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Teachers' union: Finnish schools need €1bn to return to Nordic standards

The Trade Union of Education says it needs a billion euros to bring Finnish schools back to the Nordic baseline and ensure the well-being of pupils and teachers.

Koululuokka.
Children are at risk due to government budget cuts, says OAJ. Image: Carmela Walder / Yle

Many Finnish middle school students experience violent anxiety during school hours, says the Trade Union of Education (OAJ).

The organisation blames lack of funding and oversized teaching groups for the problem. Six years ago, the government subsidy for education expenses fell from 58 percent to 25-26 percent, it says.

The Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities calculates that preschool and primary education funds have been cut across the country by some 520 million euros per year since 2012.

OAJ specialist Jaakko Salo says that annual sum needs to be returned.

"That would bring us up to a billion euros, which is what we need to get back to our 2012 level and the Nordic average quality of education," Salo says.

The discussion comes after two dramatic cases of students breaking down from stress during the school day in Jyväskylä in August. One child began to self-harm in the middle of a class, while another retreated under a desk to shudder with anxiety.

Teachers say they are increasingly worried about the rise in student stress, which can also frighten other students when expressed during class.

"The worry used to be whether everyone had done their homework," says one anonymous Jyväskylä teacher. "Now each day is just survival for many."

Unequal footing

The differences between municipal funding for various schools can be vast, the OAJ says. Education cuts in south-central Lahti are at nearly 450 euros per student, while the eastern city of Kuopio received an additional 106 euros per student (a budget boost of 1 million euros), since 2013 respectively.

"Group sizes would have become unmanageable without the government subsidy," says Kuopio education chief Leena Auvinen.

When funds run dry, students with special needs must be relocated to regular classes. When group sizes grow, these special needs students risk not receiving the support they need, says OAJ chief shop steward Petri Kääriäinen.

"Teachers are recommending that students seek professional counselling more often than before," he says. "The counsellors just send the kids back. Teachers are not listened to and they don't have the tools to deal with this situation."

First-grade groups in Jyväskylä may include nearly 30 children, with just one teacher and no aides. No minimum group size is delineated in Finnish law.

For years, the OAJ has been lobbying for a legislative change that would give precise figures for maximum group sizes, arguing that many teachers are quitting their jobs due to work stress.

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