Meeting with the Finnish Parents League

The education system in Finland has been raised several times in the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island in recent sittings, culminating, on November 18, 2014, with the a motion put forward by Hon. Steven Myers, Leader of the Opposition:

WHEREAS the Province of Prince Edward Island is failing to foster a culture of learning which is conducive to the highest standards worldwide;

AND WHEREAS providing Islanders with the opportunity to maximize their potential and accumulate a wide base of knowledge to achieve the upmost set of educational skills is a fundamental function of government;

AND WHEREAS there is great potential to learn significant lessons and policy solutions from a recognized leader in high standards of education skills achievement such as Finland;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that this Legislative Assembly encourage the government of Prince Edward Island to examine the Finnish approach to discover any takeaways to improve educational skills achievement here in Prince Edward Island

While the motion did not carry (the vote was 19 against, 2 for), the debate of the motion did result in almost 30 minutes of discussion of the Finnish education system, especially as it relates to the public education system here in Prince Edward Island.

This discussion led us to conclude that it would be a good idea to arrange a discussion with Suomen Vanhempainliitto, the "Finnish Parents' League," an organization with aims very similar to those of the PEI Home and School Federation:

The purpose of the Finnish Parents' League is to combine the resources of parents in order to build a good learning and growing environment for all children and young people. As a specialized organization, the League strives to influence national opinion and decisions.

The Finnish Parents' League works in conjunction with educational institutions and social and health institutions. The most important forms of activity for the League are supporting the upbringing of youth, informing and exerting influence, advising, education seminars and the parental parliament.

Staff at the League were receptive to the idea, and so on the morning of March 9, 2015 we met via Skype (at 9:00 a.m. PEI time, 2:00 p.m. Finnish time).

Representing PEIHSF were Peter Rukavina (President), Lisa MacDougall (Regional Director, Montague Family of Schools), Joanna Stewart (Vice-President, via Skype), Shirley Jay (Executive Director); we were joined by Dr. Ron MacDonald (Dean of Education, University of PEI) and B. J. Willis (Welcome to Kindergarten Coordinator, The Learning Partnership).

Representing Suomen Vanhempainliitto from Oulu, Finland via Skype was Sari Manninen (Inclusion Specialist), and from Helsinki, Finland via Skype were Ulla Siimes (Executive Director), and Melody Karvonen Naghme (Multiculturalism Specialist).

The purpose of the meeting was for our two associations to learn more about each other, about parent engagement in our respective education systems, and about the nature of each other's public education system.

The following summary is taken from notes collected by Shirley Jay and Lisa MacDougall during the meeting and assembled and edited by Peter Rukavina.

About the Finnish Parents' League

Founded in 1907, the League is comprised of 1400 member organizations, most of which are based in individual daycare centres and schools, but 20 associations that work on a community level.  There is no mandate that each school must have a parent organization; it is up to each school, and the degree of engagement by parents in the organizations varies widely from school to school. The League has 10 staff people; 8 work at an office in Helsinki and, 2 at an office in Oulu, 900 km north; staff work to combine the resources of parents to support children’s learning. They are asked to provide input on federal policy and are invited to join working groups advocating for children and education.

The league receives only minimal government funding: the balance of the operations are funded by a longstanding countrywide lottery scheme that supports many organizations and to which the League must apply every year. Member associations pay no membership fees.

Some parent effort is spent on fundraising for school trips and incidentals, but mostly not on core operational activities. This is changing as funding to education decreases; however, the League discourages fundraising of this kind.

The League's "programme objectives" for 2015-2019 are to work to ensure that every child in a daycare centre or school receives an education that is (automatically translated, with minor edits, from here):

  • Communal: Based on the value of community – each and all. Home and school cooperate actively, are partners. Parents are involved in school / kindergarten activities, and also support the inclusion of children. School / kindergarten is not an island, but actively interacts with the surrounding community.
  • Equal: Basic education is free of charge. School / college should be within a reasonable distance. Equality does not mean the unification, but also a children's and young people's personal tendencies must be observed. Each of children and young people must be respected and encouraged. Support and guidance is available when it is needed. Advancing technology is seen as an opportunity.
  • Safe: The way to school must be safe for the child's mind. School / day care center does not tolerate bullying. School / nursery units are a reasonable size, big is not always in their best interest. Groups are sized such that they offer the opportunity to learn and grow. Teachers and other educators are sufficient.
  • Healthy: Every child and young person has the right to a healthy school. Indoor air problems to be solved. The food is tasty and healthy. The public health nurse, school psychologist and school social support well-being.

