How do Finnish schools treat cultural diversity?

by , under Enrique

In theory, the answer is straightforward: Finnish schools should respect cultural diversity but a lot depends on the school and the principle.  If we compare how elementary and middle schools treated visible minority students in the 1990s, we hope that matters have improved since then.  But have they? 

races of finland
Cultural diversity in Finland up to the 1970s divided Finns in some history books into the “Nordic and Eastern Baltic races.” This picture was taken from an elementary school book published in 1941.

If our expectations are on the right path and we have the right values as a society to make cultural diversity work, what then is the challenge? The answer is the following: If we don’t have yet as a society a big picture of what immigrants and their children are doing here, it means that we are still walking blindly towards the future with a seeing-eye dog called Chance.

Migrant Tales has documented numerous cases of racist harassment and bullying at Finnish schools from people like Ida, Micha and Abdulah.

Abdulah was seven when he moved from Somalia to Finland in the early 1990s and attended elementary school for the first time in Hyvinkää, a city located near Helsinki.

“I’ve been bullied, called names like the n-word, insulted, kicked and hit hard at school,” he said. “The only way to survive was to be quiet and roll with the punches. There was nothing else I could do because the teachers never believed me. They were always on the side of the white students.”

Not only is the hostile behavior they received from their classmates at school shameful, but more worrying has been the silence of some of the teachers.

I know of one student who, like a gay person coming out of the closet, proudly accepted as a young adult her Russian background. According to her, she was bullied so much at school because of her background, that her former classmates still harass her at her hometown of North Karelia. She has a better weapon against this type of hostility: She is today proud of her Russian and Finnish heritage.

If somebody would like to expose the ogre of racism in this country, I am certain you’d find it in the tales of those immigrant children who attended Finnish school  in the 1990s and even today.

It saddened me to hear that the mother of a black child from my hometown of Mikkeli, moved to Helsinki because of the racist bullying her child got at elementary school.

What did his classmates say? Every insult in the book to reinforce that he was different from his classmates and to destroy his self-esteem.

Part of the global fame that the Finnish educational system has enjoyed in recent years comes from the high scores achieved on the PISA exam, which focuses on young people’s ability to use their reading, mathematics and science skills.  How would Finnish schools fare if they had to resolve and adapt to diversity at school?

Would their scores be as impressive if they had to resolve and adapt to cultural diversity at school?

The Finnish National Board of Education’s core curriculum for primary and pre-primary education is a reflection of our noble values as a Nordic state. The existing curriculum, which was published in 2004, states the following: “The values and aims of the curriculum hinge on human rights, social equality, democracy, biodiversity, maintaining environmental sustainability as well as the acceptance of multiculturalism.“

It is incredible but pupils who aren’t your typical white Finn, even though they were born or have lived most of their lives in this country, are called at schools students with immigrant backgrounds, or maahanmuuttajataustainen.  The interesting question to ask is why this label, which in my opinion promotes social inequality, is used in the first place if many of these children are Finns with different ethnic backgrounds.

If Finland has the laws and the resources to build a successful culturally diverse society in this century, what are the challenges we face?

The biggest one are our prejudices and the tools we use to confront them.

How can we integrate people into our society if we are rejecting them with our prejudices?

Thus the laws and what happens on the ground at school reveal our expectations and reality concerning cultural diversity.

The fact that we still hear dear little about the racist bullying and harassment at Finnish schools reveals a wider problem we haven’t yet tackled as a society.