Education Inequality Drives Greens Against Government

Vihreät makes education reform a central part of its opposition platform - but planned vote of confidence in the government pushed back to February.

File photo of school backpack / Credit: Seb_Ra / iStock

Finland’s Green Alliance says its vocal position on education inequality has brought the issue to the public’s attention and forced the government to take some action. But a planned ‘interpellation’ – a parliamentary move that ultimately forces a vote of confidence in the government – has been pushed back to February 2018.

For the Greens, it boils down to a very simple formula.

“We need to take immediate action and stop the budget cuts on education and direct funding to those groups that need it most” says Touko Aalto, Green Alliance Chairman.

“The government has not only been inactive, it has been negligent. Reducing inequality is not on the agenda of the government and as a result, differences between schools, areas, population groups as well as boys and girls have grown significantly in the last years.” Aalto says.

Finland’s Education Slipping

Although Finland enjoys a global reputation as a leader in education standards, there have been holes appearing in that narrative over recent years.

“The equality in our education system has been our strong point, our biggest achievement in Finland, and our system and results have been very equal if you compare to other societies, other countries” says Jaakko Salo, an advisor to OAJ, the Education Trade Union.

Salo stresses that Finland still has one of the most equal education systems in the world, but the problems are highlighted when you compare Finland’s current Pisa education testing scores with previous ones from the early 2000s. Salo describes the difference in Finland’s scores as “very problematic”.

The country’s education system has taken its biggest hit when you look at the socio-economic background of students. The differences between richest and poorest kids used to be the smallest gap in the developed world.

“This has changed in a couple of years and it’s very dramatic. We used to be one of the most equal systems in the world, and now we are basically average” says Jaakko Salo.

The situation wasn’t helped when the current centre-right government coalition came to power and almost immediately cut hundreds of millions of euros from education budgets, forcing many Finnish universities to make hundreds of staff unemployed.

Government budget cuts also changed the way university students got funding to study, and student advocates argue it puts university education out of reach of some students from poorer backgrounds, or forces them into taking more debt in order to graduate.

Where Did It Go Wrong?

Education experts say there is no easy explanation for Finland’s growing classroom inequality problem.

Usually, in a developing society, children receive better education than their parents. But in Finland, there is a risk that children currently in primary school might be less educated than their parents.

“I would say that the turning point was in the 1990s, when we reformed primary school legislation,and it was changed in such a way that many of the strict norms we were used to were abolished” says Jaakko Salo.

Among the changes was the way in which municipalities were allowed to distribute money, which often resulted in less investment in primary schools, and resources for teaching, in many parts of the country.

Tackling The Biggest Problems

The Greens see child poverty, and the inequality of opportunity that starts in childhood, as the biggest problem to be solved.

“Luckily it is also the problem that is the most cost effective to solve” says Touko Aalto.

“Prevention is always cheaper and better for the child in question. Investing in the future of the child is a forward-looking way to lift people and to enable social mobility” Aalto adds.

That sentiment is echoed by former Green Alliance Chairman Ville Niinistö.

“We had a lot of discussion in the last year or so about having 70,000 or 80,000 young men outside employment and outside education, and these numbers are growing” Niinistö tells News Now Finland.

“We have a growing number of people especially men who don’t have the educational skills to be active participants in the labour market for the rest of their lives. This has to be addressed, and all experts say you have to start early” says Niinistö.

Government’s Plans

In Parliament, coalition MPs are not blind to the problems in Finland’s education system, and the attention the Greens are drawing to it makes the situation uncomfortable for government politicians.

“Inequality within the education system is always unbearable […] it is alarming that the difference between boys and girls in reading and some other key skills has widened in past years” says Marisanna Jarva, a Centre Party MP from Kainuu in north east Finland who serves on the Education Committee.

“I am terrified that for the first time ever, research is showing that there are learning gaps between different regions in Finland” she says.

Jarva says that although the government education cuts “have not been easy to accept”, the government’s focus has been on reforming the education system, and lowering debt so that future generations won’t be burdened by it. Jarva also says the government has been putting money into schools in areas that are “socially struggling”, and stresses that the problems with Finland’s education system go back further than just this current government, which has only presented two budgets during its time in office.

“Educational inequality is not to be blamed on this government. But still we are responsible for fixing this” says Jarva.

Interpellation In Parliament

The Green’s interpellation on education was expected to be held before Parliament wraps up for the Christmas holiday. But it looks likely to be pushed back to February instead.

An interpellation forces a discussion on a specific topic, followed by a vote of no confidence in the government. It’s a common tactic of Finnish opposition parties, and takes a lot of work behind the scenes to reach agreement between the different parties co-signing the initiative.

But is it effective?

“Finnish opposition is quite toothless” says Markku Jokisipilä, Director of the Centre for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku.

“In the current political culture it’s about the only way you can visible criticise the line of the government” says Jokisipilä.

“We used to have these committees getting the idea of getting all parties in parliament and the idea was that opposition parties had a say also in legislation when new laws were drafted. But this is now in the past. The 1990s were the last time it was like this. Now the only way for the opposition to highlight their alternative lines are to present these interpellations” Jokisipilä explains.

The last time a Finnish government lost a vote of confidence was back in 1957, so it’s extremely rare that the would bring about the downfall of a government. But that doesn’t deter the Greens from pushing ahead with discussing an issue they believe to be so important.

“Basically it’s the biggest tool that the opposition has in parliament to question government policies” says Ville Niinistö.

“It has two aims. One, to raise a specific issue that has come into the public debate, and then try to change government policy” he says.

“The government is resting on their laurels, resting on the previous achievements of the Finnish education system […] but we have created a public discussion where education funding and equality is now a national debate”.