Immigration and Early Education

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I’m going to do a bunch of posts about Finland over the course of this trip that won’t necessarily be conclusion-driven. The basic spirit is that (a) it’ll be content, (b) it’ll be a useful exercise for me to just try to summarize things I’m learning, (c) someone might find it interesting, and (d) there’ll be time to reach meaningful conclusions later.

Yesterday’s visits in Finland were focused on their early education system. One important new challenge to that system, as to many dimensions of European social policy, relates to dealing with immigrants. Finland’s immigrant population is still relatively small, but in the city of Helsinki it’s pretty big, and immigrants are disproportionately fecund so it’s a big deal for the education system especially in the city.

The early education system is, in principle, a huge opportunity in terms of hopes of building a successful system of integration and assimilation. Kids come in to Finnish early education at very young ages — sometimes just one or two years old — at a time when their linguistic capabilities are developing rapidly and at a point where foreign language acquisition is relatively easy. Thus, this is a great opportunity to teach Finnish to foreign-born children or to the children of foreign-born (most often Russian or Somali) parents. One interesting element to this is that Finnish center-based early childhood services are universally available but by no means mandatory. Many children are taken care of at home or by relatives. And since unemployment is higher among immigrant communities and immigrants also tend to come from families with more traditional gender/family ideas the objective need for child care services in the immigrant community isn’t necessarily enormous.

In the United States, many if not most local governments would take a look at the reduced budgetary costs associated with immigrant families choosing to keep their kids at home and conclude that it’s all good. But the Finns regret the missed opportunity to ensure that immigrant kids learn Finnish and are able to hit the ground running once “real” school starts at age seven. So they make special efforts to try to do outreach and encourage immigrant families to send their kids to early childhood education centers even if they’re unemployed and capable of taking care of them at home. It’s an interesting peek at the difference between social services that are grudgingly provided (as is typical in the US) and a mentality that looks upon them more positively as things that are being offered because it would be good for them to be used.

A related aspect of this is, of course, that it’s easier for immigrant children to learn Finnish if their playmates in school are predominantly Finnish. And this is a point where educators observed that the success of their mission winds up depending on policies made by totally different branches of government. In particular, for the schools to be integrated enough to do language education with maximal success, you need housing policy to put an adequate mix of units of different types and affordability levels in different neighborhoods. The Helsinki authorities reportedly do accomplish this to some extent, with public housing scattered somewhat around the city rather than in a concentrated ghetto. But there seem to be some real limits to the scope of this policy — one school we visited was a bit over 50 percent immigrant, which makes their task difficult.

On a related note, a teacher at that school observed that since that school — with a relatively high number of immigrants, a high number of low-income families (both native and foreign born) and a high number of kids from single-parent families — had a relatively more challenging task than other preschools in Helsinki, it really ought to get more funding on a per capita basis. That seems correct to me — the flat distribution of funds they have in Finland isn’t really appropriate. On the other hand, it’s about a million times more appropriate than the American system which generally allocates the least funding to the communities most in need.