The Helsinki Region’s international schools offer a true melting pot of learning.
When you walk into an international school, it’s as if you jump into a huge melting pot swirling with students and teachers from all over the world. They come from near and far corners of the globe to mix together with a common recipe for education. An education unique in its worldliness, individuality, and open mindedness.
Helsinki currently offers a range of international schools catering to children of diplomats, businessmen and women, Finnish parents returning after living for many years abroad and Finnish parents who want their children to enjoy the benefits of an international education.
In any given international classroom there can be easily over 10 nationalities represented. They come from families of ambassadors, international business people, artists or simply families seeking a global environment for their children. They speak different languages, practice different religions and customs, eat different foods, and have different looks. But they all join to share their backgrounds and develop a global mindset together.
SixDegrees spoke to a few insiders to understand more about what life is like in an international school in the Capital Region.
At the chalkboard
Teachers in international schools represent many nationalities just like the students. Ignacio Romero Naves is a Spaniard who has been a teacher at Ressu Comprehensive School for nine years, currently teaching 4th grade. Naves came to Finland in 2004 to do his teaching practice during which time he worked as a substitute. He became so impressed with the Finnish educational system and the multicultural aspect of the international schools, that when a teacher position opened up, he jumped at it. His current class of 24 students is represented by 14 different nationalities.
How is the experience for students at an international school special or unique?
It’s a very enriching environment at these schools. Kids start very early studying and sharing ideas with people not from the same background, so they grow to be very open minded. For example we have this unit in third year called ‘Cultures Around the World’ where each child makes a presentation about their own culture. On open house day they dress up in the national costume and show their project to the parents and other students. This really touches them and they are proud to show their roots. One year we all went to the home economics room with the families and everyone cooked something traditional from their own country. Then we made a recipe book that they sold in the school. It was lots of fun.
How has being from Spain been a bonus for you in this environment?
We Spanish people are very socially laid back and I think this has helped me make easy connections with not only the students, but the parents as well. Which is also an important part of my job.
Are their any special requirements to teach at an international school?
You need to be qualified in inquiry based learning and know how the IB, or International Baccalaureate, program works. It helps to be international yourself or a native English speaker, but it’s not necessary. We have teachers from many different countries so almost everyone speaks with a different accent, but most importantly it’s about being able to communicate together as a group.
Tell me more about this inquiry based learning.
Well it’s quite different than the old fashioned style of a teacher up in front of a classroom of kids sitting at their desks all day. The units are not passive done by following along page by page in a book, but teachers have the freedom to decide how and when to teach concepts based on where the students are and what motivates them. And it really allows kids to express themselves and have a real input in the direction of the learning.
Do they have these sorts of schools in Spain?
They do, but most are private, Ressu is public. And they seem to have a misunderstanding of what international means in Spain because they are calling schools that are bilingual with just English and Spanish being taught, international. But really there is much more to it.
In the head office
Those running the schools are not required to be international but often end up being so. Peter Welch, the principal at the International School of Helsinki, is from England and has lived in 11 countries. He started teaching as a volunteer in Africa and has taught English and History as an international school teacher. Now he has been in administration for 15 years.
What makes the average international family?
Most often it’s expatriate families who are here for work. Usually in diplomatic institutions or international corporations such as Microsoft or Nokia. Often the mom or dad is a Finn and the other not. They have been living abroad and have gotten accustomed to the international system and curriculum and want to continue this global mindset. We have some kids that are just 13 or 14 who have lived in five or six countries already.
What does your school offer?
ISH is an inclusive school, meaning you do not have to test in if the learning needs of the child fit the program. It starts at pre-kindergarten age of 3 years old where the child works their way up through the Primary Years Program, the Middle Years Program and the IB Diploma Program. Besides English, the students also learn in Finnish, Swedish, French and Spanish.
Helsinki’s international schools
The International School of Helsinki in Ruoholahti was founded in 1963 as the British Preparatory School. It’s a non-profit school supported by tuition fees and a small government subsidy. As an IB World School, it offers International Baccalaureate programs to students from age 3 through the 12th grade. This is the curriculum most commonly used by the 3,483 international schools in the 144 countries worldwide that offer IB programs. The school is divided into a Lower School (K1-5) and an Upper School (6-12). Currently the student body comes to 370 students and is represented by more than 40 nationalities.
The English School is a private bilingual school based on Christian values founded in 1945 by The Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. The school offers instruction in a 2-year primary school for ages 5-6 and a comprehensive school for grades 1-9. Both of these provide a strong program in Finnish or English, depending on the student’s mother tongue. A high school under the same umbrella, prepares students for the Finnish Matriculation exam, the SAT and the Cambridge exams, as well as Advanced Placement (AP) programs.
The European School of Helsinki is a public school accredited to the European Schools’ network and follows this structure and curriculum. It has a nursery cycle of two years, primary cycle of five years, and a secondary cycle of seven years. The languages of instruction are English, Finnish and French. Students graduate with a European Baccalaureate which is recognised in the EU and elsewhere.
The Ecole Francaise Jules Verne school is a French school that was founded in 1976. The instruction is in French and follows the French curriculum, and teachers are from the French Ministry of National Education. It offers preschool for children 2-5 years old which also includes instruction on reading, writing, numeracy, and creative activities, as well as Finnish lessons. It also offers a primary school for kids ages 6-10 years old which includes instruction on literacy, numeracy, arithmetic, geography, history, and art as well as classes in English and Finnish. The middle and high schools are partnered with the neighbouring European School of Helsinki. www.ecolejulesverne.fi
Ressu Comprehensive School and Ressu Upper Secondary School are accredited by the International Baccalaureate Organization and serve students from grades 1-9 and 10-12 respectively. These schools offer education in Finnish under the Finnish national curriculum and in English through the IB programs. This includes the Primary Years Program (PYP) and the Middle Years Program (MYP) at Ressu Comprehensive and the IB Diploma Program at Ressu Upper Secondary. Both these schools are publicly run by the City of Helsinki and do not charge for tuition, meals or health services.
