MP Talk gives members of parliament the opportunity to share their views on Finnish society with an international audience. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Helsinki Times.
Finland is globally well known for its equal, high-quality, cost-effective and productive education system. The reputation is well deserved and we, as a country, are proud of it.
Even though we have good reason to be proud, we must not be complacent. Finland’s education system will not retain its quality without maintenance, and we have many reasons to be concerned for the system’s future.
The first concern is the data showing that 10% of 15-year-olds graduating from basic education lack “functional literacy:” they can read, but they don´t understand what they read. The number of illiterate youngsters is rising. There is a big gender gap: boys’ literacy has declined more than girls’. There is also a growing socio-economic gap: the literacy of less well-off youth has declined more significantly than that of their better-off peers. There is also a geographical gap in learning results: differences between urban neighbourhoods are huge, and results in northern and eastern Finland lag behind southern and western parts of the country.
Falling literacy is a reason to be alarmed. If you don’t understand what you read, it is very difficult to succeed in higher education or in the labour market. Functional illiteracy can be a major reason why so many young people drop out of school in secondary education. Poor literacy marginalises people and can drive them into social exclusion and poverty. Lost labour and expenses on welfare mean functional illiteracy is expensive to society as a whole.
What, then, should we do to repair and renew the Finnish education model? There are no simple solutions, but there is a lot of work to be done.
Firstly, we should look at inequality. To close the gender gap, we have to close the holes in our attitudes and methods. Boys must be encouraged to read more and the system needs to address boys’ problems and needs. Socio-economic gaps can be addressed through general social policies, integration policies and the eradication of poverty. To address the geographical gap, we also need to make sure that schools in less well-off areas have enough resources and extra funding. Urban planning also needs to be carried out to prevent social segregation of neighbourhoods. In rural areas, we have to make sure that education is accessible. It is essential that school classes are small enough that the teacher has enough time for each student, and we must make sure there is special support for those kids that have learning or social difficulties.
A recent study shows that some teenagers drop out of secondary education because of the costs related to education. The education itself is free-of-charge but the books and other materials create costs rising to thousands of euros. This is a national tragedy, because dropping out of secondary education usually means social exclusion, poverty and unemployment. The Left Alliance has proposed that all secondary education should be totally free of costs and the compulsory education age should be raised to 18 years and expanded to secondary education. This would prevent dropouts and marginalisation, especially in immigrant families and poor families.
In Finland, we have seen how it really pays off to invest in an equal and high-quality education system and the return on investment is high. Even though Finland has many challenges, we are still a rich country and we have the money to invest into our kids. But are we smart enough to do it?
Hanna Sarkinen is the Vice Chair of the Left Alliance party and has been a member of parliament since 2015. Originally from Oulunsalo, Ms. Sarkinen studied History at the University of Oulu and completed her master’s degree in 2014. She is a member of the city council of Oulu.