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'Positive discrimination funding' boosts educational progress among boys, immigrant pupils

Schoolchildren in Helsinki benefit from additional funding targeted at schools with more children from low-income and immigrant background families, says a new study by the VATT Institute for Economic Research.

Oppilaat työskentelevät tabletilla.
Boys and youngsters from immigrant families have particularly benefited from the programme. Image: Minna Heikura / Yle

Finnish officials use the term ‘positive discrimination funding’ to refer to allowances paid to schools based on the educational status and income level of pupils' parents and the number of immigrant families in the area.

This policy, which is aimed at limiting social exclusion, has now been shown to boost the likelihood that pupils continue studies into secondary education – especially among boys and pupils of immigrant background.

More of the youngsters at these schools go on to general upper secondary schools, in other words academic high schools.

Big return on investment

"The study shows that a minor investment can have a surprisingly large impact," says researcher Mikko Silliman. "In 2008, one in every three immigrant students in Helsinki did not continue their studies after comprehensive school. The positive discrimination funding has decreased this share by one fifth."

The funding was introduced in Helsinki in 2008 as part of efforts to prevent marginalisation, says Silliman, a doctoral student at Harvard University.

Silliman tells Yle that he was surprised by the results of the study – and particularly that they were so clear.

In 2008, a third of immigrant-background pupils did not go on to secondary education, but since the introduction of the positive discrimination funding, that share has declined to one fifth.

"Big jump" at Helsinki schools

The study compares results in Helsinki to comparable schools in other parts of Finland, and suggests that the same approach would have similar results elsewhere.

"Before this funding was launched in Helsinki, trends at these schools were generally moving in the same ways. But as soon as the funding was adopted, there was a big jump at Helsinki schools while at other schools the same old trends continued," explains Silliman.

He points out that the funding does not involve large sums, only a few hundred euros per pupil. Most of this is used to hire special needs assistants and other support staff.

"If we're interested in keeping youngsters in school, this is a really effective way to improve that," he says.

"We at the Finnish National Agency for Education welcome these fresh VATT research findings," says Leena Nissilä, Counsellor of Education at the agency.

"I hope and believe that other municipalities will adopt this model," she adds.

"In the Helsinki model, money is distributed to schools using the same criteria as for the state, taking into consideration factors such as the area's employment rate and the number of foreign language speakers. In this way the funding is better targeted to where it was originally intended to go."

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