Finnish people are some of the best educated people in the world, with high literacy and numeracy rates and over 45% of young people who attain a university education. But each year in Finland, a group of students leave 9th grade at the age of 15 without a placement in a school or training program. Without intervention, these young people become part of a group described in Europe as NEET, or “not in employment, education or training.” The term may not be familiar to us in America, but most European governments have been taking steps to address the needs of this difficult to serve group of young people.
While I was visiting Helsinki, I met with Jarkko, a counselor with a service called The Future Desk, which has been established to meet the ‘Youth Guarantee’, the government’s new pledge to offer a placement for all Finnish youth. Each spring, 15-year-olds apply to Finnish secondary placements through a common application process. You can read my blog about a girl named Darja’s application here. When all placements have been made, the school system gives the contact information for students who did not receive a placement to services like The Future Desk, so that they can contact the students and their families to help them find a solution.
For many young people, not receiving a placement means enrollment in the 10th grade, an additional year in lower secondary school to gain credits and increase grade averages so that students can re-apply for an upper secondary placement the next year. For others, placement may be into work-based training and career exploration programs. Other young people have more serious issues and need referrals to services for drug and alcohol abuse or psychological counseling services. Jarkko will arrange visits to these services and go to interviews with the young people to help them to complete applications. Some young people will refuse services, since education is only compulsory to the age of 16.
To address the deficit of placements for young people, and to reduce the number of students who are reported as NEET, the Finnish government opened more high school and vocational school places this year. According to the City of Helsinki website, this year in Helsinki 5,600 places will be made for young people transitioning from the 9th grade into upper level education. Of those, 2,600 will be in academic high schools and 3,027 will be in vocational schools. The problem with simply opening more placements, Jarkko says, is that schools and training centers will now be accepting students with lower academic abilities and more complex needs, such as mental health issues, drug dependencies, and language difficulties. He fears that the system may be underestimating the funding needed to provide the necessary support services.
Every country, even those with highly educated populations like Finland, deals with a difficult to serve group of students like those Jarkko and I serve. I have seen many of them in my school visits in England, and have been invited to visit some in Germany next week. Simple solutions, like opening more school placements and raising compulsory attendance ages, don’t solve the problem. Neither do absolute political proclamations that every child will achieve at high levels or no child will ever be left behind.
Young people who are not succeeding in our schools don’t form a homogeneous group. Some have very complex needs. The answers will only be found by empowering experienced professionals with the resources needed to provide individualized supports. Even then, some young people will fail. Some will decide to resume their education years from now. Jarkko describes support and placement systems similar to The Future Desk for adults in Finland, and notes that adult high schools are available free of charge for those who decide to return later in life. Real solutions to low attainment are those that offer individualized choices, multi-pronged supports, multiple points of entry, and long term measures of progress.