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.