Saturday, October 22, 2005


At Helsinki's Finnish-Russian School they also teach English
Political stereotypes still hound 60-year-old institution
By Kari Kiuru
Helsingin Sanomat

According to a resilient perception, the Finnish-Russian School of Helsinki is a place of socialist indoctrination from the preschool level.

The school's head teacher Liisa Pohjolainen says that while there may have been some truth to this in years past, it is no longer the case.

"Sometimes in the 1970s or before that, children may have been sent to the school for political reasons. The history of the school is linked with the 1950s, when the Russian Cultural-Democratic League had a say in the establishment of the school. There was also support from the Soviet Union, when it first began at Neitsytpolku 50 years ago. However, now things are different", Pohjolainen says.

The Finnish-Russian school has not managed to completely shake off its old reputation. The present school building on Kaarelankuja was built in 1964. Some of the architectural influences would seem to have come from the Soviet Union or the former East Germany.

"We follow Finnish curricula, and the success has been reasonable, to say the least. Although it is relatively easy to get into our high school, we are among the top 30 in the country in matriculation examination results. For instance, in English language skills our school has done quite well", Pohjolainen explains.

She attributes the pupils' good results in English to the fact that the children get a feel for a foreign language already in preschool. "That means that learning comes more naturally than if they started in the third grade, for instance, when pupils usually choose their first foreign language."

The pupils of the Finnish-Russian School constitute a small minority. Only one or two percent of Finland's upper secondary school pupils have Russian as the first foreign language. About 40 Finnish-speaking pupils each year have Russian as the main foreign language in their matriculation examinations.

Pohjolainen says that the Finnish-Russian School provides a solid background in Russian.

"Between 25 and 30 percent of the comprehensive school pupils achieve the level of an independent user of the language. They understand Russian and are able to use it fluently."

The head teacher says that the Finnish and Slavic cultures are both evident in the school. "The Russians are, after all, more emotional than we Finns. Contacts are also established in connection with school camps and summer courses. In them we have also helped other Finnish schools and educational institutions."

However, prejudices die hard. "Someone might say something like ‘oh, so you're some kind of a Russian', when the school comes up in the conversation", says Jenni Ruotsalainen, who speaks from experience. "It's no real problem though", she adds.

"This is a good school. The teachers and pupils know each other. For me, the choice of schools was dictated by circumstance. I came to Finland nine years ago, and I couldn't really speak Finnish then", says Illya Rushailo.

Even if an applicant for the school is a native speaker of Russian, it will not guarantee him a place in the school. Pupils also need to learn Finnish, and for many families of Russian origin who have lived in Finland for many years, Russian-language skills have also deteriorated.

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