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Tuesday's papers: Presidential debate, police confusion and bad news for Finland's schools

Finland's print press looks at Monday night's presidential candidate debate, a leaked email from the Interior Ministry suggesting police disarray, and an expert report on the worrying status of Finland's comprehensive education system.

Tuula Haatainen, Pekka Haavisto, Laura Huhtasaari, Merja Kyllönen, Sauli Niinistö ja Nils Torvalds presidentinvaalipaneelissa.
Six of the seven presidential election candidates. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Helsingin Sanomat reports on last night's campaign debate, the second of its kind in preparation for the first round of Finland's presidential elections in January 2018. The paper says incumbent Sauli Niinistö dominated this second discussion in the Great Hall of the Helsinki University for two reasons. First, because the latest polls show he commands 67 percent of voter support, and second, because the debate on foreign and security policy and the scale of presidential power in Finland made him the de facto resident expert.

Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö (no relation to the President) recently decided that Finland would host large-scale joint military exercises in 2020, a subject of much derision among the challenging candidates, as he apparently hadn't cleared any of these plans with Parliament or the President.

"I had no idea, nor did anyone else, because no kind of preparations had been made," Sauli Niinistö confirmed, but as his fellow debaters condemned the loose cannon minister, he eventually defended Jussi Niinistö, saying that the plans were only in their initial stages.

Seven candidates are vying for the presidential seat. All were present except Matti Vanhanen from the Centre Party, who was admitted to hospital on Friday with heart palpitations. Finns Party candidate Laura Huhtasaari was the only candidate said that Finland's President no longer had enough power, suggesting that the President should be able to dissolve the Parliament, call for new elections and have more say in EU matters, if the situation required.

"I think the system works just fine as it is," Sauli Niinistö replied, adding that he feels cooperation on EU matters with the Prime Minister Juha Sipilä has been successful. 

The paper evaluated each of the candidates to finish the piece, criticizing most for not daring to take the incumbent to task. To candidate Niinistö, HS suggests he tone down his mentoring role and tendency to get easily annoyed.

Leaked email suggests police confusion

Turun Sanomat looks at a leaked email from the chief civil servant at the Interior Ministry, Päivi Nerg, to the top police and intelligence bodies of Finland.

"The division of duties between the National Police Board (Poha) and the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) must be made clearer," the memo reads.

Nerg tells LM that she doesn't remember sending the email, but admits she likely could have, and says it is linked to ongoing results evaluations at the two organisations. She says that Supo was only transferred from Poha to her ministry less than two years ago, so there are still many things that need to be ironed out.

"Especially now that laws on civil liberties are being prepared, there are several details that need to be clarified. It is terribly important that responsibilities, mandates and leadership systems are coherent…. nothing can fall through the cracks," she said.

School success going down the tubes?

And to finish this Tuesday's review, Iltalehti shines a light on expert testimony that says Finland's headline-grabbing school success is in peril. Finland's MPs commissioned research from a number of academic experts, and Iltalehti selected five of the report's conclusions that they feel are most concerning.

First, study results are falling across the board in Finland. Since 2006, when Finland was ranked the top in PISA testing, results in reading, maths and natural sciences have all steadily dropped. Boys in rural areas have shown the most dramatic slump, while most girls have maintained high levels of aptitude.

Second, wildly different grading scales in use in the country's schools stand the risk of sabotaging some young people's future. Jussi Välimaa, director of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, says that the schools and teachers aren't to blame, as standard nationwide grading criteria are lacking.

"One decimal point can make the difference in being selected to your top choice of upper secondary school or vocation school, or becoming ostracized from further studies all together," he tells IL.

Third, Professor Erno Lehtinen makes the case that even more worrying than the falling PISA results is the rapid rise of the influence of pupil's varying socioeconomic backgrounds on ever-widening levels of study results.

"Overall, disparity between schools in Finland is still quite small, but less attention has been paid to the fact that variation within the classrooms is growing strongly. It is already larger than elsewhere in the Nordics," he says.

Money is tight and paperwork useless

Next on the list is cuts to education financing. Finland invested in its comprehensive education for decades, and the 1990s can be considered a golden age of primary and secondary schools in Finland. Pupils were offered high-quality lessons with up-to-date learning materials and extensive support services.  In the 2000s, several important advances were made in terms of pupil rights to learning assistance, but funding has begun to dwindle.

"In response, the government obliged teachers to fill out elaborate paperwork about their support work, which ate up the specialist teachers' resources. The documentation requirement has reached idiot proportions," education consultant Martti Hellström tells IL.

And fifth and last on the list is what university lecturer Venla Bernelius calls the development of two national peripheries: Large rural areas and expanding low-performing urban hubs.

"This new poor performance demographic is concentrated in weakening districts of the cities. For example, differences in student aptitude between Helsinki's schools are not just as large as those between all of Finland's municipalities," she tells IL.

Education Ministry representative Ulla Laine says the variation in mother tongue aptitude is growing. Some pupils are improving, while others are falling behind. Children of low-income families are having the hardest time. For the time in decades, regional differences are also pronounced. Laine says that the greatest difference in reading skills is now apparent between pupils in western Finland and those from the capital city region, with the latter an entire year behind their peers.

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