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Finland: 10 Pillars for an optimal childhood

My just-turned-5-year-old son has been at school for less than three weeks but already he has taken part in a standardised testing process for literacy and numeracy, compulsory for all government schools in the ACT. 

The Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) test, no doubt the first of many he will undertake during his education, will assess his performance against his peers across the territory and is used by the ACT Government to measure the progress of children in their first year of school and identify any children in need of additional support. 

Standardised testing and the early introduction of formal education are becoming increasingly more common in the Australian education system.  In response to concerns about literacy and numeracy levels more resources at both the Federal and State/Territory levels are being put into teaching, assessing and measuring literacy and numeracy. 

However, this trend moves Australia further away from international success stories in education, such as Finland.  Finnish children don’t start school until they are 7 and do very little standardised testing. Instead of focussing on numeracy and literacy early childhood programs emphasise the importance of creativity, free play and artistic expression.   Yet teenagers from Finland consistently outperform those from Australia in international comparisons, such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  

Finland also differs from Australia in its approach to social and economic policies affecting early childhood development. For example, it provides extended paid parental leave and social benefits which result in a child poverty rate around a third of that in Australia. 

The following article by Finnish academic Dr Lea Pulkkinen discusses these and other areas of comparison between Australia and Finland in relation to the ‘Ten pillars as basic requirements for an optimal childhood’, which were formulated by the organisers of the Global Summit on Childhood in Washington in 2012.

This article was first published in the January 2014 edition of Insight magazine: Vulnerable children – better start, better lives, published by the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) and is re-published here in full with permission.

Dr  Pulkkinen writes: 

Pillar 1: Safe places to live and learn, and access to health care, adequate clothing and nutritious food

Finland is known as a country where economic equality is high. Wilkinson  defines inequality with a measure: how much richer are the richest 20 per cent than the poorest 20 per cent in each country. In more equal countries like Finland, the top 20 per cent are 3.5–4 times as rich as the bottom 20 per cent but in the more unequal countries, like Australia, they are 8–9 times as rich. Economic inequality is the source of many problems related to child well-being, education failure, health, violence, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy.

Finnish politicians have aimed at building a social welfare state in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens. After World War Two, Finnish people were very aware that their country’s future depended on the new generations and that investment in their development and wellbeing was most important for a young nation. As a result, Finland has the second lowest child poverty rate (5 per cent) among OECD countries.  By comparison, the child poverty rates In Australia was almost three times higher, exceeding the average (13 per cent) of the OECD. 

Free maternity care has been well-organised for more than 60 years in Finland. Expectant mothers are expected to contact a maternity clinic by the end of the second month of pregnancy. A material incentive to do so is a maternity grant, which can be provided in the form of either a cash benefit or a maternity package including a full set of baby clothes with the package itself serving as the baby’s bed. Responsibility for the healthcare of the newborn baby moves to the child welfare clinic, where a public health nurse and a doctor provide free services to children under school age and their families. At the clinic they receive health check-ups, vaccinations, and general advice on health issues. In 2010, infant mortality in Finland was very low (2.3 per cent), almost half of that in Australia which was close to the mean of the OECD countries (OECD Family Database 2012).

In schools, the school nurses offer check-ups and health care plans. In 1948 Finland was the first country in the world to start serving free school meals. Education is tuition-free for everyone up to the level of their doctoral dissertation. Physical punishment was forbidden at school in Finland by law 100 years ago, and in the home 30 years ago. Public services and child-friendly legislation are important for children’s wellbeing, but they are not sufficient without the parents’ own awareness of their responsibility for children.

Pillar 2: Strong families and consistent, loving caregivers

The role of the father has changed radically in Finland over the past 50 years. Fathers used to be authoritarian and distant. Nowadays men participate actively in their children’s lives, and usually take paternity allowance of two weeks leave after the baby is born.

Strong family ties have been threatened by a high divorce rate in Finland and the dominance of work-oriented values over family values. Finland ranks among the lowest among OECD countries of teenagers whose parents eat their main meal with them around the family table several times a week.  Children’s needs for parents’ support are being highlighted in public discussion and recent surveys show improvement in the interaction between parents and their children. Ties between couples need to be nurtured, and the parents encouraged to be mindful and alert – being present for their children with an awareness of what is going on in their lives right now.

Pillar 3: Social interactions and friendships

Children benefit from a variety of activities with peers. Through these activities they develop the skills needed for sociability and intimacy, they develop relationships, and they gain a sense of belonging. Strong efforts have been made to free children from the fear of bullying, but its elimination from school culture is hard to achieve if the media makes bullying and aggression acceptable. Children’s culture reflects adults’ culture.

