This is Why the Lack of Education in English for Expat Kids in Finland May Be a Good Thing

Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Since my arrival in Helsinki eight months ago, I have noticed one consistent complaint amongst its expatriate community.  No, not the sub-zero temperatures nor the woeful lack of sunlight for a quarter of the year. The most common problem encountered by this transient community is the lack of education offered in English for their primary school aged children.

It is well documented that Finland’s education system was restructured 20 years ago, and this seed of innovation has developed into a world-renowned benchmark in education. One vital change made was creating the role of a teacher highly desirable by increasing salaries, ultimate responsibility and accountability. The role is now enormously respected within the community which makes sense considering they are shaping the next generation. There are many other changes which contribute to Finland’s success, so what has gone wrong to stir up Helsinki’s international community?

There are many other changes which contribute to Finland’s success, so what has gone wrong to stir up Helsinki’s international community?

As a parent of primary aged children, I am well aware that a child’s happiness (or lack of) has a huge impact on a family’s emotional wellbeing while trying to integrate into a foreign country. The stories told both verbally and on social media all read very similarly. When applying for roles in Helsinki and planning an international relocation, parents are being reassured there are many opportunities for their children to learn in English. The reality hits with a crash when parents frantically call the half dozen schools offering tuition in English only to be advised they have no vacancies.

Picture: Georgie Gaskin for Finland Today

Currently, there are a total of six schools offering classes taught in English, grade one to six. These include two fee-paying schools which I spoke to for this story and both are only offering students to be waitlisted for positions in the upcoming new school year.

Legislation states all six bilingual schools must have similar entrance criteria for bilingual students. This includes sitting an entrance aptitude test and only the highest achievers in these tests are offered the few available positions. The tests are generally in English and positions are available to both local Finnish residents and non-Finnish speaking newcomers.

Annika Winstanley is a parent currently wading through the red tape, attempting to obtain a bilingual placement for her son who will be starting the first grade in August. “My child tested for four council-run schools and did not get in. It sees my bilingual son ending up in the local school where English language classes start from grade three,” she said.

I spoke to Marja Kyllönen, the acting head of the education division in Helsinki, who advised me the education division are very aware of the current demand for positions in the bilingual program. “We are aware of the increasing demand not only from mobile families but also locals. We are currently in discussions to increase the number of positions but there is no space to increase classes in Helsinki,” Kyllönen said. “With 1,000 new students entering Helsinki schools each year of which about 20 percent having non-Finnish or weak Finnish language skills, a considerable strain is placed on our schooling system. We have been discussing the possibility of adding bilingual classes in Eastern Helsinki.”

“We are currently in discussions to increase the number of positions but there is no space to increase classes in Helsinki.”

Picture: Georgie Gaskin for Finland Today

Local Helsinki teacher Kalevi Kurronen, an American with Finnish heritage, understands the importance of offering international students the opportunity to integrate into Finland through bilingual schooling programs. “The demand for international education has now surpassed the supply. This area of the education division has been stunted and neglected. The current situation has created a desperate situation for many families.” Kurronen said.

So, what happens when you find out your child won’t be receiving their education in English? Helsinki has an integration program set up for students with little or no Finnish speaking skills within the local schooling system.

Have faith in the Finnish education system.

The children are given one year in a preparatory class allowing them time to learn the Finnish language while gradually exposing them to their peer group class as their skills increase. There are currently approximately 500 children within this system in Helsinki. All foreign children also have the right to attend two hours a week of tuition in their mother tongue outside of school hours at no cost.

It may not all be doom and gloom should your child not receive a position within the bilingual program so don’t pack your bags yet. John Davies moved his family from the U.S. to Helsinki in 2016. His 10-year-old son didn’t receive a place in the bilingual program but he is pleased with the outcome a year on. “My son didn’t find a space in the English stream at Ressu school or elsewhere. At first, it was painful, but now almost a year in the preparatory stream has been successful. My son is learning the language. I feel the primary school education offerings are sufficient.”

As to be expected, when it comes to the education and emotional well-being of our children, emotions run high. Helsinki seems to be offering foreign children arriving on its shores the best possible opportunities under the tight belt of its current economy. If you are currently experiencing the frustration of your child not being allotted a position within the bilingual program, have faith in the Finnish education system. They say it is the best in the world.

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