Deutsche Schule Helsinki is a private German school founded in 1933. The instruction is based on the Finnish and German curriculums offering teaching in both languages. Thus the school is split into two sides. A strictly German side where only children affluent in German are accepted and a Finnish/German side where German is not necessary for entrance but is taught throughout. Ranging from 1st grade all the way through 12th grade, by the time the students reach high school, almost all instruction is in German. There are about 650 students enrolled, 80% of which are Finnish.
The Finnish Russian School is a public school which began 59 years ago, currently of about 700 students. Its mission is to teach Russian and Finnish language and culture. For children of Russian mother tongue, the school offers instruction in Russian with Finnish as a second language, and for children of Finnish mother tongue, it offers instruction in Finnish with Russian as a second language. The school provides preschool until the child reaches 1st grade. Then a middle school program through the 9th grade, followed by a high school program all the way through 12th grade.
The International School of Vantaa provides instruction solely in English for students in grades 1-9. The curriculum, which is tailor-made within the parameters of the National Board of Education, puts subject areas into thematic units. This allows students to develop learning styles according to their own strengths and weaknesses. The school also provides many cultural clubs and sports teams. The clubs include an animal skills club, a chess, Chinese and cooking club, a choir and orchestra club, a scholastic book club and a WAU club. The sports teams include soccer, floorball and basketball.
Espoo International School offers instruction in English for students grade 7-9 who desire the Middle Years Program in preparation to continue on to an IB high school program. The school follows the national Finnish curriculum and is an IB authorised school. Their language program offers a wide range of languages including, French, German, Swedish, Spanish and Chinese.
Etelä-Tapiolan Lukio of Espoo offers the IB program at the high school level. The program consists of a two-year course in grades 11 and 12 that is usually preceded by a preparatory year. There are six subject groups and the students chose a subject within each of these upon which to focus. They include language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics, and arts or electives.
Do sports play a role in international school life?
It’s not a huge part of the life, but they are important and we do have solid sports programs. We are part of the CEESA, or Central European and Eastern Schools Association, where we compete in sports like soccer, basketball and volleyball with countries all over Central and Eastern Europe. It’s not only sports though, we also take part in speech and debate as well as musical competitions. It’s a great experience for the kids who go to these countries and stay in family houses and go on a cultural tour of the foreign land.
What makes your school special?
Our symbol is the snowflake and our motto is that each one is unique. We have 42 different nationalities so it’s very diverse, but everyone feels comfortable and at home here.
Not all students have an international upbringing. Some just have the goal of living abroad in the future. Tara Salo has grown up in Finland and both parents are Finnish. She is in the IB program at Ressu Upper Secondary School. Her hopes are to go to university in New York.
What is the IB program?
International Baccalaureate. It’s the international schooling worldwide system based on a way of learning that evolves around 10 qualities a student should have. To be an inquirer, knowledgeable, a thinker, communicator, principled, open minded, caring, risk taker, balanced and reflective. It may sound kinda stupid, but it really works and if you look at a student who has come out of the IB program, they really are this.
What does it prepare you for?
A lot of people come because they want to study abroad, about half end up doing so. But overall, it gives you an international thinking style which makes you question things and become a critical thinker. Students are also allowed think more for themselves and develop their own way of learning, they’re not just reading from a book and regurgitating information.
What would you say are some advantages to this over regular Finnish schools?
Staying in a regular school keeps your view of the world so much smaller. And the fact that the IB program uses the same point system around the world, it is much easier to go to school abroad.
Being of Finnish parents, how did you end up in international schooling?
They started me very young, going to an English preschool. And when I was seven years old, they sent me to an international boarding school in India for two years. I learned very early in life that there are so many ways of living than just the way we do it. So I have always been best suited for the international school setting.
The families of international students tend to be very similar. Usually at least one parent is from abroad and they have often lived in many countries. Thus their kids speak at least two to three languages. They come as diplomats, international business people, artists, or for love and marriage. But also, each of these families has their own unique story of how they ended up in Finland.
Wilfried Jacobs is a professional ballet dancer at the Finnish National Ballet. He is Belgian and his wife Japanese. They currently have two children attending Ressu Comprehensive School, Colin and Karin, who also dance in national ballet productions.
How did your family end up in Finland?
My wife and two kids then, now three, had been living in Japan for nine years. I had left a professional career in Germany before this and was working as a freelance dancer in Japan. Then I got an offer to dance professionally in the Finnish National Ballet and teach ballet in the National Opera. We came here in 2007.
Why did you put your children into an international school?
In case we ever move again we want them to speak English and be part of the international community. We speak Japanese at home, so schooling in English will really help them get into higher education and open more opportunities later in life.
What hopes do you have for your kids in attending such a school?
To be open minded and respect others. In the international school environment, children learn from an early age not to mind if another kid is Turkish, American, Moroccan. They all look the same to them, being a foreigner is not a big deal. Everyone grows up different, but together. You learn to treat people based on how you want to be treated. Which is a big problem in the adult world I think, this lack of respect for each other.
So it has been a good experience so far?
Yes. They use their brain in a better way with the inquiry style learning you find at an international school. It’s much different than the old fashioned way where the students never get to question why.