Not every family in the capital is willing to put the kids into the local school
Helsinki has some districts in which more than half of the children attend school elsewhere
By Pipsa Palttala
There are large regional differences to be found in Helsinki when it comes to the appeal of local comprehensive schools, either at the ala-aste level (grades 1-6), or in the three years of secondary school (yläaste, grades 7-9).
The statistics compiled by the Education Department indicate that in certain residential areas more than half of the families choose for their children schools other than the nearest one to hand.
The City of Helsinki reserves each child a place in their own local school, based on the home address.
”The figures indicate the choices made by parents as well as the curricula offered by various schools”, says Outi Salo, Head of Basic Education Division at the Helsinki Education Department.
Children living in Helsinki who reach the age of compulsory education (7 years) have been reserved a place in their own local school.
However, each family can also apply for admission to another school outside their neighbourhood or catchment-area.
And this happens frequently.
Some of the changes can be explained by curriculum issues: parents wish that their children could have special education, for example in foreign languages other than the standard English, or in certain skills, if this is not available in their own school.
In addition, all of the roughly 100 comprehensive schools in the capital city are located pretty close to one another. There is nearly always a school at a not much greater distance from home than the designated one, and in such cases a school might be chosen for example on the basis of a safe route to and from it, or because the majority of the pupil's friends happen to attend that particular one.
The factors behind the choice of schools can nevertheless also be influenced by the parents’ mental images, says researcher Venla Bernelius.
”Yes, it is true that all kinds of other factors are associated with the choice of schools. Sometimes people also wish to select what they see as the best school”, she adds.
Bernelius is involved in a research group tasked with finding out which factors are related to the choice of schools.
”We already know that the parents’ mental image of good teaching is an attractor factor. It is not typically any dismissive factor in Finland”, Bernelius confirms.
In Helsinki’s eastern district of Roihuvuori, only 37 per cent of pupils have chosen a local school. This is the lowest figure for any of the elementary schools (grades 1-6) in the city.
Leena Pöntynen, Principal of the Roihuvuori Comprehensive School, assumes that the reason for the low drawing-power is the fact that the school was on the list of planned school closures for a long time.
”A renovation of the school has been discussed. Maybe the parents want to make sure that the school will be around for the full duration of their child's education”, Pöntynen suggests.
The Roihuvuori Comprehensive School is also one of the schools that get financial support from the city to cover the costs of ”positive discrimination”.
The funds are allocated for example on the basis of the proportion of pupils with an immigrant background.
Even in the relatively up-market district of Pikku Huopalahti, more than half of the children have chosen a school which is at a greater distance from home than the local school.
Among the schools in this case that attract pupils are particularly the Steiner School and some schools with specialised foreign-language programmes, which are located only a stone’s throw from the local school.
Even other reasons exist, suspects principal Vilma Tuomi.
”I might venture to suspect that among the factors affecting the choice of schools are also prejudices. Maybe the school has pupils with a more multicultural or international background than the parents’ own schools had when they were children themselves”, Tuomi postulates.
The Pikku Huopalahti Comprehensive School has a large number of pupils with an immigrant background.
The school principals believe that the choices of where to enrol the children are directed by image and hearsay.
”The power of image is significant. People should come to see with their eyes rather than merely presuming something”, Tuomi says firmly.
The question of which school to choose - the local one, or one outside the immediate catchment-area - is right now being considered in the Salaspuro family in Southern Helsinki.
Salma Salaspuro, 6, is to start school next autumn.
She will begin her elementary school career as a first-grader either in the Tehtaankatu Comprehensive School or in the Snellman Comprehensive School. They are located a couple of blocks apart in the Ullanlinna and Punavuori districts.
In Helsinki, enrolment for the 2012-2013 academic year will start in February, so it is a topical issue.
Terja Salaspuro believes that all schools in the centre of Helsinki are regarded as reputable establishments.
”Besides, one can never know who the class-teacher will be and what kind of atmosphere the class will have. This is why I think that such reckoning is rather pointless”, the mother of the prospective first-grader says.
Nevertheless, she believes that friends’ experiences, newspaper articles, and Facebook comments will all affect images and decision-making to some extent.
All this has naturally not gone unnoticed by the real estate agents.
”Customers are already often better informed than the estate agents themselves about which school children from any given address are to be registered to attend”, says Jyrki Matilainen from the Herttoniemi office of the Finnish Real Estate Agency Kiinteistömaailma.
Matilainen knows of cases in which the customer would not have bought the apartment in question unless the child was admitted to a certain school.
”This is how Finland is changing. Even if a school’s teaching does not stand out from the norm in any shape or form, its reputation can”, Matilainen notes.
At apartment showings, school choices are usually not pushed hard as a selling point, since prospective buyers have already done their homework beforehand, and will not show much interest if the school is not highly rated.
"This is in fact a bit of a sensitive issue, and it can also turn against the sale of a property", adds Matilainen.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 21.1.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
A school without any traditional Finnish surnames (10.5.2011)
Helsinki parents at pains to avoid schools with high proportion of immigrants (3.5.2011)
Helsinki seeks to counteract social differentiation of schools (27.10.2009)
Principals shocked at planned Helsinki school closures (8.11.2006)
City of Helsinki Education Department
Comprehensive Schooling in Finland (Wikipedia)
Normal School or Teachers´ College (Wikipedia)
PIPSA PALTTALA / Helsingin Sanomat