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Under blustery leaden skies a large ring of ravenous children have swarmed around a group of elders guarding a large metal cauldron. The children uniformly stamp their feet and sing in a cacophonous sopranic harmony led by their ringmaster on a crackling PA. The sound of tin and plastic against tin and plastic punctuates the lengthy vocal notes as the children clatter spoons against bowls with rapacious anticipation of the hot grub held within the large metallic vessel. The singing ends and now the head elder selects a child to perform the next stage of the ritual: the casting of the hat. The child takes the cap and casts it into the middle of the ring of children, it lands and yonder, where the peak of the cap points, is where the cauldron is wheeled, marking the beginning of the line from where the grub shall be served.
Today, it’s fish soup!
Sorry for getting a bit dramatic there and no, I am not reviewing an outdoor rendition of Oliver! meets Lord Of The Flies. Instead I write of a wonderful ritual which takes place around 12:00, Monday to Friday, during the summer in parks across Helsinki, where a free hot meal is dished out to all children under 16. And except for the leaden skies that day, there was little to nothing ominous about the spectacle; in fact like so many other quirky initiatives that are embedded in society here I kept thinking to myself why don’t we do things like this in England?
Sometimes living here I get this sense of social altruism. Finland seems to be a country which doesn’t primarily regard people, especially children, as vessels from which to extract capital. It sees more value in having a happy, healthy and educated population. Back home you do notice a deficiency in this kind of cordiality – and it has probably been in decline since the Blitz.
I also felt a little bit of vicarious patriotic pride on my sons’ behalf; here is a country they could be proud of, where helping others and each other is a lesson taught from a very young age. When I was a lad we had Thatcher, who stole my milk and sold my trains.
I‘ve had an interesting week. It bore less fruitful endeavours in comparison to the ones mentioned in my previous column, but allowed me some opportunities to get to know more of the realities my family and I, in fact all of us here, face in the future.
[alert type=white ]Finland seems to be a country which doesn’t primarily regard people, especially children, as vessels from which to extract capital.[/alert]
A gloom that is deemed to linger longer than these leaden summer skies is the chorus of austerity sung by an ensemble of governments across the continent. It is a chorus that has echoed for a long time back home, but as someone whose body is in Finland but whose head still sometimes resides in England, I have felt somewhat detached to what is going on here. As a way of waking me from my political quiescence I attended the recent demonstration against the intended 600 million euros in cuts to education last Monday. There was a large turnout, and those in attendance represented many different walks in life, all obviously with the same concerns for the future.
Whether or not you have participated in the Finnish education system, which I have not, you cannot help but feel a great sense of respect for this humble country that sits at the top of the list of best educators in the world, and an education that is available to all!
As a father of two Finnish boys it makes me happy to know that they will be entering a system of education that is a meritocracy, that allows those determined to further themselves at the cost of hard work rather than the cost of extortionate fees.
Already in the UK there is a huge separation between rich and poor people going to university, again setting up a class division in which only the wealthiest can study and in turn get the better jobs.
It is a travesty, a true disgrace that so many young people in Britain have been denied the right to further educate themselves because of a system that favours those that were, by the luck of birth, born to wealthy families. This system is stagnating parts of society, not helping it. It further entrenches those who cannot afford into situations of aspirational futility. Well, that and the fact that we have a Queen who’s annual £40 million tax funded income will be ring fenced for at least two years whilst disabled people, young people and less well off families can expect huge cuts to vital services.
Here in Finland it does seem crazy that anybody would dare to touch an institution that is proven to be the world’s best. I’d have thought that it would’ve been something to protect with the utmost implacable determination – but then I’d have thought the same about our treasured National Health System back home.
[alert type=white ]In Finland altruism and the political philosophy of meritocracy is taught from an early age; England, with its antiquated institutions of privilege such as the Royal Family, will never know such virtue.[/alert]
Sadly, as in England, despite the swelling numbers opposing cuts, Finland’s government seems sclerotic in its pursuit of furthering its implementation of austerity and decreased living standards for the masses. All this to bolster the confidence of the financial institutions which implement the capitalist and market-based ideology which we must try to survive under.
What irks me the most with this financial scripture of austerity is that it damages the young and future generations, those who are least to blame for the mistakes of those that currently wield the power. I always assumed that it was the other way around, that today we must suffer so that tomorrow’s generations have it a bit easier. I have no faith that austerity will lead to anything except the slow undoing of everything, generation by generation, as it was slowly built, generation by generation.
To the current government and those who empowered them in England, the idea of cuts to education may seem like the perfect sacrificial lamb. By some, further education is regarded as a superfluous indulgence that sections of the electorate do not want to foot the bill for, believing it is sapping their potential wealth in the form of taxes. In these trying times, public services have been cut or monetised to the extent of further education not being attainable to large sections of society.
Finland’s population enjoys the benefit of what is currently the best education in the world, and free. This needs to be preserved. In Finland altruism and the political philosophy of meritocracy is taught from an early age; England, with its antiquated institutions of privilege such as the Royal Family, will never know such virtue.
I believe that the real wealth that we as a civilization have managed to attain in our history on this planet are the structures that are designed to enable us to care for each other and the planet, to nurture creativity and feed the hunger for knowledge.
Everything we enjoy today – peace, comfort, political stability, education, democracy – were built on the struggles of those before us. All I see austerity bringing us is the preservation of wealth of the powerful, whilst those who should be advancing, not just for themselves but for society as a whole, are being abandoned. It is not the legacy we should be proud to be leaving to future generations.