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Finland starts two-year preschool trial

Experts highlight staffing shortages as Finland plans a pilot extending preschool education to five-year olds.

Luhangan alakoulun oppilas värittää kuvaa sinitiaisesta.
The intention of the experiment is to determine the impact of starting formal education one year earlier than the current six years. Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

Finland is rolling out a pilot scheme extending preschool teaching to five-year-olds. A number of municipalities across Finland will participate in the experiment, during which policymakers hope to discover the potential impact of longer preschool education on learning outcomes and gender equality.

By the end of this month, municipalities will find out if officials have randomly chosen them to participate in the two-year trial. The experiment is scheduled to begin in August, with around 10,000 children born during 2016 and 2017 taking part.

Mervi Eskelinen, a senior specialist at the Ministry of Education and Culture, said the project aims to see if starting preschool education earlier puts children on a more level playing field once they enter first grade.

"The sooner children with special needs get support, the more effective it is. If a child needs extra help, a two-year preschool can provide that support earlier," she explained.

School at age six?

However, Mia Heikkilä, an early childhood education professor at Åbo Akademi University, said that the pilot lacked a clear focus.

"I’m skeptical that we would need a pilot on such a large scale if we are looking to increase equality," she said, adding that the trial may be a step toward lowering the school age from seven to six. "It’s important that the results are carefully evaluated to see if the project met its goals."

The education ministry has said a separate curriculum will be created for the test group, with results of the experiment to be evaluated in a post-trial research project.

Heikkilä criticised the project for rolling out too quickly, noting that municipalities selected in January will have to scramble to implement a new curriculum and hire qualified staff by fall.

Moms to work

Beyond the pilot programme, parliamentary groups are not unanimous on the issue of extending preschool education to five-year olds. The Christian Democrats have said they want preschool at age five to be voluntary, while the Social Democrats have said they will formulate a position once trial results are published.

Extending compulsory education to five- and six-year olds would cost local governments an additional 90 million euros a year, according to a 2018 study. But Andreas Elfving, policy head at the Swedish People’s Party, said efforts to help parents get back into the workforce sooner are worthwhile initiatives.

"In Finland, mothers stay home with their children longer than in other countries, which is one reason the employment level is lower here than in other places," he said.

Cecilia Paul, a mother of three, said forcing parents to bring their five-year olds to school every day would increase pressure on families.

"The difference between daycare and preschool is that preschool is compulsory. You have to take the kids there at a certain time while daycare is more flexible...it’s one more daily stressor," she explained.

Finland has long had a shortage of early childhood teachers, which is why Heikkilä said she sees many challenges pertaining to practicalities involving staffing.

"There is absolutely no extra staff, there’s nothing in the pilot proposal that pinpoints how the personnel issue will be handled," she said.

Eskelinen from the Ministry of Education meanwhile emphasised that extending preschool doesn’t mean kids will be sitting behind desks. However, both Heikkilä and Paul said they believe daycares offer a solid foundation for continuing on to preschool.

"Kids are already doing a lot in daycare...they practice letters, writing and cutting. It's enough if you ask me," said Paul.

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