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Poor literacy keeps eighth of Finnish boys from studies

Ombudsman for Children Tuomas Kurttila says that decreased skills in reading could have an impact on the whole country's future. Poor reading among 15-year-olds is markedly higher among those whose native language is not Finnish or Swedish.

Opiskelijan kädet kirjalla
More than 10 percent of 15-year-old boys struggle to read. Image: Antti Karhunen / Yle

One in eight 15-year-old boys in Finland are disqualified from upper secondary education due to their poor literacy, a new report finds. Tuomas Kurttila, Ombudsman for Children, says he is worried about rising inequality among children and how that can impact Finland's future.

"A country where an eighth of teenage boys cannot continue to high school due to illiteracy is not a sustainable one," Kurttila says. "With seven out of eight boys doing well, the marginal but significant problem of illiteracy is often sidetepped."

The Ombudsman reports to the Council of State every year. Kurttila's report from early 2015 raises concerns of a divided society.

"We have to be glad for what we have going for us, and strengthen what we are good at," he says. "Every child should receive encouragement so that their talents are allowed to show through. This applies to preschool-aged children especially."

Figures show happiness, reality hidden

Finnish children appraise their own lives as very happy, Kurttila says.

"Some 90 percent of 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds consider their lives to be good and their futures bright. Finland is the number one country in the Nordics in this regard, and third in the first world. Only Belgium and the Netherlands are ahead of these figures," he says.

"But one person's childhood is not the same as another's, and many children have very different daily lives indeed," he continues. "There is rising illiteracy and fear over what the future will bring, how they will manage and whether their voices will be heard."

Kurttila says he wants to remind people that even though Finnish children seem to be doing very well statistically, there are many blind spots that adults should take care to notice.

"When we talk about these teens suffering from low literacy, we're talking about 15-year-old boys who have access to some of the world's best education. Many of those boys come from families whose native language is something other than Finnish or English. It matters what kind of family a child is born into and where they spend their childhood," Kurttila says.

Adult working life affects children

Kurttila says that the way that adults handle life and the world they live in has a huge impact on children.

"It's about working life and how people are able to organise their lives, their income and their daily activities," he says. "That is all part of what a young person sees and hears."

Kurttila says that having a high income does not guarantee a child a good life, as they can still experience fatigue and ennui.

"There may be a great deal of pressure in play, and feelings of not being heard. About 70 percent of 8th and 9th-graders say they feel that adults don't respond enough to bullying, for instance. That wouldn't fly in an adult work environment, but in schools it is tolerated."

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