Free early education trial begins in 19 municipalities

Starting in August, a Ministry of Education trial will provide 20 hours a week of early childhood education and care to over 12,000 five-year-olds - free of charge.

Nineteen municipalities in Finland, including the capital city of Helsinki, will start providing five-year-olds with 20 hours of free early childhood education and care in August, as a part of an Education Ministry experiment.

The ministry says its goal is to attract as many children as possible to partake in early education, and collect information about potentially expanding the scope of pre-primary education to younger children.

According to the National Agency for Education, all children under school age in Finland have a subjective right to early childhood education and care, should their parents so decide. Municipalities are responsible for arranging the services and supervising their quality. Families in Finland can also opt for publicly-subsidised private early education options.

Most families are asked to pay a low fee for the service.

The free trial will include about one fifth of Finland's total population of five-year-olds, or 12,400 preschoolers.

Suvi Pirnes-Toivanen, head of education and culture in the southern municipality of Mäntyharju, says increased numbers of five-year-olds in care will also make it easier to spot children who might need extra support, allowing staff to arrange help at an earlier age.

"Usually between 75 and 80 percent of five-year-olds participate, but this new development has pushed that number up past 90 percent," she says. "Even so, it doesn't remove the fact that some kids are excluded."

Early education brings many benefits

Municipalities throughout Finland were invited to join the trial in March. At the time, the ministry anticipated the trial would encompass some 19,000 children.

Interested cities and towns soon realized that participation in the experiment would reduce their overall funding, however, and many municipalities, such as the central Finnish city of Jyväskylä, dropped out.

Even though the trial was not able to gather as many municipalities as originally envisioned, Education and Culture Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen says she is still pleased with the trial's purview.

"It's particularly gratifying that we were able to gather such a diverse array of municipalities from all corners of the country," she says.

She believes that the sample size will generate sufficient information about the effectiveness of the trial.

"Research has shown that participation in early childhood education and care is beneficial later in later studies as well. At the moment, the children that would stand to receive the most benefit from this education are being left out," the minister says.

Compared to the other Nordic countries, Finland has a smaller percentage of five-year-olds that are in early childhood education and care.

"The goal in the long run is to have all five-year-olds participating in the programme," Grahn-Laasonen says.

Starting the path to school earlier?

One of the purposes of the trial in question is to examine whether it would be worthwhile for Finland make its current kindergarten system - what it calls "pre-primary education" - last two years instead of one.

At present, children in Finland don't begin first grade until the age of seven. A year of pre-primary education has traditionally been arranged for six-year-olds in day care centres and schools, but this extra year was voluntary until as late as August 2015, when it was made compulsory.

Providing a place in pre-primary education free of charge for all children is a statutory duty of the municipalities. If the trial shows promising results, this municipal obligation could be extended to two years, and children would start in early childhood education and care at the age of five.

Funding for a continuation of the trial into a second year has already been approved. The Ministry says it hopes that more municipalities will join in 2019.

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