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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 17:53 GMT
Helsinki's sporting chance
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter in Helsinki

When you're visiting another country it's often easier to notice what's different. But going to Makelanrinne upper secondary school in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, it's striking how much education systems are borrowing from each other.

Makelanrinne swimming pool
Makelanrinne school has impressive sports facilities

Pupils begin at upper secondary schools after their comprehensive schools, at the age of 16.

And with an approach that will be familiar to the English school system, these schools have a specialism in a particular subject area - in the case of Makelanrinne, it's a specialist sports college.

This type of institution also illustrates an idea that has been floated in the proposed overhaul of the English secondary schools system, put forward by Mike Tomlinson.

Mr Tomlinson has suggested that students should be able to learn at their own pace, rather than within a year group.

And the Finnish system shows how this can be put into practice. Students will usually spend three years in upper secondary school, before taking the equivalent of A-levels - the matriculation.

But this can be two or four years - as pupils are not part of year groups, but choose their own options, in addition to a core of compulsory subjects.

Flexible system

As these options can include dozens of extra subject units, this means building plenty of spare capacity into the system. But it does create a very flexible and individualised curriculum - with each student creating their own timetable.

Suvi Holm
Suvi Holm can speak English, French, Swedish and German

In the Finnish system, the core subjects are also very broad, including elements of languages, sciences, maths, humanities, psychology, religion and philosophy.

But having spotted similar ideas - there are big differences.

Entry to this upper secondary school is very competitive - with admission based on a combination of academic and sporting ability.

The upper secondary school system is intended for more academically-able students - and runs parallel to a network of vocational schools, which focus on workplace skills.

But talking to the principal and teachers, the issue of selection seems to be less politically charged than in England. And there seemed to be an acceptance that selection was about pupils' ability, rather than their social background.

A key reason that pupils and their families might be keen to get into this school are the startlingly lavish sporting facilities.

There is an Olympic-size swimming pool, two gyms and a sports hall - and the school principal, Seppo Pitkanen says that seven of Finland's athletes in this year's Olympic games had attended this school.

'Like home'

It might be a showcase, but it's certainly an impressive showcase.

Anne Maki
Anne Maki provides counselling for students

Apart from the epic scale of the sporting facilities, the school has a feeling of substantial investment - almost having the air of a small university college, rather than an extended sixth form.

Information about classes is displayed on airport-style television screens and there are youngsters eating in a free canteen.

There are 750 students enrolled here, which makes it the biggest of the country's 12 specialist sports schools - drawing pupils from about 50 different comprehensive schools. Pupils start lessons at 8am, with sports coaching beginning from 7.30am.

Suvi Holm, an 18-year-old student acts as a tour guide to show me round her school. And she says that she very much sees this as her school.

"This is like a home, not a place to avoid," she says.

Her English is pretty much flawless and she also speaks Swedish, French and German - and she says that her chance to learn all these languages reflects the flexibility of the upper secondary system.

She also approves of the informal, friendly atmosphere of the school - where pupils address teachers by their first names and youngsters might come to school even when they don't have lessons - whether it's to eat in the canteen, meet friends or use the gyms.

Open door

Suvi, who wants to study psychology at Helsinki University, also says that students benefit from a very egalitarian system, where services are free and there are no social distinctions between students' backgrounds.

School gym
Pupils might come to the school on days off to use the gym

Teachers at the school also seem to like the concept of changing schools at 16 - as it means that students are ready for a more mature, independent style of learning.

Discipline isn't really an issue, says Mr Pitkanen. "The door is open in both directions," he says he tells students - so if they don't want to be there, no one is forcing them to stay.

Anne Maki, a student counsellor, also says that it's possible for staff to be friendly while still being able to assert authority when it's necessary.

But in practice, Finland has few pupils who drop out of education - in stark contrast with England, which has been dogged with one of the highest drop-out rates in the industrialised world.

Not only do almost all pupils stay in education and training beyond 16 and 17, almost two thirds continue into higher education.

This has prompted debates in Finland about whether the number of youngsters entering higher education can continue to rise indefinitely - and whether this will create a shortage of vocational skills.

"We still need people who know how to build ships and cut hair," said Ms Maki.

Mr Pitkanen also says that while there are no league tables, parents are still aware of which are the most sought after schools.

But rather than the English unofficial system of parents buying houses near to desirable, table-topping schools - he says that parents seek schools which will suit their children's needs, which might be its specialist subject, its location or its small size.

Funding remains a central issue for all schools - and while Ms Maki says that teachers are paid a fair salary - such a flexible system has its own price tag.

And the teachers say there have been reports of schools withdrawing subjects where there were too few students to justify the expense.

But it's hard to escape the sense that, in terms of international comparisons, this is a school that has benefited from a substantial period of investment and support.

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