Finnish Take Away – something sweet for dessert

Yes, I am a Finnophile.

I do get dewey-eyed and warm and fuzzy when discussing things I saw and heard on my visit. I was shown the good stuff, I know that, not the disadvantage, the unemployment, the underperformance and the disaffection. I know.

And I’m happy with that – I know what a world we live in. I’ve just chosen to promote the positives of the world rather than perpetuate the deficiencies.

Finland isn’t England, or the UK, I know that too. I know that the uniqueness of Finnish history and culture have brought it to a place that can’t just be emulated or reproduced here or elsewhere. And we shouldn’t be trying to do that.

In many ways, though, Finnish collective efforts and belief in betterment for all offer something of a key with which to unlock some of the complexities of our times.


Simple things. Strong messages. Clear aims.

For instance, in Finnish schools, pupils serve themselves lunch. Meals are free and the food is set out in trays and they take what they need. You might think this would lead to clumsy, silly behaviour – no, I saw 7 year olds managing perfectly well. You might suggest greed or wastefulness – but no. Pupils have to eat what they take. They are encouraged to take only what they think they can eat and no more – and there are no waste bins or trays left out for them to scrape their plates into. Sure, if they want more, they can go back, butter themselves some bread – yes, 7 year old with knives, shock – or get a glass of milk, or a piece of fruit. But there is no waste – no advantage in taking more for yourself at the expense of the rest. Lessons learned early in life.

At the Education Department on the final morning of my stay, I heard another of these lessons. One of the officials told me of something she learned as a young teacher, that education was for the whole person, for the hands, the head and the heart. It’s a thought often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, and has been reworked many times. Finns speak openly and unashamedly of their beliefs and values – there is no need for “Finnish values” to be a curricular item, as they are enacted daily and upheld through discussion and decision-making on a local and national scale.


Like many of the buildings in Helsinki, sunk into the granite base-rock of the landscape, these values seem unshakeable. I hope so.

Finnish Take Away – Main

How enlightening can a journey from an airport to a hotel really be?

It’s always interesting – OK, I’m a bit funny in this respect – to see the road signs of different countries. The way a traffic system is run reflects so many of the assumptions of the society itself. And so it proved with Helsinki.

Take speed limits. Not very glamorous in themselves, but the way transgression are dealt with in Finland reflects, actually celebrates, so much about the beliefs of the people. Be wary of going over the speed limit – you could be stung with a big fine, particularly if you’re a high earner, as in Finland the amount you are fined is determined by your income.


Earlier this year, the BBC reported a speeding millionaire who was given a “whopping 54,000-euro fine”. The rationale is that the punishment has to impact everyone the same way – but that doesn’t mean it has to be the same punishment.

So many decisions in Finland are made with this sense of social well-being in mind. When you travel through the city by tram, you might enter at the centre of the carriage. Realising that it could then prove difficult for parents with young children to manoeuvre through other travellers to get to the driver to pay, or might even have to leave their child unattended to do so, authorities decided that parents with children in buggies didn’t have to pay for their journeys.


Two signs of the times, though, have put this provision in jeopardy. Firstly – some people now play the system. Tales are told of ne’er-do-wells bundling closed-up but childless prams onto trams in order to claim a free ride. The consternation as this is discussed is both prickly and palpable. Secondly, technological developments have negated the need for the discount – many trams are now fitted with contactless payment consoles at different points. Mixed blessings.

Times are changing in education too.

Remember, Finland only became an independent country in 1917 when freedom from Russia, and before that Sweden, was finally achieved. Finland is a modern country in an ancient land. Until the 50s, education was limited as the country worked to build its industrial base. Reforms gathered pace and by the 70s something like the current system, its structure of comprehensive school followed by high school, emerged.

A few key points-

Finnish children start formal schooling at 7, the equivalent of our year 3.

There is a year of pre-school before comprehensive schooling starts, where basic literacy and numeracy instruction begin, though the emphasis is still on story, games, talking and play.


The research lab of the Playful Learning Centre at the University of Helsinki.

Finnish comprehensive schooling is of 9 years, from age 7 to age 16 in the same school. Primary-style topic based teaching happens in most schools until the ages of 10-12, but this can vary – each school can prioritise according to its own needs.

At age 16, children choose whether to continue into academic or vocational education. Over 95% of children stay in education, roughly half to each direction. They can move between the two if they wish.

At 19, Finnish students graduate from high school or vocational college. Many continue into university, which is free.

A quirky feature of the Finns’ completion of their schooling is the wearing white caps for their graduation parties. It’s a feature of a number of Nordic countries. (Later, some degrees, in fact, can earn you a top hat, even a sword.) One of my hosts explained the origin of this tradition – apparently, during the early nineteenth century, around the time of the Napoleonic wars, it was thought that students might harbour revolutionary thoughts, so it was wise to have them wear a uniform so that they might be identified in public gatherings.


And so…the successes grew in the Finnish education system. Following the curriculum reforms of the 70s, the demise of private schools, the creation of the matriculation system (whereby students take a final series of exams at 19 but no other formal public exams before this point), Finnish performance, by 2000, seemed to be the envy of many countries.

