How does a 15-year-old decide on their future education?

Finland is thought of as a model country in terms of equality, but young people are still choosing their education based on their gender more than in any other European country.

Finnish school pupils face important choices during their final year of comprehensive school. They have to decide whether to continue to upper secondary school, vocational school, or perhaps a folk high school.

During guidance counselling classes, the pupils explore different occupations as well as their own strengths and preferences. They have one-on-one meetings with the guidance counsellor as well as group sessions, and they are introduced to the world of work. The pupils also talk about their choices among themselves, because it matters what their friend group thinks.

The goal is to help young people independently choose the education path that is most suitable and interesting for them.

Some have no trouble choosing. They have always known what they want to do when they grow up: for example, take as many math and physics classes in upper-secondary school as they can and then head to medical school. Or go to culinary school to become a chef.

Others, meanwhile, apply to the only secondary education institution in their area because they have no other options. Some are likely to go where their friends go; some will follow in the footsteps of their older siblings or choose the place that sounds like the most fun.


But young people are not making their decisions in a vacuum. More than a third of boys and a fifth of girls who answered a survey organised by Statistics Finland believed that their gender would influence their choice of profession. One in ten boys believed that choosing an un-masculine occupation would make them less popular with the girls.

The dream jobs of both girls and boys reflect traditional concepts of “feminine” and “masculine” occupations. In a survey conducted by the Economic Information Office TAT, girls expressed interest in health and social services as well as the restaurant and hospitality industries. Boys were more interested in technology, national defence as well as banking and finance.

These girls and boys will go on to graduate into their chosen professions. Of all students graduating with a degree in the social and health care sector, 90% are women, and the inverse is true for IT degrees.

The division into traditionally gendered fields begins as early as comprehensive school, where boys are more likely to complete optional courses in mathematics and science. Girls, meanwhile, study a wider variety of languages than boys. This division persists in upper-secondary school. Even though Finland is viewed as a model of gender equality, its young people continue to choose their education according to gender stereotypes more than in any other country in the European Union.


Gender is the most significant for the career choices of girls from immigrant backgrounds, says Mira Kalalahti, docent of educational sociology from the University of Helsinki. She has been studying the education paths of young people since 2015.

 “Girls from immigrant backgrounds find it more difficult to challenge traditional gender roles than their counterparts from native Finnish families. For some of them, cultural and religious expectations also influence their choice of education. For example, the school must be a safe distance from home.”

Girls from immigrant backgrounds are also more likely to wind up studying for traditionally “feminine” occupations, because in those fields, the education has been adapted to their needs. For example, preparatory teaching is available for students pursuing a practical nursing degree.

For the same reason, boys from immigrant backgrounds are seeking out education in social and health care fields. For them, the Finnish world of vocational schools, traditionally thought of as very masculine, can seem exclusionary and intolerant. This image is supported by opinion surveys which indicate that boys pursuing a vocational degree hold particularly negative opinions of cultural diversity.


Gender roles are hereditary. Children of highly educated parents are more likely to go to upper-secondary and higher education, but the parents’ educational background alone is not sufficient to dissolve the gender discrepancy.

Role models have power. If the mother is working in a male-dominated field, for example as an electrician or programmer, her daughter is more likely to dare break with tradition. The same goes for fathers and sons, suggests a report issued by the Research Foundation for Studies and Education.

Hobbies that break with gender stereotypes, such as woodworking for girls, or reading books for enjoyment for boys, also indicate that the children may later choose an educational path outside what is expected of their gender.

A young person’s career may have been settled very early on, at a specialist day care, studying in a group with an emphasis on a particular field in comprehensive school, or through a hobby. Educated parents have created opportunities, supported their children in their studies and boosted their self-esteem. The situation is the most difficult for young people with no support outside of school and no reliable, caring adults in their lives with whom to consider different options.

Schools have support available, but not all teenagers can or want to accept help. Self-management, one of the requirements of the contemporary school system, means the ability to independently regulate actions and emotions. Not everyone can accomplish this without major effort.


