Dispatches from Finland #2: The Big Circle

I teach in Finland, but in an international school, not in the Finnish system. As a long-time resident and frequent visitor to Finnish schools, I have a few insights into the Finnish education, um phenomenon? miracle? Whatever.

During the summer in Helsinki, we spend most of our mornings at the local city park, where friendly staff members organize activities and make bikes available for the kids to ride. There are usually around fifty families at our park when the weather is nice. At noon, a bell rings and we all walk to the lawn and stand in a big circle. It's time for lunch, which the city provides for free for all children -- not just poor children with the proper papers, but anyone who shows up with a bowl. (They have some loaner bowls if you forget.)

When I look around the circle, I see immigrant parents from a dozen countries, a newscaster from the national service, a member of parliament, a professional hockey player, an olympic marathon runner, and a former cabinet member. The city believes all kids should have a free lunch even during the summer, and the community turns out for the free lunch.

Many of the parents are stay-at-home-mothers and come to the park all year, taking up to three years of nationally mandated maternity leave. Some are stay-at-home-fathers, who can take one of those years of leave in place of the mother. But during the summer, most parents there are on their holiday: most Finns get 4-5 weeks of vacation time a year, and lots of offices and shops shut down or run on minimum staffs for the month of July.

So anyway, we stand in a circle and sing a little song with hand motions. Then they blindfold a kid, spin her around, and wherever she points is the beginning of the line. The two halves of the circle become the line, and all the kids get their lunch, usually soup, pasta or risotto. (It's usually very tasty -- my boys often go back for seconds.) The staff brings out buckets for washing up, the kids get back to playing and the parents get back to chatting.

I was reading about education in Finland the other day, and the writer was claiming that Finland is not so exceptional that its educational system couldn't be used as a model. And in some ways, I agree. However, it's worth pointing out that the educational system does exist in a larger political and social environment.

In Finland, public services aren't charity for the deserving poor: they are services for the public. Some of those services are better and more efficient than others, and I'm sure that the services vary by social class and region to some extent, but people of all social classes use them. 

As a case in point: there is only one private school in the entire country (where I work), and it is an international school with relatively few Finns. The children of most of the wealthiest and most influential Finns go to state-run schools. 

That probably has an effect on the educational system.