Pillar 4:  Creative play and physical activity

In Finland, children start their nine year basic schooling in the autumn of the year in which they turn seven. This is the highest school starting age in the OECD countries. From the point of view of brain development, age seven is the proper age to start teacher-directed learning. At age six there is an optional pre-primary school year, of which most families make use.

Play is children’s way of expanding their knowledge of the physical world, their ability to communicate with peers, their understanding of themselves and others, and their imagination. In Finnish early education, up to the age of seven, creative play and physical activity have traditionally occupied most of children’s time. In countries where formal teaching in pre-schools starts at the age of 3 to 5, the role of creative play and physical activity is often reduced to a minimum. A tendency to speed up children’s cognitive development at the cost of many-sided development should be critically evaluated.

Pillar 5: Appreciation and stewardship of the natural environment

The sense of belonging to nature and its appreciation are strong in Finnish children and adults who can spend time in and play and exercise in the natural and healthy environment. Unfortunately, there is a growing concern in many countries about the effects of environmental threats on children’s health. The main risks are inadequate access to potable water, poor hygiene and sanitation, air pollution, chemical hazards, injuries and accidents, and emerging global issues such as climate change. Our earth and nature need to be protected from human devastation.

Pillar 6: Creative expression through music, dance, drama, and the other arts

Culture is often understood only as knowledge to be transmitted. In the Finnish school tradition, arts belong to culture. Participation in music and other arts activities has positive effects on children’s success at school and on their study skills such as concentration, and it improves their social skills and ability to act cooperatively with other children . Children have fewer and fewer opportunities for self-expression through the arts and manual activities such as handicrafts at home due to urbanisation, ready-made products in shops, and lack of the parents’ models of creative expression. Therefore, kindergarten and school play a central role in its development.

Pillar 7: Education that develops the full capacities of the child – cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and ethical

The goals of the Finnish early education were defined in legislation 30 years ago. They concern physical, social, emotional, aesthetic, intellectual, ethical, and religious education with an idea of fostering holistic growth in children and supporting the child’s opportunities to reach his or her unique potential. It presupposes that attention is paid to educational conditions rather than to standardised characteristics and a set of skills which children are required to master.

In school, Finnish educators agree that every child has the right to personalised support provided early on by trained professionals as part of normal schooling.  In school, there is no tracking by ability. In each school well-trained teachers are given great freedom in deciding what and how to teach. The central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores. Finnish educators take care not to hold students back or label them as ‘failing’, since this would lead to lower student motivation and failure, and increase social inequality.

We try to resist pressure for the present Anglo-Saxon model which promotes standardised testing as the most reliable measure of success for students, teachers, and schools; standardisation of the curriculum; and test-based accountability such as merit pay for high scores closing schools and firing educators with low scores.

Pillar 8: Supportive, nurturing, child-friendly communities

Finnish day care centres and schools are carefully designed to meet the academic, social, emotional, and physical needs of children. Unfortunately, the tendency has spread into Finland of calculating the short-term cost-effectiveness of education. This has resulted in larger groups of children in day care and larger schools and cuts in schools’ resources. How to connect research results and the science of child development to public policy, and how to promote supportive, nurturing, and child-friendly communities through policy making are big issues globally.

Pillar 9:  Growing independence and decision making

Growing independence and decision making may take place along several developmental paths, as was shown by a longitudinal study that I have conducted among children from age eight to adulthood.  Some paths are characterised by high self-control which involves increasing responsibility for one’s behavior, and some by low self-control. Independence develops, but responsibility in decision making may not develop adequately.

The quality of parenting behavior is associated with children’s paths. Support for parenting could be offered by the dissemination of knowledge based on research on child development and factors that affect it.

Pillar 10: Children and young people participating in community life

We often look at childhood through adults’ lenses without listening to the voices of children, and we assess childhood from a utilitarian perspective. By this I mean regarding childhood as a preparatory stage for moving on to school and from there to a productive and profitable adulthood. Childhood is, however, a unique stage of its own in human development.

Children and young people are able to express their own needs and viewpoints if they are listened to. This argument is based on the image of the child which includes a conception of the child’s inner potential to grow, learn and communicate; the child’s agency over his or her own life instead of being seen as an object to be shaped; and the need for sensitive adults to help the child unfold his or her uniqueness.

 

Dr Lea Pulkkinen is Professor Emerita in Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.