Observations from Scandinavia

I recently went on holiday to Scandinavia and the Baltic states. As a teacher, I would have loved to align my holiday with their school year so I could visit some of those rockstar Finnish schools. Sadly (for me, but maybe not for my husband  and my sister with whom I was travelling), we were there in summer so schools were closed. But spending a little over a week in Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm and Copenhagen meant I could make some observations. These places felt different, the society was significantly different enough from New Zealand that I had to pause to take note.


What were the differences (some of these observations were spotted by my husband and sister as well)

1. Education matters and is talked about.

All of our tour guides in each of these cities commented on the importance of education as part of their national psyche. The guided bus tour of Helsinki explained the financing of education in Finland – free and well-supported by the state (as they state on their website – “The welfare of Finnish society is built on education, culture and knowledge“). The commentary did point out that students may have to buy their own text books and stationery. Both my sister and I giggled at this one – as people who have both recently paid for another tertiary qualification (fees, texts and stationery) and studied while working full-time – it seemed silly to be apologetic for this minor cost. 32% of all Swedes hold a tertiary degree – placing it in the top 5 in the OECD (source). Our tour guide in Tallinn discussed their system and the pride that she exuded could not be denied. I wonder if a tour guide in Auckland or Levin would speak as highly of our education system?

2. Parents hugged their kids, not berated them for being ‘naughty’.

My dear sister for pointing this out. Once she had, I couldn’t not notice it. The number of times I’ve been in my local Westfield shopping centre and been distracted by the parents yelling (or in some cases smacking) their children. These kids were probably tired, bored, hungry, irritated = ready to go home. Please, don’t think that I’m on my high horse. When my son was younger I lost my temper out and about in public. However, we noticed that many parents, in more than one Scandinavian city, simply picked up these temper-tantrum filled kids and kissed and hugged them. There seemed to be a sense of empathy. Kids react the way they do because they don’t have the communication skills to express their ideas in any other way – they grow out of it (on the whole) when they can articulate their ideas. If this is an attitude that parents have, it cannot help but seep into the education system. I’m sure that there were ramifications for their tantrums – it could be that these kids were reasoned with, it could be that time was taken to hear their point of view (through breathy sobs), it could be that tired kids were taken home. I’m not sure. I can only say ‘Thank you” in Finnish, Swedish and Danish so had no idea what the adults said to the kids. But it looked different. Could this be a norm? Is this extended into managing kids and their emotions in schools?

3. There were A LOT of pregnant women and young families out and about.

As someone who can’t have anymore children I do tend to notice pregnant women. But in Finland, Estonia and Scandinavia there truly was something in the water. It seemed that almost every metro carriage, street, cafe, museum or public space was filled women who were about to pop, fathers with young families in their bike carriages, prams (very stylish ones, of course) and blonde children. Why did this jump out? With women in New Zealand leaving giving birth until much later than the generation before, it was jarring to see women my age and younger with so many children. But here are the facts – maternity and paternity is generous and highly valued. In Sweden, mothers are entitled to 480 days (16 months) (77.6% (80% of 97%) paid maternity leave up to a ceiling the first 390 days, 90 days at flat rate) – shared with father (dedicated 60 days) and fathers are entitled to the same, plus 10 days for the birth of the child. Men have 4 months paid off work (if the mother takes the bulk of the paid parental leave) where they can become “latte papas” – coffee drinking, designer front-pack wearing, hands on fathers. This is about 16 months. Norway and Estonia have similarly generous paid parental leave.

This contrasts with New Zealand – while we have had significant increases in paid maternity leave – yet 14 weeks is but a drop in the bucked in comparison. If the governments are encouraging the birth of children through generous conditions around paid parental leave and incentives to have children (including home support when your baby is born) by extension, it must support the education system.  Public and independent schools are treated equally and free lunch provided for all students (like Finland). In New Zealand, we have a number of students who are facing insurmountable odds before they even step foot in the door – poverty, poor housing, poor health… the list goes on. A socialist response could help us balance out the odds and focus on the welfare of the state (and take a leaf out of the Finn’s book in doing so).

New Zealand PISA results 2012

New Zealand PISA results 2012

Finnish PISA results 2012

Finnish PISA results 2012

Do I have anything concrete to pin my observations to? Not really, just some hunches, some of which can be verified by various stats and data. I would love to go back to Finland and Scandinavia during the school year and see if some of my hunches are valid. Likewise, I would be keen to see what observations a Finnish, Danish or Swedish visitor would make about Aotearoa.

Some interesting sites to follow up on…

Why are Finland’s schools successful – article from Smithsonian Magazine – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/

Finnish Ministry of Education – http://www.minedu.fi/OPM/Koulutus/koulutusjaerjestelmae/?lang=en

Education in Finland (Wikipedia) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Finland

OECD Education stats – http://www.oecd.org/edu/highlights.pdf

2012 PISA data – http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results.htm


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