Changes in bilingual education and lack of communication concern parents of Spanish-Finnish students 

Käpylä primary school has been providing a Spanish-bilingual education since 2010. Most students of this program have multicultural or immigrant background.
Helsinki city is planning to abolish entrance exams for bilingual education. The parents are concerned that the changes would endanger the functioning of the program. Even bigger fear is that their voice won’t be heard.

Flor Salazar Martinez

Nadiia Fedorova

Published 05.06.2024 2:22

Updated 05.06.2024 2:45

The city of Helsinki aims to abolish the entrance examination system for bilingual education in its schools. The exams are to be replaced by a “lottery system”. 

The changes are to come into force during the year 2025. First, it is supposed to be a two-year trial period, but the city hopes to make the change permanent, according to an article by Yle on April 13, 2024.

The plan has been drafted after authorities noticed that some parents would enroll their kids in preparatory courses to excel in the entrance examination, especially in the English-Finnish programs. This was “adding an extra load of stress and disappointment” for the six-year-olds as stated in the Yle’s article.  

However, the plan has now raised concern among the parents of Spanish-Finnish bilingual students. They call for the authorities to exclude the Spanish-Finnish program from the reform.  

They argue that there is no evidence of similar problems than with the English-language programs. Instead, the parents fear that the changes could lead to linguistic skills disparity in the classroom that could endanger the bilingual school that is from their point of view currently working fine. They are also very critical of the way the city has communicated the plans. 

 “Bilingual education is not the same as a second language learning” 

Käpylä primary school is the only comprehensive school that provides a Spanish-bilingual education, not only in Finland but also throughout the Nordic countries. The student body of this small program is mostly comprised of kids from multicultural or immigrant background families, many have grown up with at least one Spanish-speaking parent. 

The city officials seem not to recognize the difference between bilingual and second language education, says Silvia Padrón Revilla, mother of a 8-year-old student and a member of the parents’ association. She is a Spanish citizen who has been living in Finland for 10 years. 

In bilingual school kids have previous knowledge in both languages, therefore they can use it as an instrument of instruction. In a second language learning environment the language itself becomes the subject of study.  

“Being multilingual is a matter of identity and not a status symbol,” Padrón Revilla says.  

“By removing the entrance examination in the name of inclusion you are mixing kids with different learning needs and forcing them to receive the same education. This means diluting the idea of a bilingual classroom.”

“And at this point, it’s not even clear how the lottery system would work,” Padrón Revilla adds. 

Even though kids are the first affected, the parents also feel threatened. 

“We have built a community of parents that support each other through the migrants’ experience and the upbringing of a child in a different culture. We can help our kids with their homework and preserve our identity,” comments Padrón Revilla.    

The parents feel that their concerns are not heard 

The parents are also very critical about the lack of communication and involvement of the parents in the process by the city officials. 

“We became aware of the situation from an article by Yle in mid April”, Padrón Revilla says. “The official communication has been insufficent.” 

The parents’ association have tried to express their concerns to the authorities multiple times. Initially they sent letters to different authorities through the official feedback system of the City Hall, stating their disregard and asking to be involved but said that they received no meaningful answers.  

Helsinki city has held one online information event, on May 16th, but it was only held in Finnish.  

Afterwards, one disappointed parent wrote in Kerrokantasi, an online platform provided by the city of Helsinki to allow citizens to give their opinion on policy decisions: 

“The name ‘hearing’ is misleading, however, because in reality no one was consulted. It was held in Teams, where no parent had the opportunity to say anything. Only the officials who went through their slides had a voice. During these, there was an opportunity to write comments in the comments box. Comments were picked at random, and many questions were completely ignored. Some of them clearly not wanted to be answered.” 

The Käpylä school itself has been cooperative in keeping the parents as informed as possible and tried to argue for the change from pedagogical standpoint, even though the parents feel the arguments don’t apply well for the Spanish-Finnish education. 

According to Padrón Revilla, the school management has been sympathetic to the parents, but also clear: they have no authority to approve or deny the plan. They have advised the families to give their feedback through the official lines, such as Kerrokantasi. 

Helsinki city enabled commenting in Kerrokantasi between May 3rd until May 31st. The poll was closed with 200 comments.  

Parents of Käpylä school has also started to collect signatures to a petition, to show the local authorities their need to be excluded from these changes. So far 173 signatures have been collected, 115 of them from parents and tutors from the Spanish-Finnish program.      

But after no answers or signs of their unconformities being noted, the families feel unheard and neglected.  

The city’s answers remain limited 

Satakieli tried to contact Helsinki city to obtain detailed information on what these changes will entitle. After 5 days and multiple attempts, we did not receive any statement. 

When Yle published a follow-up article about the matter on May 31, they received an email reply from the deputy mayor of education Johanna Laisaari (sd). According to her, bilingual education was never intended to be limited to native speakers, but to expand the language skills of all children in Helsinki.  

According to Yle, Helsinki city argues that the reform will free up the time used on administrative work and eventually the city’s bilingual programs will have more spots available for kids starting school even with the current personnel. 

Helsinki city is supposed to make the decision about the changes in June.