Are you and your children permanent residents in Finland? Is your child turning seven this year? In that case, your child will be starting first grade in Finland this fall.
Letter in the mail
Every child who is a permanent resident in Finland has to attend the one-year pre-primary education at the age of 6 as well as the nine-year basic education that starts at the age of seven. The parents are responsible for ensuring that the child enrolls in and completes this compulsory education. (Starting in 2021, the government extended compulsory education to extend until the child is 18 years of age. Read more from our blog post from January 2021).
All those children who are permanent residents in Finland and are turning seven this year will receive a letter around this time of year. The letter is from the municipality or town. It gives instructions on how to enroll the child in an elementary school in the area.
The normal public schools in Finland do not select their students. Every child has a place in a school nearby, but parents can apply to have their child placed at another public school as well. All municipalities have their own rules concerning school placement and whether such requests can be accommodated. Usually, those rules are in the letter or in the accompanying material.
Not going to the school nearby?
In larger Finnish cities there are also other options for your child’s schooling besides the nearby public school. In the greater metropolitan area, for example, there are several different international schools or schools that give instruction in another language besides Finnish. Here’s a list of some of them. The list is not comprehensive as it excludes at least the European School of Helsinki.
In Oulu, there is the Oulu International School. In Tampere, there is the Finnish International School of Tampere. In Turku, there is the Turku International School. In Jyväskylä, a child can study according to the Finnish comprehensive school curriculum in English.
If your child attends one of these schools rather than the nearby public school, you usually have to let your local officials know of this. Since basic education is compulsory in Finland, the local officials want to know how you are arranging your child’s education.
Homeschooling is not very common in Finland, but it does exist. Should you want to use that option, contact your local officials for further information.
Starting first grade in Finland
Officially the school year starts on August 1 and ends July 31. The local officials decide the actual start and ends dates of school work within the school year. They can make those decisions within certain limits. The law says that there are 190 school days a year. It also says that the school ends for the summer on the last working day of the last week of May or the first week of June. Your local school authorities will tell you the exact school and break dates.
School days in the first grade in Finland are short. Depending on where you live, first graders have about 19-22 hours of school a week. This means that most families need after-school care for their first graders. Municipalities usually arrange after-school care for first graders. Some municipalities also arrange it for second graders. The letter you receive should have instructions about how to apply for that care. There might be a modest fee for after-school care.
Here is the distribution of lesson hours in basic education starting January 1, 2020.
More on practicalities when starting first grade in Finland
Basic education in Finland is free. It means that you don’t have to pay school fees. It also means that you don’t have to purchase school books or school supplies. Those will be provided by the school. Depending on the subject, books may need to be handed back at the end of the school year. Writing utensils usually must remain at school for everyone to use. Your child will need a backpack or a bag of some sort and most people buy at least a few pencils and such. But basically, the school provides all else. Your child will also receive a free school lunch, which is a full warm meal. Lunch includes a hot meal, salad, bread, and beverages, but not usually desserts.
Schools use computers, pads, and smartphones in teaching from the very first grades onwards, but schools don’t usually require families to own those. What they do require, though, is for the child to have appropriate outerwear for different weather and also winter sports equipment during the winter.
Each school has its own rules. Often, for example, they don’t allow kids to bike to school before the 3rd grade. Hence children walk to school or use public transportation. Some parents drive their kids to school. Usually, parents walk with their child to school in the first few days of first grade or teach them how to use public transportation. It’s common for Finnish parents of first graders to time their annual vacations so that they can do this. We talk more about these issues in our tutorial Your Crash Course to Finland.
In rural areas where the distance to the local school may be too long, the municipalities arrange free school transportation for kids living more than 5 km away from school.
School curriculum and teachers
All public schools in Finland follow the national core curriculum, which includes the objectives and core contents of different subjects. However, local officials and individual schools have a lot of independence to draw up their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum.
Here is a very short description in English of the newest national core curriculum. All municipalities publish their own local curricula but in most cases, these are only in Finnish or Swedish. You can always ask your local officials if they have it in English or in any other language as well.
During the first six years of elementary school, teaching in Finnish elementary schools is mostly done by class teachers. Your child may, however, have a different teacher for example for PE, music, and art as often teachers have their own specializations.
Class teachers in Finland are by law expected to have a master’s degree in education, to have studied the subjects thought in elementary school, and have pedagogical training. Class teachers by law can also be persons who don’t have a master’s degree in education but have it in their subject matter. These latter teachers should also have education in the other elementary school subjects and have pedagogical training. Finnish teachers are thus in general highly qualified.
Language and culture support in your local school
The constitution of Finland guarantees that everyone living in Finland the right to uphold and develop their own language and culture. In the Finnish school system, this means that the Finnish school system offers language lessons in various different languages. In larger cities, the number of these different languages has risen to 10s of languages.
Each municipality has its own rules as to how when they offer these language lessons. Most often in order to get lessons in one’s native language, there has to be at least 4-5 speakers of that language for a group to be established.
If your child’s native language is not Finnish, this might also affect the teaching they get in the Finnish language and literature. It might be necessary for him or her to study Finnish as a second language (S2). Talk to the representatives of your local school and find out what their opinions are on this matter.
Also, if your child is attending a Finnish school, but his his/her Finnish is not quite good enough, he/she will most likely be given supplemental Finnish lessons.
Finnish elementary schools teach religion to their pupils. The teaching offered can follow Lutheran, Finnish Orthodox, or Islamic tenants depending on your child’s religious background. It is also possible to opt out of this and choose ethics instead.
Language support issues and issues related to the native language teaching are often mentioned in the letter your child receives. You can also ask for more information about these issues from your own municipality.
This blog for modified for content on January 8, 2021
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