Finnish students left unprepared for adult life

Given top rankings in the PISA surveys, the Finnish schools are called the best of the best. Yet still, youth unemployment is on the rise, as young Finns are unready for the transition after primary school.

By Morten Refsgaard

Helsinki, Finland: In international media Finland is often described as having possibly the greatest educational system in the World – and rightly so. In the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compares the level of ninth grade students, Finland can be found among the top runners with South Korea being the only other OECD country to match the Finnish level.

But it seems not everything is as it should be. Inadequately prepared for the first meeting with adult life, a growing number of young Finns are failing to obtain any education above the compulsery ninth grade level and are ending up in the unemployment statistics along with many other youngsters.

Freedom for teachers
The reasons to why Finland has settled in the top flight  position in the PISA survey are many. But some things stand out clearer than the others. Finnish school teachers have quite a big level of freedom on how to go about their teaching. There is not a lot of measuring and testing of the students in the early years and the teacher can choose quite freely the methods he or she would like to use to reach the result described in the national curriculum.

Georg Henrik Wrede, Youth Director at the Ministry of Education and Culture, is on of th key players in the fight to minimize youth unemployment. Photo: Morten Refsgaard

Georg Henrik Wrede, Youth Director at the Ministry of Education and Culture, is on of th key players in the fight to minimize youth unemployment.
Photo: Morten Refsgaard

– The other thing apart from the teacher having freedom is that all teachers have a university degree. Students who would like to become teachers are usually well performing students, so when you look on the entry exams for the teachers college, they get to choose from very bright people. They are not kind of left overs that did not find a thing to do, says Georg Henrik Wrede, Youth Director of the Finnish Minister of Education and Culture.

High youth unemployment
Despite the highly regarded primary school system, many young Finns are falling through the system. The youth unemployment has been growing and reached 21.5 per cent as of February 2013, 0.9 per cent higher than a year earlier, according to Statistics Finland, accounting for 64,000 unemployed Finns between the age of 15 and 24 – seemingly a rather small number, but quite substantial when considered Finland is only the home of 5.4 million people.

Compared to the youth unemployment statistics of the rest of the EU and especially southern European countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, the Finnish numbers are not dangerously high. But when compared to countries like Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, countries demographically relatively similar to Finland, the numbers suddenly seem very high, catching the attention of many Finns.

– I think the PISA success has been harmful for us, because we have become slightly complacent. The problem in Finland is the transition into the high schools and the vocational schools that come after the ninth grade. There are a lot of kids who finish their ninth grade and do not continue their education. Every year there is a big proportion of the kids who do this and for some reason we have not been able to find a way to integrate these kids, says Ohto Kanninen, Senior Researcher at the Labour Institute for Economic Research.

PISA Rankings 2009

PISA Rankings 2009 – The last published results.
Sorted according to results in reading – the focus of the 2009-survey – Finland sits in the overall third position, bested only by Shanghai China and South Korea.
Results in green are well above average, blue are close to average and red are well below.
Source: OECD
Click image to enlarge

Problem in the secondary school system
With only a small part of the youngsters, according to the Ministry of Education and Culture, not obtaining their required primary school exams, the vast majority is theoretically ready to go on with their education. But every year, thousands either drop out of their upper secondary education or simply just fail to enrol, maintaining the ninth grade exams as their academically high point.

– Now we are talking after the point of the primary schools – this system goes up to the age of 15. All the stuff about PISA and the talking about the best educational system in the World, we are talking up to the age of 15. After that, as such it is free to choose to go on with education, it is not compulsory after ninth grade. But jobs today require at least a secondary degree, either vocational or the theoretical gymnasium. A few thousand are lost there. There must be some problems linked to the next phase of the school system, Georg Henrik Wrede says.

– This is definitely a big weakness and something that PISA does not measure. I would like to see a comprehensive study of the whole cohort when the youngsters are 18 years old for example. How the Finnish children would compare to the rest of the World. And I do not think that comparison would look as good as when we compare the 15-year olds. It has not been done so it is just a guess. But I believe the weakness of the Finnish educational system is exactly there, between 15 and 18. And if you let people get socially excluded by this age, you have done something wrong already. So I think we need to work with the educational system, which is good, but it is obviously not good enough, Ohto Kanninen says.

