A first-grader outside a school on the first day of school in Helsinki on 22 August 2022. YLE has kindled heated public and political discussion by releasing a search engine that reveals, among others, the number of pupils studying Finnish as a second language in each primary school in Finland. (Roni Rekomaa – Lehtikuva)


YLE has kindled heated political and public discussion by publishing a search engine that reveals how many pupils in each primary school study Finnish as a second language.

Minister of Education Li Andersson (LA) and Minister of Science and Culture Petri Honkonen (Centre) on Friday expressed their disapproval with the search engine, with the former viewing that it exacerbates school inequalities and stigmatises foreign-language pupils.

Honkonen, in turn, questioned the ethicality of releasing the search engine.

Helsingin Sanomat on Sunday reported that researchers have both welcomed the discussion provoked by the publication and condemned its racist nature. Emilia Palonen, a senior researcher of political science at the University of Helsinki, told the newspaper that the manner in which ministers have criticised the report by the public broadcaster is principally an unwanted development.

“It’s naturally not a good thing that ministers are reprimanding YLE,” she said.

Palonen added that as a researcher she is nevertheless pleased about the political discussion surrounding the search engine, especially with the parliamentary elections drawing closer. The discussion provoked by the report, she viewed, reveals that it has not been customary to discuss school disparities in the capital region based on the mother tongue of learners.

“But at the same time, information is required to support decision making,” she said, underscoring the complex nature of the issue. “Also research information simplifies phenomena and research is partly outdated.”

Palonen viewed that the ministers voiced their disapproval with the search engine first and foremost because the straightforward information it offers can brand certain neighbourhoods and their residents. Also she estimated that the search engine offers too simplified a presentation of the complex phenomenon of school inequalities.

“The information you can get from the school database can’t be used to draw conclusions about the key problems linked to the issue, and this kind of information shouldn’t be enough for policy makers, either,” she said.

“Breeding stereotypes will lead to the same than in Sweden, where people are reluctant to move to some areas.”

Hanna Virtanen, a research director at Etla Economic Research, told Helsingin Sanomat that YLE should have refrained from publishing the search engine in a form that identifies individual schools.

“Naming the schools was in no way a prerequisite for writing about the issue. YLE could’ve presented the issue at a more general level rather than telling how pupils in individual schools are performing or revealing the income levels of their parents,” she argued.

“As such, the school database negatively labels children attending certain schools.”

The search engine, she warned, will only exacerbate inequalities between schools as the information it offers inevitably sways the decisions of parents. “And these decisions are being made by the well-off.”

Jouko Jokinen, an acting editor-in-chief at YLE, on Sunday expressed his puzzlement with the public debate prompted by the article.

“Our duty is to produce new and meaningful information for society, and the number of [pupils learning Finnish as a second language] and their distribution between different parts of the country are simple facts. Telling them is important and interesting,” he stated to Helsingin Sanomat.

“It was clear,” he added, referring to internal discussions that preceded the publication, “that a topic that’s linked to immigration will always stir up heated debate, but naturally that shouldn’t scare off the media.”

Aleksi Teivainen – HT