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Espoo plans English-language education "from kindergarten to doctorate" in two years

Espoo residents can look forward to all-English education services from preschool to post-graduate level in two years, according to the city's planning board chairman Markku Markkula. The Espoo city council created a big buzz when it recently announced that it would soon begin providing more official services in English.

Image: Mikko Savolainen / Yle

The Finnish capital Helsinki is widely-known as the country’s most cosmopolitan hub, with residents and visitors alike generally able to do business in English, arguably the lingua franca of the world. But municipal leaders in Espoo are moving to claim the mantle of Finland’s most English language-friendly city by adopting English as the city’s third working lingo.

Last week Espoo municipal leaders got tongues wagging by announcing a plan to formally adopt English as one of the city’s official working languages. Espoo city board chair Markku Markkula stressed that the proposal would not see English given official language status the same way that Finnish or Swedish have, since use of the latter as official national languages are rooted in law.

"By law Finnish and Swedish are official languages as well as Sámi. English will not be a law-based official language, but we can make it real and concrete, not just by translating certain documents, but by making it a formal working language," he noted.

According to Statistics Finland, at the end of 2016, there were nearly 340,000 speakers of languages other than Finnish, Swedish and Sami resident in Finland. Espoo along with Helsinki and Vantaa are also home to the largest concentrations of residents speaking languages other than Finnish, Swedish adn Sami as their mother tongue.

Espoo, Helsinki and Vantaa are home to the largest concentrations of speakers of languages other than Finnish, Swedish and Smi.

PTA: A sense of inclusiveness for English-speakers

Geraldine Bergius, the head of the parent-teachers association of the Espoo International School said that the city’s move represents an opportunity for the region’s English-speakers to feel a sense of inclusiveness. 

She noted that the city is experiencing a growing bottleneck in its provision of English-language secondary school places in particular.

"You have a lot of kids who are educated in English or want to be educated in English and there’s not enough places for them. So if it's going to be adopted as an official language we see or hope that those places will open up and that there will be more availability to parents and students and families," she commented.

More importantly Bergius said, residents will have an equal opportunity to get information and access to services, the most important of which she lists as education and health care.

No need for schooling in Finnish or Swedish

The move is part of Espoo’s strategic plan for the future, and according to Markkula, while it will include initiatives like beefing up English-language communications such as policy documents and web content, it’ll also mean a deliberate shift to more services in English, such as health care and education.

"Within two years we could have education all the way from kindergarten to the doctorate level all in English. So that people don't need to go through education in complicated Finnish or Swedish," Markkula told Yle News.

He said that the decision means that municipal authorities will focus on increasing the number of kindergartens and schools teaching and working in English. Residents can already get daycare and primary school services in English and there are two options for students who want to study for the International Baccalaureate programme.

Markkula said that the city envisions partnerships with other institutions to provide more English-language training at universities of applied sciences and vocational institutions.

Image: Mauri Ratilainen / AOP

Questions from teachers' union

Heljä Misukka, educational director with the teacher’s union OAJ said that while the attitude is positive and there is great demand for more expert workers from overseas to energise the economy, she wonders whether there are enough skilled personnel in Finland to meet the demand for more English-language education.

"How will this be implemented? Will there be more private kindergartens, new international schools? What does it mean in practical terms?"

Misukka said she was also concerned about reports that there would be more cuts to education budgets and the impact that it could have on other teaching in areas.

"If we are looking at cuts to education and there is a push for more education in English, how will this affect other teaching? How will we reconcile these areas?" she queried.

Union concerned about patient safety, worker rights

Like seats on school benches, the drive to provide health care services in English also aims to make Espoo a desired destination for overseas talent to settle in Espoo and contribute to the tax base. While the idea of offering English-langauge health services seems like a no-brainer, putting it into practice could present obstacles.

Yle News spoke with Tehy, the union representing professional nurses. Deputy chair Marjut McLean told Yle News that while the city is free to provide services in the languages needed to serve residents, certain aspects of the proposal require careful planning.

McLean pointed out that speaking English to customers in the health care system must be voluntary, and that nurses currently working in the system cannot be forced to comply with a requirement to use English on the job. She added that if the city requires employees to acquire or use a new skill set, it must be prepared to pay for it.

"If you're demanding another skill, you need to pay employees for it. This needs to be the subject of negotiaitions within the city," McLean explained.

Image: Raila Paavola / Yle

The union leader said that she was also concerned about patient safety, noting that a nurse should not be expected to be an interpreter between a doctor and a patient. "How will Espoo ensure that the skill levels are correct or appropriate? There is always a risk that an interpretation is wrong," she pointed out. 

McLean added that introducing services in English will not relieve the city of the need for interpreter services. "Not everyone who doesn't speak Finnish or Swedish will speak English."

She said that the proposal will require the city to decide on methods to determine an appropriate English language requirement, determine how and who will test for skills and what standards will be applied.

Helsinki to double English in kindergartens, schools

Espoo is not the only city that has been pondering a move toward formalising the use of English for municipal services. Helsinki deputy mayor for education Pia Pakarinen said that internationalisation forms a major plank of the city's strategic plan, although it has stopped short of adopting sweeping changes like neighbouring Espoo.

"We are considering doubling English services in kindergarten and in schools. But as far as I know, we are not doing the same as Espoo [making English working language of the city]. But as far as competitive educational offerings are concerned we want to meet all ages from preschool, daycare and higher education in English and other important languages, in order to get talented people from around the world to move here," she added.

Pakarinen noted that while Helsinki has done well to attract international workers, the city still needs more new blood from abroad. One way to do that she concluded, is to provide better services in English.