Compulsory schooling in Finland begins at the age of seven and lasts for nine years. This education is free of charge for the students. The education system in Swedish-speaking parts of Finland is the same as in the rest of the country.
Swedish-speaking schools coexist alongside Finnish-language schools in Finland’s network of schools. Swedish is the language of instruction and the majority of teachers are native Swedish-speakers. In these schools Finnish is taught as a compulsory extra language and the reverse is true in Finnish-language schools. Specifics vary between municipalities. However, children in Finnish-language schools usually start learning Swedish in grade 7, while Swedish-speaking children start to learn Finnish in grade 3.
Swedish-language options are available at all levels of education, although not uniformly around the country. As of 2008 there were a total of 388 schools where Swedish was the main language of instruction in Finland, educating 104,201 students.
The Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning has noted that a key issue for the Finland-Swedish minority is the choice of language registration in bilingual families and above all their choice of school language for their children. The quality of the education given in Swedish-language schools decides the future of the Swedish minority as a language group.
The first years
Education in Swedish is available in Finland at all levels, from day care and nursery schools to higher education and universities. Concerning preschool education, local authorities are obliged to arrange day care for children from the age of one to six years of age, although children are not obliged to attend.
According to figures from the Association of Kindergarten Teachers in Finland, out of a total of around 3600 day-care centres in the country, 342 are Swedish-speaking, and 71 are registered as bilingual.
Immigrants and Swedish-language day care
For those with children who have moved temporarily or permanently to Finland, the issue of schooling is naturally of paramount importance. Private schools do exist where the language of instruction is English, but these tend to be more popular either with families who are in Finland for a short time and will be moving on to another English-speaking country, or with Finns who want their children to achieve a high level of proficiency in English.
For others, the question of which language their children’s schooling should take place in is rather limited, as location might make studying in Finnish the only option. But for those who have moved to Swedish-speaking areas, the possibilities clearly exist to take advantage of Swedish-language options.
Anna Shaw moved with her family to the Swedish-speaking town of Ekenäs in 2009. With two children then aged eight and thirteen, Shaw had to make the decision as to which language they would be educated in for their minimum four-year stay in Finland.
“In practice, the decision was rather easy,” says Shaw, “for a few reasons. Firstly, my mother is a Swedish-speaking Finn, and insofar as moving to Finland was an attempt to give my children some knowledge of their family history, it seemed natural to school them in my mother’s language.
“Secondly, since Ekenäs is one of the most Swedish-speaking towns in Finland the possibilities of studying in Finnish were more limited. My older child is also learning Finnish at school but her Swedish is really very good already.
“Thirdly, it seems fair to say that Swedish is, for most people, easier to learn than Finnish. Moving to a new country can be a very challenging adventure in any case, and piling on the pressure of learning a beautiful but complex language like Finnish might not be the best recipe for a stress-free life,” she points out.