Youth guaranteed meaning by politicians
In response to the rising youth unemployment and the issues with dropouts after primary school, the Finnish Government launched the Youth Guarantee on January 1st of this year. In short, the aim of this programme is that all young Finns under the age of 25, or 30 have they just recently gotten their exams, should get something meaningful to do, either being a job, further education, going into  youth workshop or another type of activity, within three months of reporting to the unemployment office.


EU youth unemployment statistics. Note: Data for Finland is listed as 19.9 per cent – Statistics Finland listed this as 21.5 per cent for the same period.
Source: Eurostat and Statista
Click to enlarge

One of the offers put into the Youth Guarantee is the possibility to be enrolled to one of the Finnish Youth Workshops. The workshops are running programmes to help young people preparing themselves to and finding jobs and education, or at a lower level, helping them with the everyday problems, they encounter.

One of these Youth Workshops is SVEPS, a workshop directed to the Swedish speaking minority of Finland. Founded back in 1996, the people at SVEPS have seen a development in the youngsters, who use the Workshop.

– We get a lot of the easy customers. When times are good, they are the first to be employed, but when the times are bad, they are the first to be kicked out. But now we have a situation, where a lot of young people have, I do not want to talk about problems, but they have multi challenges. They need a lot of different kinds of support. They need help with the social bureau – they might not have a flat and other thing like that that needs that to be solved, before they can go to work practice or start studying and things like that, says Peter Rolin, Foreman at SVEPS.

Young people with social issues
At the SVEPS youth workshop in Helsinki, the young people who are part of the programme are divided into two groups. One group where the problems are mainly practical, regarding how they will find a suitable job or education. And another group where the issues become a little more personal.

– In one of our groups the youngsters have quite a lot of social problems. They do not like to be in social groups, so they will train that part. And quite a lot of them suffer from depression. They have a big problem with going into schools and to perform there. So they train in a group, where they do not need to do that, says Johanna Baarman, Outreach Youth Worker at SVEPS in Helsinki.

Having seen first-hand the issues that the youngsters are experiencing after they leave the primary school system and have to take the next step, she thinks that not enough is being done to prepare the young Finns for the World that awaits them.

– The Finnish people are not very social and we need to do more about that in the schools. You need to produce in the schools, you need good merits and so on, but they do not help the ones who need the social skills more. That is one of the reasons, why the youngsters end up here, she says.

Peter Rolin and Johanna Baarman from the SVEPS Youth Workshop. Photo: Morten Refsgaard

Peter Rolin and Johanna Baarman from the SVEPS Youth Workshop are both working first-hand with the unemployed youngsters.
Photo: Morten Refsgaard

Full schedules and discouraging numbers
Though the workshops seem full and the youngsters seem satisfied with their services, the workshops are not running at full speed. It is still not perfectly clear, what needs to be done to help those, who are having the hardest times. And neither are the ambitions from the Ministry of Education and Culture perfectly balanced with the capabilities of the workshops.

– We have done a lot of good things, but maybe now the following step is what to do with those, who are not able to go immediately to work or studies. And we need to discuss with the Ministry and the cities we are working in, how long a process this really is. We are scheduled to work with 50 youngsters each year in Helsinki. Last year we worked hard, but we only worked with 29, says Peter Rolin.

Having run only since January 1st, it is still much too early to say what impact, the Youth Guarantee will have. But going through the few results that have come in through the first three and a half months is not exactly a triumphant march.

– We have some numbers and some of them have been discouraging. The number of youth unemployed has been rising, so at least it has not turned into new jobs, but of course that was not what the youth guarantee promised. It has not promised to create jobs but to get young people into jobs that are already there, if there are any. And there have been fewer jobs, which has been a problem with the implementation. But it is still too early to say, if it is working, says Georg Henrik Wrede.

The next step
It might be too early to call the Youth Guarantee either a success or a failure. But it could be that it should not stand alone as the tool to secure the wellness of students and prevent growing youth unemployment, but that a change in the educational system would be required as well. The current system might be brilliant for teaching mathematics, physics and reading, but it seems inadequate in preparing the youngsters for the World around them.

– I think at the point where they are 15 to 24 and socially excluded, at that point it is already difficult to do something. I think it is the educational system that needs to be improved in a way that there would be a minimal amount of people who drop out of the educational system at any point. And at least 15 years of age is way too early for them to do this in the current world, where you need complicated skills, says Ohto Kanninen.

Short video with Kira Federolf and Jesper Nyfors, two of the youngsters enrolled with the SVEPS Youth Workshop in Helsinki