Time to party in Finnish upper secondary schools

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This is the season you might run into lines of slogan-decorated trucks carrying rowdy students. Do you know what those are all about? In this blog post, we’ll explain some of the traditional celebrations that take place in Finnish upper secondary schools (lukio) at this time of the year.

Finnish upper secondary schools

In an earlier blog post, we described what happens in the first grade of the Finnish elementary school system. It takes nine years to complete the Finnish elementary school. After elementary school kids can decide whether they’ll continue to vocational education or to upper secondary education. About half all 16-18 year-olds in Finland study in upper secondary schools.

The purpose of the Finnish upper secondary schools is to provide the students with extensive general knowledge. Upper secondary schools prepare them for studies at a university, university of applied sciences, and upper-level vocational training.

The syllabus covers three years of studies, but as it is based on course work that is not year-specific. Thus in reality it can take less or more than that. The syllabus comprises of mandatory subjects and courses as well as optional courses. Students have to take at least 75 courses. 

The Finnish upper secondary schools don’t have tuitions, but all books and all supplies must be purchased by the families themselves. Books cost around 10-30 € a piece, but often it is possible to buy second-hand books. The Union of Finnish upper secondary school students has estimated that the cost of books and other items is around 2100 euros in total for the three years. 

Upper secondary schools in Finland end in the matriculation examination. 

Matriculation examination

The matriculation examination is a national examination. Students take it at the end of the Finnish upper secondary school. The examination consists of at least four tests. These days the only compulsory test for everybody is the test of the student’s native language (Finnish or Swedish). The student then chooses at least four additional tests. The student can choose the second national language test, a foreign language test, a math test, or a test in one of the subjects in humanities or natural sciences. 

These examinations are organized in the spring and in the fall. A student can participate in a maximum of three consecutive examinations. 

With the matriculation examination, the student proves that he/she has learned what he/she was supposed to learn. Passing the matriculation examinations entitles the student to continue his/her studies in higher education. 

The matriculation examinations have always been a really big deal for upper secondary students. Thus, there are several traditions that are connected to the start of the examinations. Back in the day examinations were only held during the spring. Therefore the still ongoing traditions occur at this time of the year.    


Penkkarit (more formally in Finnish penkinpainajaiset) occurs at the end of the last school year of upper secondary school. The last school year ends early. These days it ends around the beginning of February so that students can start preparing for the matriculation examinations. Those take place later in the spring. 

Penkkarit used to be held on the same day across the whole country, but nowadays there is some variation in the date. For example, students in Turku celebrated penkkarit last week on Thursday.  However, students in the capital region celebrate penkkarit today in the early afternoon.

The history of penkkarit goes as far as the history of matriculation examinations in Finland. In the 1800s, matriculation examinations were only organized in Helsinki. Thus students from all over Finland had to travel to Helsinki to do the exams. At penkkarit, locals saw their students off to Helsinki. The image at the start of this blog is of a penkkari celebration in 1932.

These days penkkarit is a carnivalistic celebration. The students dress up, usually students of the same school in a similar theme. They decorate the trucks with placards and sheets with images and slogans. These slogans are often political in nature. They also make fun of school, the school system, teachers, and themselves.

If you want to see this spectacle, you can find the map of the Helsinki route here, the Espoo route map is here, and the Vantaa routes are enumerated here. If you do show up, prepare to stuff your pockets with candy since the students will be throwing those to the audience as they pass by. 

Other students celebrate too

Once the last year students have left the school, the second year students become seniors. They celebrate their senior status with a formal dance, vanhojenpäivät

The students spend hours practicing these formal dances. Previously, participants dressed in vintage or historical styles, these days girls wear dresses that are more alike to ball gowns than anything else. This article by Yle shows the changes that have occurred in the way students dress. The article is in Finnish, but the changes are easy to see. Boys dress in a tuxedo, in white tie, or a morning dress.

Two upper secondary school students in 1957 prepared for the dance in vintage outfits. (Photo: Unknown/Helsinki City Museum, image N260699)

Students perform the dances to their parents. Sometimes they perform the dances on two separate days, to their parents on one day and to themselves and their school on another.

Hope you catch a lot of candy today!

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