Public Education in Finland

Fundamental to the notion of public education in Finland is equality: ensuring that every single student is provided with a high-quality education.

Public education begins with daycare programs, followed by a one-year kindergarten program for 6 year olds, and a nine year "comprehensive school" program that starts at age 7 and ends at age 15. This is followed by non-compulsory secondary or vocational education and then by non-compulsory higher education. A high percentage of students continue on to higher education.

Education is free, beginning with daycare and through university, with the only charges being for books at the high school level and beyond.

There is a set national curriculcum (which is scheduled for an update), but there is considerable opportunity for local schools to interpret and supplement this curriculcum; local autonomy is high.

There are no school boards in Finland.

There is an aim to include students with special needs in the standard classroom, with supplemental staff and resources to support them. The inclusive model has been in place over the last decade; gowever, there still exist separate classes for children with special needs, but they are joining in standard classroom teaching in some subjects, with assistance if needed. In basic education support for studies and pupil welfare is shaped into three categories in the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education: general support, intensified support and special support.

As on Prince Edward Island, "class composition" presents a challenge to students and teachers: increasingly complex classrooms demand flexibility and resources that aren't always present.

The Financial Crisis

Finland is in the midst of the same financial crisis that is affecting much of Europe, and this is straining budgets and is leading to increased class sizes, decreased resources, and this is thought to be a contributing factor to a recent decrease in PISA test score results.

Teachers in Finland

The teaching profession is held in high esteem in Finnish society, and teaching is seen as an attractive career path: only 10% of applications for teaching programs at the university level are accepted. While the esteem to which teachers are held is high, they receive only an average wage.

All teachers must have a masters degree (kindergarten teachers at least a bachelors degree); the amount of time needed to complete this degree varies by specialization and whether students choose to work at the same time as they are in school. The teachers union is strong, representing 95% of teachers.

Professional development takes place on three teacher-training days embedded in the school year; these are Saturdays, so do not require a loss of regular school days for students. There's a general feeling that Finland could do better at "in-service" training.

There is considerable collaboration between teachers.

The School Year and School Day

The school year begins on August 11 and ends on June 1, with holidays for Christmas and Easter and two 4-5 day breaks, one in the autumn and one in the spring.

The school day's start and end are controlled at the school level and can vary from day to day.

School Breakfast and Lunch

There is a fully-funded breakfast and snack program for kindergarten students.

All students receive a fully-funded hot lunch, which includes vegetables and salad. There's seen to be a direct link between student nutrition and student learning, and the hot lunch program is sacrosanct.

Newcomer Integration

There has been considerable immigration to Finland in recent years, and there is thus a large population of immigrants. While there are programs in place to assist with integration, and a law that mandates integration, there are never enough resources. The League has a multiculturalism specialist who is dedicated to working on these issues with schools and parents.

Finnish is an incredibly difficult language to learn, and this presents a challenge to integration, especially when children learn Finnish before their parents do.

Sometimes it's small, simple things that can help the most: bilingual parents offering to help newcomers with understanding school work, for example.

Social-Emotional Issues

There has never been a strong focus on social-emotional issues at school, and this is an area where it's seen that work is needed. There are issues of violence and bullying in Finnish schools (school shootings, low school satisfaction reported by students) and new curricula is being put in place to address safe schools, and this incorporates both students and parents participation.

Our discussion ended with suggestions that "it's important to bring safety and joy back into education"; that "love and authority have to come together"; and an offer to meet again, or to answer questions by email, if there's a desire to learn more.