Helsinki parents at pains to avoid schools with high proportion of immigrants
By Jaakko Lyytinen
Pasi and Merja recently separated.
“It was the best that we could do in this situation”, Pasi says.
The father hardly looks shaken by the separation as he sits in the ample living room of his home. He isn’t upset, because the separation exists only on paper. Pasi and the family’s younger child moved their official place of residence to the home of relatives, but in fact, the family continues to live together.
The purpose of the paper separation was to keep their child, who starts school in the autumn, from ending up in the school nearest to them.
“We left nothing to chance.”
Pasi and Merja are not their real names. This is not a subject that people want to discuss openly.
Pasi and Merja live in a neighbourhood of small houses in Metsälä in the north of Helsinki.
More than a dozen children who start school next autumn live in the neighbourhood of about 1,000 residents, and nearly all of them applied for admission to a school outside their neighbourhood.
Many of the neighbours have pulled similar stunts. Residents of Metsälä have different ways of getting their children into schools in nearby Oulunkylä or Käpylä.
Some have even acquired a second home to make sure that their children attend school somewhere other than their nearest one in Maunula.
Maunula is a suburb of more than 7,000 residents next to Metsälä. The area is of manageable size with plenty of green space.
Having lived in Maunula for six years myself, I can confirm this impression, but Maunula continues to have a somewhat questionable reputation, which has not completely gone away, even though the area is currently peaceful and is filled with families with children.
Most of the children in our neighbourhood have started school at the Maunula comprehensive.
Both children and parents have insisted that they are pleased with their neighbourhood school. That is why I was surprised to hear about the Metsälä phenomenon. When I spoke with local residents there the reasons started to become clearer.
An invisible wall exists along the border of Maunula and Metsälä.
The average income of Maunula residents is EUR 22,400 a year, while the Metsälä residents earn EUR 37,000.
Maunula has many low-income pensioners, and half of the homes in the area are built on the partially publicly-funded Arava subsidy scheme, compared with only ten per cent in Metsälä.
And then there is the sensitive issue: about a tenth of the residents in Maunula speak a language other than Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue.
In Metsälä, with its 1,000 residents, just 43 speak a foreign language at home. The entire foreign language-speaking population there could nearly fit in a single city bus.
“Our children were in day care in Oulunkylä. It was the most important reason for our choice of schools”, says a mother from Metsälä, whose child is going to a school in Oulunkylä. It is a good reason. The child can move on to another phase in life with a familiar group of children.
Pasi also emphasises the attraction of the neighbouring area, but in addition to the attractive factors there are other features that made the mother from Metsälä refuse to consider a school in Maunula.
“Undoubtedly we all want to live in a multicultural and tolerant atmosphere, but the fact is that if there are many children who do not speak Finnish, the teacher’s time is spent on them”, the mother of two says.
She does not know any children who have actually attended school in Maunula, but she has “heard stories”.
The stories are spread as mothers meet for coffee during the day, but few bother to examine whether or not there is any truth to these mental images that people have. The result is mass flight.
Pasi also has an impression of the Maunula school. “Normal education does not work there. There are many children who should not be in first grade at school. When your own child is at stake, you have to be careful.”
The large number of immigrant children is a concern for him. “It’s damn hard to teach if the group doesn’t speak any language. They just yell in their cultural agony.”
Pasi also does not know any pupils at the Maunula school, or any parents whose children would be there. “I don’t have first-hand information, but I have heard stories through a couple of acquaintances.”
So let’s go and take a look at this school.
“Good morning pupils.” “Good morning, head teacher.” When Susanna Lamminpää, the principal of the Maunula comprehensive steps into the fourth grade classroom, the children stand up and greet her enthusiastically.
“This has been an especially nice place to work, because the school is so diverse”, Lamminpää says.
In addition to children from the area, the school has special needs pupils, as well as elementary school groups in English and Swedish. About a third of the pupils have a language other than Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue. The children represent 42 different nationalities, but less than a tenth of the pupils who are starting school next autumn have a non-Finnish surname.
Children of different backgrounds have been taken into consideration in everything, Lamminpää says. There are international events, celebrations, and common activities.
