Finland working to expand early education

Finland often ranks among the highest-performing countries on international math and reading tests. The Nordic nation gets good results despite one surprising fact — compulsory schooling does not start until age 7.

As the United States pushes to improve its competitiveness through greater access to early education, with programs in the District and elsewhere that provide universal preschool to children as young as 3, this seems surprising. How do they do it?

It turns out that Finland is also working to expand early education, through a heavily subsidized, academically oriented day-care system that’s already widely used.

And that starting time? It’s about to get younger, with compulsory preschool for all 6-year-olds.

I learned this and more through a conversation with Krista Kiuru, the Finnish minister of education and science. She is in Washington this week visiting schools and meeting with education officials.

The following transcript is adapted from our interview.

I understand that compulsory education in Finland does not begin until age 7. Why so late?

In Finland, we definitely believe that it is good to get started at the age of 7. We have a lot of research showing that starting school earlier does not bring better results.

But we have quite a strong day-care system that starts at an early age. And we have preschool starting at the age of 6. Right now, 98 percent of kids take part in preschool, and soon it will become compulsory for all kids. We are bringing a bill to parliament so that 100 percent of children will start at age 6, because we see that we get better results in elementary school when children go to preschool.

Can you describe how the day-care system works in Finland?

We guarantee equal and universal day care for children, and we subsidize according to how much income you have. We believe that the day-care system is not about just taking care of kids, but it’s also about their education.

We recently moved day care from the responsibility of the Social Affairs and Health Ministry to the Ministry of Education, because we saw that day care and preschool are very important for doing better in elementary school. If we can see kids’ advantages and disadvantages early on and make sure that they have help in those very early years, then they can get better results. Early possibilities to react are very important.

We are also developing a new national curriculum for day care and preschool that we will start in 2016. We want to make sure all youngsters are in the same position wherever they live in Finland.

How are day-care teachers trained?

Lead day-care teachers have bachelor’s degrees, while teachers in elementary and secondary and upper-secondary school have master’s degrees. That has been one reason why we have a high-quality school system, because in fact our teachers are very well educated, and young people are motivated to become day-care or school teachers. Teachers are still valued in the society as a profession, and people want to work in professions where they are respected.

Some say it’s not fair to compare the educational systems in Finland and the United States because there is much greater socioeconomic and cultural diversity here. Can you describe what diversity looks like in Finland?

We definitely don’t have as much diversity as some other countries, but I wouldn’t say we don’t have diversity. If you look at the cities, in some schools, a majority of young people are immigrants, and we still produce good results.

In areas where unemployment levels are higher and education levels are lower, the schools still must be as good as any other school. We are making sure all the time that our schools, especially in the elementary level, do not vary a lot.

One benefit of the Finnish system has been that our parents trust the education system, so that they don’t really shop between the schools. They don’t worry that housing market prices are going down because of the stigma of those schools. But it won’t stay like that if we don’t do something.

What are the maternity or parental leave policies like in Finland?

You have the possibility to stay home, with benefits, to raise kids until they are 3 years old. That is up to the parents. Most stay home only around a year. But we are changing the system now.

We want to raise the employment level. We could benefit as a nation if all the young professional mothers, who have the skills that we need, bring their skills to the job market and create more growth, and at the same time, we will guarantee equal and universal day care for the kids. That is one of the targets of the government. I believe that it is also the way to educate our kids better.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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