By Liberty Paananen.
Finnish schoolchildren have consistently ranked the best or extremely highly in PISA results over the last decade and, last week Finland was recognised as the World’s Happiest Country for the second year in a row. These accolades generate attention to the Finnish way of life from across the globe and in doing so, a spotlight beams on the topic of Finnish education and childcare. A topic which lies close to parents and politicians’ hearts alike. As a parent myself, this subject sits high on the list of reasons that led to settling here.
The next generation is our hope for the future. They will grow up. They will invent new technologies; debate and create political shifts, conquer diseases, harvest their own wars, and ultimately take over from the generations above them. Being aware of this affects the decision to have children, the strategy of parenting and, the childcare that parents adopt. A sentiment I have become sure of, as my own family has grown.
Since independence, Finland has established a culture of investing in future generations by supporting children and their families. Today a vast system exists to nurture the children of society. Extending across; child benefit, maternity/paternity leave, home care allowances, subsidised early childhood care and education (ECEC), free school meals, after-school clubs, child health clinics and much more.
These schemes provide parents and caregivers with an important network. Undoubtedly, this culture contributes to happiness; by sharing the responsibility that parenting brings, and by raising future generations in this network.
Focus on learning rather than testing
This network continues in schools. Compulsory education begins at age seven and Finnish students sit no national tests until the end of secondary school. This came as a shock to me, as I started school aged four and began sitting national tests aged six. National, standardized tests have been debated worldwide but, Finland remains one of the few countries not to set them. Instead, teachers are trusted to be teachers and this clearly works. School-related anxiety scores for pupils in Finland were amongst the lowest in recent PISA results, proving, this positive attitude promotes focus on learning rather than testing.
Children are free to be children
My experience of childcare in Finland currently only extends to kindergarten and I have fallen in love with the ethos that is practiced in Early Childhood Education and Care. Focused on the foundation of playing, children are free to be children. They partake in an abundance of outdoor activities – regardless of the season – from skiing to rolling around in the sand, playing in the park and collecting sticks in the forest. They are immersed in an environment that offers freedom from technology and freedom from the rigidity of desks and classrooms. Weekly schedules do exist, the system is not completely free fall, but, these schedules contain activities such as baking, painting, singing and dancing, all good skills for life. Compassion and responsibility are taught in equal measure too, as children are cared for in mixed aged groups, providing role models for one another. In a nutshell, children are given the perfect circumstance to be themselves and to develop their creativity, imagination and independence.
Economically, I have found that the heavily subsidised childcare – which is tiered according to your income – means that families are not penalised for having children with extortionate childcare fees like they are in the U.K. (and elsewhere globally). Whilst the cost of living is high in other areas of Finnish life, childcare is not one of these areas.
In addition to the happy philosophy that I have experienced in ECEC, I have discovered another facet of the childcare support network that astonishes me. This comes in the form of Home Care Allowance.
A state benefit which is paid to a parent with a child under the age of three who does not use public or private childcare. Put simply; the Finnish state will help you financially if you choose to be a stay at home parent and, this policy is very popular. Almost 90% of families with a child born in the 2000s used it.
In other parts of the world, home care allowance does not exist and being a stay at home parent is not a choice. Childcare places have huge waiting lists or, are of inadequate quality. Low-earning parents cannot justify paying extortionate childcare fees in exchange for precious time with their child and little income left afterwards. In contrast, higher earning parents cannot afford to stay home with their children because of the economic impact on their lifestyle. As a mother, I truly commend Finland for giving monetary value, support and choice to the stay at home parent.
However, I am struck with conflicting judgment toward this element of Finnish support. There is nothing wrong with being a stay at home parent. I will say that firstly. But, statistics from Finland identify, in 2014, 90% of home care allowance was taken up by mothers. Despite the benefit being available regardless of gender. The Finnish population has more women than men. But, in 2017 statistics show fewer women (between 15-64) were employed than men and, a 2013 survey determined that only one-tenth of men reported working for a female supervisor. Does the existence of home care allowance have a connection to these facts?
Having been a stay at home parent myself, I can admit that returning to the workplace can seem like a daunting prospect. We are living in a shrinking world that is rife with technological advances. Nine months of maternity or paternity leave can leave you with a big gap of knowledge in your occupation – and a lot of baby brain -something that is a fact of life and, part of the journey into parenthood. The conflicting judgment that I have is how taking leave further – potentially until your child turns three – will have an even greater impact in your career, in the fast world we live in now.
Looking at childcare and education in Finland – at all of its policies and practices – there is undoubtedly an abundance of positive provisions in place. From the focus on playing and learning to the menagerie of intertwining components that lean on one another. The Finnish childcare and education system clearly help to raise happy individuals and support those that are raising them. To me, that seems finite.
But, as with most policies, there is always room for debate. Therefore, I urge Finland to investigate the correlation between the percentage of mothers using home care allowance and the lower rates of women in employment. I urge Finland to create a strong, accessible and cohesive network between the stay at home parent and the working world, should they require it, because, ultimately, it is their choice – a choice, I cannot commend Finland enough for giving parents.