The school gets a bonus of EUR 49,000 a year to cover costs of “positive discrimination”. The funds are allocated on the basis of the parents’ education level and income, as well as their possible immigrant background. In Maunula the money has been used to pay for two teaching assistants and for the organisation of events to teach awareness of differences.
What about the fears of the people in Metsälä?
Lamminpää says that the education of the first-graders is tailor-made according to the children’s aptitude. The demands posed by children do not depend on their ethnic background. “All children require more pupil care today”, Lamminpää says.
Many teachers confirm this. Wealthy white areas have their own problems.
“The children spend plenty of time alone. If career parents are told that their child is a loner, they say that they trust their children. A first-grader knows how to heat a meal in a microwave himself”, one teacher says.
The Metsälä phenomenon is spreading in the Helsinki region. Middle class parents are afraid that their children will not get a good education if there are many immigrants attending the school.
And what’s the result? Schools are increasingly differentiating from each other. School shoppers vote with their cars and will drive their children to the other side of the city, if necessary, to prevent their little ones from ending up in an excessively multi-coloured environment.
The first thing that parents ask a real estate agent is what the nearest school is like.
In Helsinki about a third of all children start their education somewhere other than their neighbourhood school. Schools are diverging, especially in the east of Helsinki, where the proportion of immigrants in some areas is considerably higher than in Maunula, for instance.
Immigrants are unevenly distributed around the city. A significant number have settled in areas where there are Arava rental apartments. Plenty of low-income native Finns already live in those areas.
School shopping is a phenomenon that officials do not like to talk about. Most of those interviewed for this article would prefer that nothing were written about the topic. They are afraid that publicity would simply strengthen the phenomenon.
Head teacher Outi Rinta-Filppula of the Oulunkylä school feels that the number of immigrants has nothing to do with the desire of people from Metsälä to put their children in the Oulunkylä school.
“The situation has been the same for decades. Metsälä has long been a part of Oulunkylä. The boundary of the school zone is not the same as that between parts of the city. Metsälä does not have a natural connection to Maunula, and preschool takes place on the Oulunkylä side."
The reasons that are given to the head teacher are naturally quite different from the ones that are whispered at the playground.
The head teacher says that the 600-pupil Oulunkylä school has several dozen children with an immigrant background.
Selecting schools does not help an individual pupil, says Venla Bernelius, a researcher who has studied differentiation among schools in Helsinki.
“Studies conducted in Finland do not give credence to the assumption that a nearby school would be a bad school. Differences between schools in Helsinki as well come back to the background of the pupils."
The biggest impact on learning is the education of the parents and the pupil’s own motivation.
“If parents start to shop for schools based on what they imagine, divergence becomes stronger, and the problem can blow up in our face.”
Bernelius feels that schools in weaker areas should be made more attractive with the help of special input. The City of Helsinki has already tried to reduce differentiation through means such as positive discrimination, but in spite of that, the trend has accelerated.
Some have proposed as a solution the implementation of quotas for immigrants in school. According to a Helsingin Sanomat opinion poll, a third of Helsinki residents would support such a move.
However, quotas are difficult to implement in practice. All children should naturally have the right to attend a nearby school regardless of background.
On the other hand, some immigrant parents support the idea of quotas. As one teacher in an elementary school in the east of Helsinki said, it would be good for the language education of immigrant children if there were a sufficient number of pupils in the school who speak Finnish as their mother tongue.
What should be done about the phenomenon? Parents want the best for their children, but if they shop for schools based on mental images, many neighbourhood schools could atrophy and multicultural coexistence would never happen.
If we parents instil our prejudices into our children, Helsinki will become an unpleasant city.
As one teacher in the east of Helsinki put it, “One good way to grow into an increasingly internationalised world is a school that contains a small world within its walls."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.5.2011
Previously in HS International Edition:
Helsinki education authorities: call to limit proportion of immigrant pupils in schools “unrealistic” (30.11.2009)
Helsinki seeks to counteract social differentiation of schools (27.10.2009)
More than a quarter of residents in some areas speak a foreign language at home (3.5.2011)
JAAKKO LYYTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat