunity to experience success in learning," her mother Katja Piironen said. "It affected her self-esteem."

Since switching schools, Aino has found that she does not need any special arrangements to help her memory problems, but instead she says she is able to manage with the same kind of support that is available to all students at her current school.

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Aino Piironen walking through the corridors of her new school. Image: Kalle Purhonen / Yle

"There was a big change in Aino after she switched schools. Joy and serenity returned to her life. Likewise, she believed again that she could get help and advice from a teacher," Katja said.

In addition to the Piironens, several other families have reported being dissatisfied with the new teaching methods at Pontus.

According to some parents, making a personal weekly plan and adhering to it independently is too hard a requirement for a primary school child. Another area of dissatisfaction was the expectation that children should be able to remember the dates of exams themselves, as well as the deadline date for the return of term papers.

The pressure to independently remember so many details was a big challenge for many of the elementary school children, and in particular students like Aino.

"Forgetting tasks became a failure," Aino said.

"Adequate support and instruction"

Principal Katri Kurronen defended the pedagogical methods and use of space currently being utilised at the Pontus school.

"When students come to the market square, they take whatever free seat is available. This is different from the traditional school setting, when students were usually allowed to choose his or her own place," Kurronen explained.

According to Kurronen, the students also receive adequate support and instruction at the school, as well as individual guidance on how to complete all tasks.

Kurronen added that the need for children to create their own weekly learning plan is being gradually introduced at the school so that each student may learn about concepts such as self-guidance.

"This is a key skill target for the new curriculum that future working life requires," Kurronen said, adding that students take their weekly plans home for viewing, allowing parents to monitor their child's progress.

Lack of clear explanation

Anu Liljeström, director of education for the city of Lappeenranta, expressed regret that families have complained about the teaching methods at Pontus. Liljeström believes that parents' dissatisfaction is due to the lack of a clear explanation of how and why the way of teaching has changed.

"Perhaps we have failed in our important task of informing guardians why things are being done differently than before," Liljeström said.

The Pontus school places much more emphasis on children's self-guidance than has previously been the case, according to Liljeström, and she concedes that this change is very big when compared to previous changes to the curriculum.

"In my experience, change usually isn't nearly as difficult for children as it is for their parents," Liljeström said.

She adds that the Pontus School has also received a lot of positive feedback from both parents and children, including praise for its good school spirit.