Monday, January 21, 2013

Finnish Education for Foreign Parental Dummies - Lesson 1

I will try and update this post as I learn more. Some narrative flow will be lost, but I'm sure this information will be more important to some reader. 

Further posts on my adventures in education in Finland.

Lesson 2 on Esikoulu (kindergarten) here.
Lesson 3 on Applying for Primary School with a Special Needs Child here.
Lesson 4 on Starting Primary 1 at a Finnish school here.
Lesson 5 on our choice between a Finnish or an International school here
Lesson 6 on Moving a Special Needs Child to a Mainstream School here.

I've had a crash course this last week in the Finnish education system, especially primary education. Eye-opening to say the least. I feel more like a crash test dummy. 

In Finland primary and secondary education there is peruskoulu, comprehensive school, and it covers years 1-9 age 7-16, basically primary and secondary level. There are also schools that break them up; ala-aste koulu which is a primary school and is only years 1-6 and yläaste koulu, secondary school which is grades 7-9. 

Children usually start school the year they turn 7. They can be delayed if there are significant reasons to or they can start a year earlier if they can get an educational psychologist's support, but that is unusual. Most children go to a kindergarten type class at age 6, called esi-koulu, see above for a post about this. 

Primary One classes usually start between 8.15 and 10am and each day may be a different start time. And they finish between 12.30 and 3pm. I'm assured by other mums that it's a fixed programme for the year, but I'm sure it's going to take some getting used to. Primary Ones average about 4 hours a day, this increases to 5 in Primary 3. 

There is a 15 minute break outside after every 45 minute class which means the kids get to shake off the cobwebs of sitting at a desk. I think it helps them focus better at each lesson. And a 30 minute break around lunch time.

Most primary school children (but only usually available for Primary 1 and sometimes 2 students) attend an after-school club until 4 or 5pm. I assume this is to make up for the shortfall between school and work ending. I have no idea how working parents manage this mad schedule. Most schools run an afternoon club, but they are also available at some leikkipuistot, playparks which are free except for a payment of about 35 euros for the afternoon snack they provide. There are also culture centres that run them. There is actually a lot of choices out there, if you know where to look. Ask at your school for more info.

They only do about 20 lessons per week in Primary One, much less than most countries. But that is two languages a week at the international schools: English (Swedish, French or German depending on the school) and Finnish. By the time they're 16 years old they will have a choice to take on a 3rd European language (usually in 2nd or 3rd grade) and Swedish in 6th grade. 

Added with hindsight after 3 years of experience in Finnish schools: there are lots of viral articles out there claiming that Finnish children don't have homework. This isn't true, at least in the two schools we use. They do have small amounts of homework from Primary 1, maybe 5 or 10 minutes a day. Most of their homework is classwork they haven't had time to finish or reading small amounts, but they do have up to 20 minutes (without tantrums and avoidance techniques) in Primary 3. 

Most Finns they tend to just go to their local school, no stress. But if you're interested in going to an international school: parents can be competitive, even at Primary One level. Certain schools set the bar high and parents are willing to send them to another town or send them a year early in order to get into the best school or to have a better chance at doing well later in their education. Outside the English language entry exams we attended parents were quizzing kids on the language, having them play educational apps. It's all a bit overwhelming. Parents' information evenings are intense and I felt a bit under-prepared or under-concerned for my child's future. 

And maybe I am, considering getting into lukio (the academic track continuation of secondary school after 9th grade, there are also more vocational tracks) which prepares students for University is difficult even for Finnish students, English speaking ones have the odds stacked against them. Required education goes from years 1-9, until the child is around 16. After that they can attend lukio for 2-4 years. Yes, that means that some 20 year olds are still studying just to get into Uni. And even though you can get lukio classes in English, the final exams are in Finnish so if you want to get into a Finnish University from the Finnish education system, learn Finnish and learn it well. 

So we've sent off Mouse's application to an English international school today and yes, I've sweated a few hours over it this weekend. Not filling out, it's been one of the easier forms I've tackled this month, but just worrying if we've made the right choice. 

In the end, we've decided Mouse's, and all the Weans', future is unwritten and we are adaptable. We will do what feels right now and if that fails to continue to be the best move for him and us, then we will adjust our course accordingly. 

So the English entrance exam is in about 2 weeks. He'll do fine, his spoken English is brilliant. The exam is in 2 parts: oral and 'written'. For Primary Ones they aren't expected to write, but to draw following commands - so 'Draw a red table, put a cat on the table, under the table draw a blue flower.' The oral usually involves the child bringing a toy and the examiners asking simple questions about the toy and their family. It takes a whole morning though part of it is waiting around for the child's turn at the oral part. 

But I can't help feel that we're being tested as well. 

The bilingual schools in Helsinki spend the whole day with tests because the children have to test in both Finnish and English (or the other second language). From what I've been told the classes start off mostly in Finnish and then move more and more to teaching classes in English. So if your child doesn't speak both languages to a passable level it's best to either go in the international schools or Finnish mainstream with extra help. 

I'm sure there's much, much more I haven't learned yet and we will flounder getting settled, but we will figure it out. 

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