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“Second-generation immigrants fare no better in school than first-generation immigrants,” Helsingin Sanomat reported last Wednesday.

The National Audit Office of Finland (VTV) had unveiled the results of its first performance audit of the opportunities of pupils from immigrant backgrounds to develop a capacity for learning and to participate in further education – as is the objective of the Basic Education Act.

VTV revealed in a bulletin released on 18 August that immigrant and native-born pupils do not have equal opportunities to succeed in basic education. It also pointed out that second-generation immigrant pupils fare worse than their native-born peers in terms of educational achievement even if their socio-economic background is taken into consideration.

It is hard to tell why the gap remains so wide for children born to immigrant parents in Finland, says Tanja Kirjavainen, a senior performance auditor at VTV.

VTV compared differences in the maths and literacy skills of 15-year-old immigrant and native-born pupils to the situation in 18 other countries based on the results of PISA 2012 results.

Kirjavainen estimates that the gap is partly attributable to the fact that 24 per cent of second-generation immigrants study at a lower level than their peers. The corresponding percentage for native-born pupils is 14 per cent. The gap can also be attributed to the differential treatment of pupils from immigrant backgrounds and the low educational attainment of their parents, according to VTV.

“It's referred to as treatment in the report, but you could just as well use the sociological concept of racism,” states Vesa Puuronen, a professor of sociology at the University of Oulu.

He estimates that the racism occurs on a number of levels, both consciously and unconsciously. “Teacher is naturally the one important adult the pupils interact with. Yet, teacher training provides very little information needed interact with pupils from immigrant backgrounds,” he points out.

“I consider it a clear flat that teachers aren't provided with the necessary capabilities to interact with pupils from different cultures starting from the very first grades. It can easily lead to a cycle where the pupils perceive the school environment as depressing rather than inspiring.”

Puuronen is concerned that the shortcomings in teacher training may also encourage institutional racism. “Then there are the classmates and bullying because of foreign origin. That's exclusion on a number of levels, which can lead to social alienation,” he says.

Second-generation immigrants may have faced racism for so long that their motivation to learn the language, for example, is lower than that of those who have only recently moved to Finland. Similar problems have also been detected among disadvantaged Finns, reminds Puuronen.

“I think some teachers are under the self-fulfilling impression that if someone is from a disadvantaged background, they aren't equipped to do well in school. It creates a cycle of disadvantages: the pupils have no positive experiences and don't succeed,” he summarises.

Paula Paukku – HS
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT

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