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From Scottish Fantasy to Finnish Reality

Considering the hardships accumulated from years of austerity, I never cease to be amazed by the youth workers I meet that continue to show so much Scottish smeddum, when it comes to supporting young people through all the challenges of adolescence and adversity.

In search of new opportunities, I wanted to find what lies beneath the success stories we hear from Finland. It is widely reported that Finland's rise in economic stature stems largely from the population’s demand for public education and their willingness to pay higher taxes to invest in it. Consequently, Finland with a population of 5.5 million has enjoyed much higher ratings in the PISA academic tables for maths, reading and science than the UK. Among other achievements are reducing levels of homelessness and improvements in life expectancy. Life-standards and wellbeing in Finland are enviable by most standards.

I travelled as one of 30 UK delegates on a study visit organised by Children in Scotland. We received presentatations from the Ministry of Education, Children and Family Welfare Centre and the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre. We also visited a range of early years centres, schools, youth centres and voluntary sector organisations across Helsinki.

The introductory presentation from the Ministry of Education highlighted some of its cornerstones:

  • a common, consistent and long-term policy;

  • a broad commitment to a vision of a knowledge-based-society;

  • educational equality;

  • devolution of decision-making power and responsibility at the local level;

  • a culture of trust given to professionals, and

  • quality that is maintained by self-evaluation rather than regular demands to evidence outcomes.

Thinking of my 9 year old son sitting in a class of 33 children in Scotland, I was sure his teachers would be amazed that the school I visited had 900 pupils with 90 teachers and a team of 10 support staff. The quadrant in the middle of the school had been converted into a large greenhouse filled with animals, plants and other ways for pupils to immerse themselves in hands-on lessons in natural sciences. In another classroom children brimmed over with excitement as they shared in fluent English their project on robotic programming. They reported that their team had successfully simulated the landing of a lost space craft on its mission back to earth.

I was drawn to a wall chart at the back of the class, with pupils names posted on it. It turns out that the class are encouraged to place the names of their team mates against the character strengths they displayed while working together. How transformative could this be if it was adopted to replace the much maligned behaviour charts we often see in Scottish classrooms.

With equality fundamental to Finnish values, it was clear that most initiatives are designed for everyone's benefit. The Annatalo arts centre we visited receives Government funding to employ a large team of 'art pedagogues' giving 10,000 children a year, access to specialist courses. This is additional to the creative arts which are integral to Finland's new phenomenon based approach to education. The government funding which has been steady over the last 20 years has the dual impact of giving all young people access to high quality expressive arts education, while making sure that the centre flourishes. Additional lottery and grants funding is used to offer a wealth of after-school clubs, holiday programmes, family sessions and work tailored to young people with additional or special needs.

The voluntary youth organisation (Aseman Lapset ry 'Children of the Station') we visited provides safe, respectful and supportive contacts between adults and young people. Their concept of 'discovery youth work' seeks to meet with young people in public places, which makes its city centre location key to its approach. It has no thresholds, is non-judgemental and creates a caring relationship with clear boundaries. Because Fins believe that those with the most complex needs deserve the best quality of support, youth workers are usually qualified to masters degree level. All support staff and volunteers have clear pre-determined points from where professional youth workers take charge. I felt a strange dawning that conversations of 'professional youth work' have been absent for many years in Scotland.

Just as I was at risk of thinking Finland could do no wrong, it was revealed that the Finnish system is not entirely immune to the dangers of global capitalism. Against the wishes of staff and young people, the centre is being closed to make way for more high-end city centre shopping spaces. Although far from ideal for the 'Children of the Station, there is at least some back up. Finland's Youth Act authorises the financing of youth work and policy as well as investment in youth facilities, support for youth research and support for international youth co-operation. The likelihood is that an alternative venue will be found. Scotland meanwhile, has never had a Youth (Scotland) Act, and I wondered if having one would raise the value attributed to essential youth services which wrap around formal education.

One such example was on display at the Helsinki Missio. They provide crisis counselling to young people, families and older people to combat loneliness. In addition to their team of certified counselors, their 800 volunteers extend support to help participants build positive pathways out of crisis. A maximum two-day response to counselling requests seems a far cry from the long waiting lists for mental health services, which we've grown accustomed to.

Overall, the study visit showed that while Finland has been building itself up to protect young people and families from the negative effects of the banking collapse, Scotland - often hailed as the birth place of modern youth work, has been in quiet meltdown. I regularly come across youth organisations juggling upwards of 20 funding streams at any one time. With so many outcomes to evidence it's little wonder that leaders have learned to appear innovative to one funder, count young people entering the building for another funder; while being coerced by funding criteria into claiming that youth work can single-handedly solve Scotland's addiction, crime, mental health and unemployment issues.

In reality we've created all the conditions that are counter to making Scotland the best place to grow up. If youth organisations were able to be more open they would speak of shifting buckets to catch the drips from the leaky roof; while writing the next round of redundancy notices. Amidst the uncertainty youth workers in Scotland do everything within their means to give young people the positive adult relationships they need. If we genuinely desire a highly regarded, healthy and thriving youth work to sector to become a reality, there may be challenging questions to contemplate, such as:

  • Are we prepared to agree a national long-term vision for young people, that cannot be diverted by successive governments?

  • Should there be a Youth (Scotland) Act that sets out the terms of support and investment for youth work across the whole of Scotland?

  • Should the government and funders of youth services give youth work professionals the autonomy to do their work effectively, without demanding disproportionate levels of evidence for ever-changing outcomes?

  • Should the government commit to long-term core investment of youth work, so that other funding and lottery investment is supplementary?

  • Are we prepared to pay higher taxes for better youth services?

Scotland's Year of Young People (2018) is a good time to start a conversation on the future of youth work. Finland shows us that we can and should demand better. All views on the way forward are welcome!

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