Helsinki Plans Immigrant Education Shake-Up

Fresh focus on education equality and language skills aims to improve the situation for immigrant-background kids in the capital city.

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File picture of early education classroom / Credit: iStock

Helsinki City Council is expected to approve an overhaul of its education provisions this month, to try and improve qualifications and opportunities for students with immigrant backgrounds.

It comes as repeated studies show children with one or both immigrant parents consistently do less well at school than children with two parents born in Finland.

After consultations and workshops involving hundreds of teachers and education experts, the city will focus on a strategy that puts more emphasis on education equality.

“Helsinki prides itself on being the most impactful place for learning in the world. That’s the tradition in Finland, no matter your background, you have the chance to become anything you want with education” says Pia Pakarinen (NCP), Helsinki Deputy Mayor with responsibility for eduction.

“We want to give the same possibilities for immigrant-background kids and adults. We want the learning results and the education level of the people with immigrant background to be the same as of the people who were born in Finland” she says.

Fellow City Councilor Fatim Diarra (Green) has a Finnish mother and Malian father, and taught Finnish to immigrants at a special reception class for a year, so she understands well the challenges faced by children who arrive in Finland from another country.

“Although Finland is a country where education is fair and free we are actually failing our immigrants” she tells News Now Finland.

“It’s shocking that immigrants are failing at education. It’s not that they are less intelligent than Finns, it is something about our education system. In Finland we are used to thinking the same shoe fits all but it doesn’t. This means we need to take extra care of immigrant children, or kids with special needs to get all the opportunities to get ahead in life” she says.

“Education is the tool to have a good life. When you look at the statistics of unemployment, the more education you have the better you do in life”.

Improving Language Skills

Language fluency is another big deciding factor for education success, and Helsinki’s new plan places an emphasis on this too, recruiting more language professionals to capital city schools.

A €5.5 million government package announced last autumn will help this effort, with training to help immigrants who already have an official qualification from their own country work as subject teachers and in kindergartens.

OECD research confirmed that early exposure to the host country language is extremely important for children’s success at school.

Children who arrive in Finland during early childhood and who are exposed to Finnish early in their lives have higher test scores than those who arrived age 6 to 11; who in turn perform better compared to those children who arrive later.

Currently, immigrant children get a year of Finnish language classes, in small groups usually no more than 12, with intensive support from their teacher. After this, they are integrated into mainstream classrooms, where making friends with Finnish students is another key part of language, and education, success.

“When the kids are shifted to the bigger classes they still need more support. The best way to learn a language is first the basic skills, how to ask for help in Finnish or Swedish. After that you can go to a normal classroom where the easiest way to learn is by having friends” explains Fatim Diarra.

Criticism From The Right

Activists on the right of Finnish politics have regularly used the facts around poor education outcomes for many immigrant children to support their notion that multiculturalism or immigration has ‘failed’ in Finland.

“It’s a hopeless goal to get learning outcomes for pupils from migrant backgrounds to the level of the [native Finnish] population. This has not been achieved in any Western European country and will not happen in Finland. The cultural differences are simply too great” wrote Mikael Lith on Twitter. Lith is an ardent Finns Party supporter, and works as an assistant at the European Parliament in Brussels.

“The truth is that integration of people of immigrant origin has been a total disaster everywhere in Western Europe. And we need now new recipes and solutions instead of ducking our heads in the sand when facing inconvenient facts” he writes.

Helsinki’s Deputy Mayor Pia Pakarinen agrees that more should be done about the education deficit for immigrant children, but she sees this as a fixable problem if resources and support are given, rather than some failure of multiculturalism.

“We have a rather short history with immigrants. Now the share of immigrant-background kids is 20% in the schools of Helsinki and I agree, we should have started earlier” she concedes.

Pakarinen tells News Now Finland there won’t be more funding for their immigrant education reforms, but that “the plan is part of the strategy of City of Helsinki and is funded as part of our normal budget reserved for the implementation of the strategy”.

As a multicultural kid growing up in the Helsinki education system, Fatim Diarra knows only too well the issues that children face. She says investing in immigrant education, after a harsh period of budget cuts by the centre-right coalition government of Juha Sipilä, brings long term benefits for the country.

“If you look at who are getting ahead in life and who are winners in our education system […] if the argument is that multiculturalism doesn’t work and we shouldn’t educate immigrants, then you could say we shouldn’t educate the children of working class people either because they are also not doing so well in the education system” says Diarra.

“It’s easy and it’s lazy to be negative. You are not looking at the reasons behind it you are just saying something out of your mouth without giving the facts. That’s lazy politics. And when you do education, there’s no room for laziness”.