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The results late last year from the Pisa-survey of global school standards again placed Finland high-up in the international rankings. Finland’s pupils came third in reading, fifth in mathematics and second in nature sciences. But, Swedish-language schools performed less well than those teaching in the medium of Finnish. If Svenskfinland were ranked on its own, its pupils would have come in at eighth, eleventh and ninth place for the respective subjects tested. Just why are Swedish-speaking school pupils performing less well in tests?
Much discussion on this matter took place in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Pisa last autumn. Commentators speculated mainly that it was due to the linguistic situation in many Swedish-speaking schools. Swedish-speaking schools contain a hugely disproportionate number of bilingual students, some of whom (especially in the capital region) may in fact have a better command of Finnish than Swedish (especially the case if they’ve perhaps a Finnish-speaking mother, but Swedish-speaking father) when they start school at seven. However, a large article in this morning’s (27/1) Hufvudstadsbladet questions that easy conclusion.
For a start, pupils in Nyland (Uusimaa) and Åboland out-perfomed students in Österbotten and Åland. If the poorer results by Swedish-speaking students were down to their often mixed language environment, one might expect the highly Swedish-speaking Österbotten and unilingually Swedish Åland to out-perform the far more bilingual Nyland. Instead, Michael Uljens from Åbo akademi’s pedagogical faculty in Vasa suggests that the regional differences are perhaps down to pupils’ ambition. In Österbotten and on Åland, university education in Sweden is often considered as an alternative for those that don’t command the Finnish language, and it is far easier to get into Sweden’s higher education institutes without the highest grades than those in Finland.
But the major issue posed by this morning’s newspaper article regards the standard of teachers in Swedish-speaking schools. Heidi Harju-Luukkainen has analysed the Pisa-results from Swedish-speaking schools. She notes that Finland as a whole performs well in Pisa-surveys because it has extremely few pupils in the lowest ability group used to generate the country-by-country comparisons. Finland does not have geniuses growing on trees, but the vast majority of students perform consistently well. But, in Swedish-speaking schools there are a higher number of pupils in the lower group which drags down their Pisa-averages. Harju-Luukkainen suggests this could be down to the difference in quality of special teachers used in Swedish-speaking schools. In Finnish-speaking schools, these are very good and thus at risk pupils receive high quality support enabling them to reach an adequate level. On the Swedish-side, there is a shortage of such teachers. Three of the six faculty members at Åbo akademi responsible for instructing Swedish-speaking special teachers are senior research students (doktorander*). Finnish-speaking university departments on the other hand can afford to turn away all but doctors when seeking employees. For its part, Åbo akademi in Vasa denies that it offers a poor education for special teachers. Additionally, there are less applicants and thus less competition to become special teachers on the Swedish side. That may mean that Finnish-speaking universities get better candidates training to be special teachers in the first place, a positive once they’re qualified.
So what can be done about this? Some suggest that the fact that Swedish-speaking teachers are only educated in Vasa (in Österbotten) puts off prospective candidates from Nyland, who do not wish to travel so far for their university studies. Some have suggested that teachers should also be educated in Helsingfors (Helsinki) to counter this problem. However, Åbo akademi’s pedagogical faculty in Vasa denies that geography is a problem and warns against splitting the education of teachers in two. Half of the students at Åbo akademi’s teaching unit in Vasa are not from Österbotten.
On a positive note, the problems should not be overstated. Even if the Swedish-speaking pupils are taken alone, they signficantly outperformed students in the other Nordic countries and are still amongst the top in the world. Whilst not counted by Pisa, Hufvudstadsbladet’s article also points out that Swedish-speaking pupils are happier and more involved at school than Finnish-speaking students are. Additionally, integration is better in Finland’s Swedish-language schools.
* There is a difference between Finland and much of the English-speaking world when it comes to academic levels. A doktorand is generally someone who has defended a PhD thesis or is in the process of doing so, and would doubtless be called a doctoral student or even doctor in most English-speaking countries. However, in Finland the rank of doktor (doctor) is higher that this. I am not an education expert, so this may be an unclear and false explanation – but you get the idea, the Finnish-speaking universities generally have staff that are higher qualified.
An survey by the opinion poll company Taloustutkimus has shown that around half of Finnish people are in favour of retaining compulsory Swedish language instruction in Finnish-language schools in Finland. The opinion poll, carried out for the Finnish-language evening tabloid newspaper Iltalehti, showed that only 12 per cent of respondents wanted to retain Swedish instruction in its current form. 40% supported keeping Swedish teaching if one allowed certain municipalities to have an exemption. 30% of those asked were prepared to see Swedish teaching become optional in the long term, whilst 20% were clearly opposed to obligatory Swedish teaching in Finnish-language schools.
Interestingly, support for Swedish teaching was strongest amongst the young. Those in the 15-24 age group were most positive towards Swedish; only one in ten were for the abolition of Swedish teaching. Greatest opposition was amongst those over 50 years old. This is important to note. Those over 50 most likely attended school before the reforms in Finland that turned our educational system into a comprehensive one. Before these reforms, Swedish was not compulsory and only the elite generally learnt the other national language at school. It thus seems that those who have actually been through compulsory Swedish teaching are less negatively disposed to it. This is surely positive news.