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Academics: Outdated structures, discrimination behind migrant students' poor performance in Finland

Teaching, student counselling and secondary education all discriminate against migrant-background students, experts say.

Yle spoke with five young teaching volunteers at a summer school for Somali-background children in eastern Helsinki. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

A combination of outdated education structures and racist attitudes are the main reasons that migrant-background students lag behind their Finnish peers, researchers say.

A review by Jyväskylä University researchers (siirryt toiseen palveluun) (in Finnish) of results from the 2012 and 2015 international student assessments PISA, indicate that a migrant background affects learning outcomes in Finland more than in many other countries.

For example, research based on the 2012 results show that primary school mathematics skills in second-generation migrants lag two years behind that of ethnic Finns.

Assistant Sociology Professor Elina Kilpi-Jakonen of Turku University said that Finland's approach to early education is partly responsible for the phenomenon. She noted that in Finland only a small proportion of children participate in early years education compared to other Nordic countries. In addition, children begin primary school at the age of seven and school days are short. She said that is not necessarily the best combination when it comes to learning a language.

Another problem lies in how Finnish is taught to migrant-background children. Schools teach Finnish and Swedish as a second language (designated S2 in the case of Finnish).

Aisha, one of five migrant-background young adults teaching Somali-background youngsters at a summer school in Helsinki’s Itä-keskus district, told Yle that in upper secondary school she attended classes for both Finnish as a native language and as a second language.

According to Aisha, the teacher was the same, but that’s where the similarity ended. She said that the teacher did not always review assignments and tests for students learning Finnish as a second language and that sometimes the teacher did not show up for class at all.

She said there were also marked differences in learning content. "For students studying Finnish as their mother tongue, the goal is to develop and the tests get harder all the time. But for students of Finnish as a second language (S2) we always do the same easy assignments and watch movies. So the difference between students gets larger all the time. Then people wonder why our results are bad," she noted.

The stigma of Finnish as a second language

According to Helsinki University doctoral researcher Tuuli Kurki immigrant-background children are often stigmatised by being placed in S2 classes, even when they have been born in Finland.

"The rationale for placing [students] in S2 classes can be seen as racialisation," she said, referring to the practice of attaching racial or ethnic identities and related prejudices to individuals or groups.

The group of five young people also noted that schools may shy away from conducting reading tests or from interpreting the results because they are not seen as appropriate for S2 students.

Helsinki University doctor of political science Mira Kalalahti also agreed that difficulties with the Finnish language can easily be misinterpreted as learning difficulties.

Meanwhile, while many children are placed in S2 classes against their will, others who would like to learn Finnish as a second language do not get the opportunity. A 2015 report by the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre found that 37 percent of upper secondary schools and 16 percent of vocational schools did not offer S2 courses.

Discrimination, racism also to blame

The Finnish language problem is not just about poor teaching. Outright discrimination and racism are also part of the equation, the five young people speculated. While they all said they got the support they needed at school, they also recalled unpleasant experiences.

"Just don’t get married at 18 and start having kids," one of the volunteer teachers said, recalling the words of a student counsellor to her 14-year-old friend.

"Can’t you afford to buy books?" one teacher told Aisha when she went to her first upper secondary school class without the required textbooks.

"Advanced mathematics is not for you, you should switch to basic," one maths teacher reportedly told a student they assumed to be immigrant-background during a class.

"Wow, I didn’t expect this from you," another teacher allegedly told a student in reaction to a good test score.

Four of the volunteers said that they were kept back after school to re-do tests or assignments under the teacher’s supervision because they were thought to have cheated or copied answers from the internet. Aisha said that in primary school she was forced to do the same test three times. When the teacher still did not believe the outcome, she was subjected to an oral assessment during recess.

Internalised discrimination affects students

Constant discrimination and put-downs naturally affect students’ success at school. When others constantly question your performance, you also begin to doubt yourself, one holiday teacher, Farhia, said.

Doctoral researcher Kurki said that in theoretical terms, the volunteers' experiences reveals how structural and interpersonal racism can easily lead to internalised racism when people begin to believe the messages they receive from their environment.

"Student counselling and other teaching has been and continues to be both consciously and unconsciously racialised," she added.

"I am not claiming that all teachers are racist. But if no one is racist, why do so many people experience racism?" she added.

The PISA comparison also contains other revelations about Finland. Among OECD countries, Finland tends to corral immigrants into separate schools more than others.

Meanwhile, different studies also suggest that Finland has the largest gap between university education of ethnic Finns and immigrant-background students. According to a European Commission report (siirryt toiseen palveluun), in 2017 just 27 percent of immigrant-background people had university degrees in Finland, the lowest among all of the Nordic countries.

Additionally, an OECD education report from 2018 (siirryt toiseen palveluun) found that first- and second-generation immigrants were clearly under-represented among university graduates. In fact just two percent of 20-29-year-old graduates were first- or second-generation migrants. Overall, this group accounted for only eight percent of all university graduates -- a situation that is more unequal than in any other country in the analysis.

Teachers' words can shape students' future

Ulkar Aghayeva, 28, related her experiences with a doubtful student counsellor. When she had completed eighth grade with an average grade of 9 (10 being the highest) her counseller said that she would not get into upper secondary school.

"I was told that I should study to become a practical nurse. I actually wanted to study medicine," she added.

Aghayeva said that her grade average allowed her to enter a natural sciences upper secondary school. But that student counsellor also said that her dreams of becoming a doctor were useless.

She then began to look at other options and took at interest in social issues, especially the EU. "I very excitedly said that I would become a member of the European Parliament. The teacher then said that if I as a Finn won’t find it easy to become an MEP then you have no chance," she recalled.

The teachers’ union OAJ said that it is aware of the tendency toward othering among some school counsellors.

"It is still too easy for us to direct immigrant-background pupils to the vocational side after primary education," OAJ specialist Päivi Lyhykäinen said.

"I always try to speak up and ask why we are directing immigrants to become practical nurses, why not nurses or doctors," she added.

Finland blind to immigrants' special needs

In some cases, students may not have access to counselling at all. The Finnish school system relies heavily on parental support. However not all parents know the Finnish school system or even speak Finnish.

"Finland doesn’t know how to respond to immigrants’ special needs, for example in secondary education," Kilpi-Jakonen said.

According to a 2018 report by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), nine percent of ethnic Finns and 37 percent of immigrant-background young people between the ages of 17 and 24 did not go on to secondary education.

The expansion of primary education by one year to the age of 18 could provide a secondary level education to all primary school graduates -- at least on paper. Doctoral researcher Mira Kalalahti noted however, that the right to primary education alone will not solve the problem unless schools beef up their support systems.

Even getting a secondary education will not suffice because students need adequate support for their studies. The same THL report found that five percent of Finns dropped out of secondary education, compared to eight percent of foreign-background students.

In summary, the OAJ’s Lyhykäinen described Finnish school structures as "backward".

"Immigrant education has not previously been seen as something that should be invested in. We have many municipalities that have not had a single immigrant before 2015."

However she noted that there has been a change in recent years. "The Finnish government is waking up to the fact that we have people coming from elsewhere, who have certain needs."

In practice new teachers should be trained to deal with the new situation and teachers with different backgrounds need to be recruited, she said. "In the education world we have experienced folk who were trained in the 1980s and 1990s. Society has become more diverse since then," she commented.