Within a generation though, all was not well. PISA rankings have fallen slightly, partly due to internal pressures and partly related to the rise of the ‘Tiger’ education systems of south-east Asia.

Increased international mobility and migration have led to broader ethnic and cultural diversity, and a corresponding reduction in the homogenous nature of the Finnish population. Students – from as far away as Somalia or Bangladesh – arrive in Finnish schools with no Finnish or Swedish language. Migrant workers from Estonia bring their children into the country and settle into a new life.

Pressures on the Finnish authorities to accommodate these new communities – and other economic and cultural changes – have impacted on the education system, which characteristically is run on less party-political lines than in the UK. Changes are planned for 10-15 years ahead, with consensus and consultation, reviews and stake-holder discussions key features of the process. I heard talk of the “22nd century skills and workforce”. Holders of public office in the present feel a shared responsibility for the society of the future.



Another road sign – depicting a shared use of space, by the harbour.

I was told of some of the arrangements for children who don’t speak Finnish or Swedish coming into schools. They have the option of taking a whole year to learn the native language(s) before being taught in mainstream classes. As soon as they know enough Finnish or Swedish, they can transfer into some of all classes of their peers. At the same time, these students are supported in the literacy and language development of their own community – two hours a week are dedicated to this, in the belief that continued mother-tongue literacy has multiple benefits, socially and in formal education.

Schools attempt to integrate newcomers into the community, with classes and meetings for parents who might not understand the Finnish systems and who might not have had a lot of formal education themselves. Finns I spoke to about this were keen to explain the role of interpreters – they never use children in this role. It’s not for children to deal with adult problems. Schools and municipal authorities have to provide linguists to ease families’ transitions.

In the midst of all this, curriculum upheaval is rumbling through the whole system. I’ve written about this elsewhere (TES 30/10/15) and will add a link if one becomes available. Permeating all the intricately linked elements of Finnish educational and social systems is a seemingly, hopefully, unshakeable belief in the common good. All children attend their ‘local’ school – there is no understanding of competition between schools in the sense we know it. All schools aim to be the best, for the benefit of all, not at the expense of another.

Teachers feel valued because their ideas are considered, their voices are heard and their individual contributions are meaningful.


Finnish Take Away – Starter

My first views of Finland, arriving on an afternoon flight in early summer, were of the hundreds of lakes and islands that freckle the landscape. Land meets water meets land. Land surrounds water surrounds land. The landscape in itself reflects the many dualities with which Finns are quite comfortable.


Finland is open to the Baltic sea, with the gulfs of Bothnia and Finland to the west and south-east respectively. Helsinki, the tremendously splendid and beautiful Nordic capital city, stands its ground with its various harbours facing Estonia to the south and Russia to the east.

Finland is neighbour to Sweden and Russia and still feels their many influences, in language – all the signs are in Finnish and Swedish, both are taught in schools – and buildings. I recognised much Russian-influenced architecture, reminiscent of a visit to Hungary in 1991 when they’d only just loosened their border controls and bullet holes were still visible in lots of walls, scars of former skirmishes with soviet forces. I digress…but I brought something of that understanding of occupation, and independence, into my encounter with Helsinki.


Helsinki airport sits in the northern district of Vantaa – the city itself has a core and several outlying ‘sub-cities’ now virtually merged into one. It’s the visitor’s first experience of the country as a whole and the Finns certainly use their airport to send messages to the rest of the world.

One of the first facilities to greet the weary traveller is a Chinese restaurant – not a cheap and cheerful bland copy of Chinese food as you’d find anywhere in the world. Real Chinese food, provided by real Chinese people – what better way to welcome visitors with whom newly developing business partnerships are actively being nurtured? The Finns are thoughtful people, a nation of planners and speculators, and the placing of a Chinese facility in a prime airport position is no accident at all. The city, the country, courts Chinese and south-east Asian business. It invites multi-nationals to use conference facilities in the city, in the hope, the expectation – no, the planned-in inducement – that these business people will return with their families to Finland as part of their European holiday explorations. They think things through, the Finns.

The second main ‘showcase’ within the airport is the shop of the Finns’ favourite design group, Marimekko. Vivid, bright, modern, colourful fabrics, accessories and trinkets tempt visitors and are a sign of things to come. Finns are artists and creators – the design district of Helsinki rivals that of any other major city.


A Marimekko design on a Finnair ‘plane

Helsinki is a city of competition and consultation. During my stay, posters and news articles declared the most recent developments in a competition for the design of the new Guggenheim centre. Public votes and comments were harvested daily. Waiters discussed the developments – in six or seven different languages – with visitors in cafes and restaurants. Helsinki residents enjoy this sense of collaboration and the feeling that their voices count because their opinions are based on both good knowledge and good sense. At the university, the Kaisa library was co-designed by the student body, and what a fantastic job they made of it. I could have spent a week in this place, an inspiring space.


With such a sense of collaboration and effort for the common good, mixed with innovation and creativity and a significant chunk of Nordic pragmatism, no wonder I was excited for what was to come…