There are families where young people have always known which field they are expected to go into. Finland has many families where generation after generation have worked as doctors, lawyers, teachers or priests.

The young people who answered the survey by the Economic Information Office TAT stated that their parents and relatives had greatly influenced their career plans.

The influence of parents is not always a positive phenomenon. For his dissertation in education at the University of Turku, Guidance Counsellor Petri Niemi studied the factors that hinder comprehensive school pupils from reaching their education and career goals. One of them was the significant role of their parents in making decisions. The motivation should be innate, as a decision imposed from the outside may not carry through many years of studies.

 “If the parents override the child’s personal judgement and make the decisions, the child will not be committed to the choice of education.”


Families from immigrant backgrounds often interfere most obviously with their children’s education choices.

 “Often upper-secondary school is seen as the only option, even though the school might have a different opinion of the best path for the student.”

Mira Kalalahti recognises this phenomenon from her own research. Immigrant parents want to make the most of the Finnish school system.

 “Often these parents are quite highly educated and will not accept vocational training as an option. They may not realise that the status of vocational education in Finland is higher than in many other European countries.”

Conflict arises when the young person does not believe they have a chance in upper-secondary school, and wants to go to vocational school instead.

 “On the other hand, young people from immigrant backgrounds are more likely to see vocational school as a pathway to a university of applied sciences,” says Kalalahti.

Some young people solve this conundrum by completing a double degree which combines vocational education with an upper-secondary school degree.

Naturally there are also young people from immigrant backgrounds who are tremendously motivated and excited to study at upper-secondary school and to pursue an academic career. Some of them may be fluent in English, but have insufficient skills in Finnish.

 “It’s sad to see these young people struggle to find their place in the Finnish school system,” says Kalalahti.


In total, about a fifth of pupils in the last year of comprehensive school have no idea which occupation or field to pursue. According to Mira Kalalahti, this uncertainty is equally common among girls and boys.

A pupil may apply for an upper-secondary school to get a well-rounded education, or to “buy time” before deciding on a profession – if their grades from comprehensive school are good enough to warrant admission. Most of these time-buyers come from natively Finnish families. Young people from immigrant backgrounds are more likely to apply to vocational school but then drop out.

The ninth graders in Kalalahti’s study had no worries about the future. They believed that they would be taken care of. What will you do if you don’t get into any schools? “We’ll go the guidance counsellor I guess.”

However, these carefree young people are at risk of falling through the cracks, Kalalahti points out. There are many reasons why a young person might not be admitted to a school.

 “Some had personal troubles. Some had learning difficulties, or were bullied. Some had just arrived in Finland and were not fluent in the language. Some just weren’t interested in anything. They had applied because they felt like they had to, but they had no intention of accepting a study place if one was offered.”

Conversely, some of them were very goal oriented and would only accept their number one option. Failing that, they would rather wait for the next application round.


Is it reasonable to ask a teenager to make a measured choice about the direction their life should take? According to Petri Niemi, research indicates that young people only become mature enough to make career decisions at age 21.

 “The crossroads moment in schooling, the application into secondary education, comes too early in Finland, but there are also other countries with similar three-tier education systems. Having to make the decision early is not a problem if transferring between upper-secondary school and vocational education is easy.”

So far, the transfer system has been flexible, even though plans have been underway to change current educational paths.

 “The transitional period is more challenging for the educational system than it is for the individual. When we design the content of education, we will have to keep in mind that the students are young people aged 15 or 16, and they may make mistakes.”

It’s enough for a young person to recognise their strengths and to outline their goals.

 “If they can do that, they will certainly find their own path in time,” Niemi states.

Schools can do much to help. When a child learns to look for and recognise their strengths, the understanding of their skills may carry through the teenage years and have a positive impact on this moment of choice: the young person can move confidently towards the next step in education.

University Lecturer Janne Varjo from the University of Helsinki as well as Tero Järvinen, assistant professor of learning and education research from the University of Turku, were also interviewed for this article.

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/07/18 issue of Yliopisto magazine.