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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 21:52 GMT
School that becomes a family
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter in Helsinki

Arriving at the Arabia comprehensive school in Helsinki, the first thing that strikes a visitor from the UK is the range of ages.

Helsinki classroom
Pupils stay in comprehensive schools for nine years

There are teenagers looking over the staircase, while outside in the playground you can see infant-school swings and slides.

This is an introduction to what is probably the biggest difference between schools in Finland and the UK - that pupils spend nine years in the same school, combining the roles of primary and secondary schools.

Children start formal lessons when they are seven and they stay here until they are 16, when they will decide whether to go to a more academic upper secondary school or to a vocational school.

The Arabia comprehensive school is housed in a new building in an area of Helsinki under re-development - and it has been constructed to reflect the belief in openness.

There are plenty of open spaces, glass walls, smart design features and computers. It feels like plenty of money has been spent here - and with the school only having a few hundred pupils (it will rise to a maximum of 560) it seems calm and quiet.

Free meals and childcare

This could owe something to another cultural difference - that the pupils are not wearing shoes, but are walking around in their socks.

Helsinki classroom
Police academy: Pupils use role play to learn English

This adds to the friendly, family-shaped feel of the place. And although some of the teenagers say they find it annoying to have so many young children around, it makes it seem less of a teenage ghetto than a secondary school.

Teachers also say that this single-school structure means that staff will know students and their families very well, since pupils will have been there from infanthood.

The school is also used for childcare services, so pupils could remain in the same institution from eight month-old babies to 16 year olds.

For younger pupils, the formal school day finishes at about 1pm, and they might also use the school's free childcare facilities - as well as eating their meals there.

School meals are free - and on the day I visited pupils were being given fish soup - and I'm not sure that they would be able to translate "turkey dinosaur shapes" into Finnish.

Freezing playground

But it's reassuring that teenagers are the same wherever you go. Even though their language skills would put their English counterparts to shame, the Helsinki teens complain about having to go outside during the day for fresh air.

Helsinki classroom
Riitta Severinkangas says "the basis of our teaching is equality"

Why? They want to play on the computers. And outside is "cold and boring". Since the temperature at this time of year often stays below freezing all day, you can see their point.

You also realise that the big issues facing English schools do not have the same significance elsewhere.

Behaviour is a big concern in England, but does not appear to be worrying schools in Finland. If there's a problem, pupils are spoken to and if nothing is resolved then parents are called in. But expulsions do not seem to be on the radar.

Finding the right school place is a major tension in England, but it fails to raise the political temperature in Finland - not least because the single-school system side-steps the anxieties about changing school at 11.

Children are likely to go to their local school, unless parents want a school with a particular specialism, such as music or dance.

And why do they start school so many years later than in England, where pupils might attend a nursery attached to a primary school from the age of three?

Long holidays

From the Finnish perspective, they wonder why English school children start so early - and say that by the age of seven, pupils are just about mature enough to begin learning.

Election poster
Pupils had produced election posters for the student council

Similarly, the long school holidays, including a 10-week break in the summer, is another part of their traditional school pattern that doesn't seem to have been troubled by English anxieties over "learning loss" over the holidays.

The fact that pupils are confident in talking to visitors in another language is certainly a big difference from schools in England, where language learning seems to remain in a state of perpetual gloom.

Sitting in a language lesson for nine year olds at the Arabia school showed how quickly pupils were able to talk in English.

Teacher Riitta Severinkangas used a range of ways to encourage children to start using English - including role play, a game of bingo, reading together, a song and an audio tape.

Language learning is seen as particularly important for Finnish people, necessary for business or cultural links with other countries.


But the school was also keen to talk about its underlying ethos, which ticks plenty of Scandinavian boxes about inclusion, fairness and opportunity.

School meals
School meals are free for all pupils

"The basis of our education and teaching is equality," says Riitta Severinkangas.

The system of a single school, with a familiar environment, "makes children feel safer," she says, with less likelihood of bullying and an easier transition into the teenage years and then to the next stage of schooling.

She also says that working as a teacher in Finland remains a job with status - with much public recognition of the social importance of education.

This is a country in which almost two-thirds of young people enter higher education - and Ms Severinkangas says that many parents are "highly educated themselves and very motivated about their children's education".

"Parents are very aware of what a school should do," she says.

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