Finland may lose half of its primary schools over the next 20 years as the population dwindles, according to a fresh report from the National Agency for Education.
Between then and 2018 the number of schools in Finland decreased by 42 percent. Small schools with fewer than 50 pupils are most at risk of closure.
Next week six pupils will start the term at Finland’s smallest school which is located on Utö, a small island in the southernmost part of the archipelago.
"We can still manage a game of indoor hockey--three against three," the school’s only teacher, Joonas Kokkoniemi, told Yle.
Children arrive at the school by boat from surrounding islands, sometimes spending hours at sea to travel to and from school.
But schools catering to tiny rural communities may soon shut in light of ongoing efforts to centralise primary education into fewer and larger units.
Drawing on data population projections from Statistics Finland, the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) has compiled a report featuring three possible scenarios. In 2018, Finland was home to some 550,000 primary pupils (grades 1-9). By 2040 population forecasts predict that figure to drop to 425,000.
The most drastic picture painted by the agency suggests slashing the number of schools by half. This would keep 1,300 schools in operation, down from 2,300 today.
Fewer village schools has many implications, including pupils in rural communities being forced to commute long distances to get to their classrooms.
However, Kari Nyyssölä, counsellor of education at EDUFI, said he doesn’t anticipate closures to this extent.
"It’s more likely a third of schools will close," Nyyssölä commented, alluding to a second scenario in the report that suggested the national network could shrink by 37 percent.
The mildest scenario put forward by EDUFI sees the country closing around a quarter of schools.
The largest primary school in Finland today--Oulu’s Ritaharju school--caters for 1,500 pupils.
In 2018, Finland had 100 schools with over 700 students, up from 13 schools of that size in the year 2000. At the same time the average size of the student body has increased from 145 to 236 pupils.
Nyyssölä said people shouldn’t pay too much attention to school size, claiming it doesn’t directly correlate with learning outcomes.
In Finland municipalities are in charge of planning their school network, and closures often hinge on one thing--saving money.
"It’s definitely cheaper [to have a bigger school]. The cost per pupil can be twice as high in Oulu’s smaller schools," explained Ritaharju school principal Pertti Parpala.
Nyyssölä meanwhile said centralised service networks have been a societal trend for the past 20 years. Few follow-up studies have, however, been conducted to determine whether municipalities actually saved money by closing small schools.
Heart of a village
Urban geographer Venla Bernelius from Helsinki University pointed out that schools should be seen as more than providers of education.
"Schools are central to the appeal of an entire area," she explained.
Kokkoniemi from the Utö school agreed.
"Many tourists this summer have said they could consider moving here now that they’re working remotely. They’ve been pleased to learn we have a school," he said. "Schools make year round living possible--without them only the child free could live here."