Young people with an immigrant background often have to independently consider their study paths – More personal guidance is needed

Personal interests and success in school have been said to be the only things limiting the choices available to pupils and students in the Finnish education system, one of the best and most equal in the world. However, this is not always the case, especially when talking about young people with an immigrant background. How does the Finnish education system appear to them, and how can we help every young person find the path suited to them?

Young people are individuals who all need sufficient study guidance to find a path of their own. For those with an immigrant background, suitable guidance is of particular importance. Docent Mira Kalalahti, a specialist in education policy, has been studying the topic. She talks about flexible guidance counselling where, instead of offering them a single consultation, young people are familiarised with their prospective school and listened to, in addition to which their families are also engaged in the process.

“Well-functioning practices include the employment of an interpreter in discussions with parents, when necessary, and multicultural guidance sessions where recent graduates can serve as experts with personal experience,” says Kalalahti.

Kalalahti has edited a book on the study paths of young people with an immigrant background entitled Oma paikka haussa (‘Looking for a place’) together with Markku Jahnukainen, professor of special education at the University of Helsinki, and Joel Kivirauma, professor emeritus at the University of Turku. The book is based on the results from two projects funded by the Academy of Finland.

Finnish schools still have a lot to learn

Immigrant youth continue to experience discrimination, which, in addition to visible discrimination, often takes place in the everyday life of schools and guidance activities. The elimination of such discrimination requires long-term equality efforts in schools, for example, by drawing up a common equality and non-discrimination plan for the school.

Once compulsory education ends after completing basic education, girls in particular are often guided to vocational upper secondary education in healthcare, instead of general upper secondary school and higher education, regardless of their proficiency in the Finnish language and school performance. Kalalahti believes that this is evidence of failed cooperation between the young person and their guidance counsellor.

support measures, experiences of equality are needed. The success of educational choices is promoted not only by providing sufficient support for studies and guidance in basic and upper secondary education, but also by school satisfaction, a feeling of belonging to the school and well-functioning interaction among teachers and pupils. This can be promoted through multicultural work involving the school as a whole.

“The transition from basic education to upper secondary education is a critical stage in a young person's life. Compulsory education ends, but in today’s professional life no one can make it without professional education. This is why the competition for study places can be tough, making the demand for support at this stage particularly great,” Kalalahti notes.

According to the researchers, it is important to take into consideration in guidance counselling and support measures the fact that migrant youth do not constitute a homogeneous group; instead, individuals differ by family and cultural background as well as gender. Immigrants include those who have immigrated due to employment or marriage, as well as refugees and asylum seekers.

Expectations of families and young people can be high due to a lack of information

Even though discrimination and racism remain part of everyday life in school, research has shown that young people with an immigrant background have a positive attitude to education.

Adolescents also take the wishes of their parents into account in their decisions, although they are not always familiar with the skills and paths required in attaining the desired education in the Finnish education system.

Some may end up in general upper secondary school without knowing what studying there entails and how to follow the paths leading to higher education in school. For instance, the parents of Mariah, a general upper secondary school student interviewed in Kalalahti’s study, were unfamiliar with Finnish education options and admissions criteria. And yet, their opinions critically influenced Mariah's actions.

“I have no idea, I don’t know anything about these things yet. I only know I’m going to apply for somewhere to study English. I feel it's the best option for me at the moment. Although, in the end, my parents will be happy if I get into university.” (Mariah’s quote from the book)

As with the majority population, the educational level of families with an immigrant background affects the parents’ expectations of their children’s school paths. The children of university-educated parents aim for higher education more often than those whose parents’ educational level is lower. Knowledge of the education system with its degrees and educational paths also affects the level of independence parents allow their children to have in their educational choices.

Looking for a place

The Oma paikka haussa (‘Looking for a place’) book is based on two research projects funded by the Academy of Finland between 2014 and 2019: Transitions and educational trajectories of immigrant youth (TRANSIT) and Employability, Education and Diversities (EMED). In addition to the University of Helsinki, the research consortia included the University of Turku and the Skills, Education and the Future of Work consortium of the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland.

In the TRANSIT project, roughly 450 adolescents from the ninth grade of comprehensive school to the final year of upper secondary education were monitored. The project comprehensively illustrated young people’s access to education, study paths, expectations and experiences.

The EMED project investigated upper secondary education by employing ethnographic methods, focusing on support practices, counselling and youth participation.

Markku Jahnukainen, Mira Kalalahti & Joel Kivirauma (toim.): Oma paikka haussa. Maahanmuuttotaustaiset nuoret ja koulutus (‘Looking for a place. Youth with an immigrant background and education’), Gaudeamus 2019.