Exclusive: Could the Finnish educational method be implemented to the Romanian schooling system?

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Interview with H.E. Mrs. Paivi POHJANHEIMO, Finland’s Ambassador to Romania.


It’s been one year since you came to Bucharest as ambassador. How do you assess the bilateral relations during this one-year period?

I took over the position of the ambassador September last year. The bilateral relations have always been good, but there has been a little bit of distance. This has been obviously due to the geographical distance, but there has not been that much of interaction as there could have been. So, my purpose when I arrived was to reactivate bilateral relations in a variety of sectors.

A lot has happened during this first year, we have received several delegations from different ministries, not only from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, for consultations and to establish contacts. For instance, we opened the security policy consultations, as it’s in the interest of both countries to exchange views and assess the security environment in the Baltic Sea and in the Black Sea area. We also had political consultations focused on Eastern issues. Then we had a special delegation from our Ministry of Justice, they spent here a couple of days, and wanted to learn from Romania how it prepared the national strategy on anti-corruption. The reason was that Finland is preparing its first ever national strategy on anti-corruption as well. Then we had a trade delegation, headed by our Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade. There had been a considerable break since the previous trade delegation’s visit. I was quite happy to see various companies representing different sectors establishing contacts and updating their knowledge about what is going on in the Romania’s business environment. It was all very positive. We have of course also focused in the EU agenda and started bilateral exchange on preparing ourselves for the EU-Presidencies in 2019. This bilateral dialogue and cooperation will be active during these forthcoming years.

All in all, during this year we have seen many new bridges built in between our two capitals and countries.

What are the bilateral trade exchanges based on? Could be Romania a more interesting investment destination for the Finnish businessmen in the upcoming future and if so, what are the main sectors of interest?

There are some Finnish companies already active in Romania. However, the interest is on rise thanks to the development during the past years that has brought more transparency and predictability in Romanian business environment. For that reason more companies are encouraged to come to explore the market and perhaps also invest here. Main sectors of interest for the moment seem to be IC&T, forestry, engineering, cleantech and energy and also education and defence.

There have been two specific sectors, education and forestry, where Finland has achieved nice results and is willing to share our lessons learnt. When it comes to education, there are already three private schools established by Romanian professionals in education that have been inspired by the Finnish education system. They are located in Bucharest, Ploiesti and Sibiu. There are other similar projects or ideas in the pipeline in different parts of the country. I have supported these admirable projects attending their events, board meetings and various seminars.

On forestry, perhaps you know that forests are the natural resource of my country and they were Finland’s “green gold” during decades and decades. There are some universities in Finland interested in starting cooperation with their counterpart universities here, and to share their experience on how more sustainable forestry has been possible to achieve in Finland. An important role is the vocational training of professions related with the forests. These universities are not giving advice or saying ‘look, we know how to do it’, but to share experience, lessons learnt that has worked in my country, and cooperate to find the best practices for Romania to benefit from its rich forests.

Speaking about Romania’s rich forests, we are still facing illegal deforestations. What could be the problem, it’s just law that has to be enforced or more it’s needed, the population’s involvement?

The forestry potential of Romania is huge, your forests belong to the most rich of the continent. Finland learnt long, long time ago, before we were an independent country, that forests must be looked after. So it is a national and cultural mindset not to harm but safeguard and enjoy your forests. We have always understood that when you cut a tree, you must also replace that tree by other ones. You must not abuse forest, you have to give it time to revitalize itself. We have traditional professions that particularly look after the forests. There is professional vocational training of learning how to handle the wood, to know how to cut off a tree without harming the others, to know how to manage technical wood cutting equipment. Of course there is higher training as well on how to support the sustainable silviculture and forestry.

On illegal deforestation in Romania I am not having perhaps all the facts, but I know it is an issue of concern. On legislation I understand that the Romanian forestry legislation has been updated and the implementation of the EU legislation is advancing.

I noticed the embassy is mainly involved in social and cultural projects in Romania. Could you give more details about the embassies’ social (past or future) initiatives this year? What about cultural events. Are there any in store for this autumn?

We use a lot the Facebook account of the embassy on events where we can and the social and cultural events organized by the embassy gain more visibility that way. For instance, the event dedicated to the Finnish maternity kit that we organised was a good example of sharing our successful narrative that could work in Romania as well.

We have been active on educational exchange, and helping universities to get into contact. For example, a group of students from a university for applied studies for tourism of Helsinki visited Romania in spring. They not only stayed in Bucharest but also went to other cities, Transylvania, and did their research. They found out that when it comes to tourism, Romania would have a lot to offer also to Finnish tourists. However, they also had among their findings the fact that Romania is not very able to deliver the message of a country worth of visiting with lovely landscapes and culture because there are some strong stereotypes that might discourage the tourism to flourish.

On social activities, me and my deputy in the embassy belong to a group of embassies dealing with the integration of minorities, especially Roma people. Next year we‘ll organize an event with Finnish Roma in decision-making position attending a seminar focused on the integration of Roma people in the Finnish society. I am not pretending that this would be perfect in Finland, of course not, but Romania could pick up something from our experience. There are also a couple of NGOs in Finland that are running social programs in eastern Romania. They focus, for instance, on the rights of Roma women, they have equality approach in their program. They also had a fundraising campaign supporting Roma people on the topic of ID cards registration. That was implemented with the support of a Romanian NGO working with Roma people. I’m happy that the Finnish NGOs have been active in contributing to the Roma community’s integration in Romania.

I was also invited to be the honorary president for the Romanian Association of Nordic and Baltic Studies last year. We’ll organize a conference later this autumn related to good governance and there’ll be experts from Finland and other countries of the association attending.

We’ll welcome a Finnish deaf rap artist to Bucharest this winter as well. He has been the special envoy for the Foreign Minister of Finland since several governments already, and is a brilliant example of showing that a disability does not mean you wouldn’t have a voice or influence nor you wouldn’t be able to deliver your message in the international society. We very much look forward to preparing the details of this project.

You also asked about the cultural events. We have attended several film festivals this past year. We have also had Finnish authors coming over to Romania to present or talk about their recent works. For example, we’ll have a Finnish writer attending the upcoming Gaudeamus book show later this autumn. What was also nice was that we had two authors visiting Romanian University “Babes-Bolyai” in Cluj in early summer. They spoke in Finnish to the students studying Finnish language, as we also have a native Finnish lecturer in that university. I was there and was very surprised on the capacity these students have already developed to speak Finnish. In early summer we had this huge joint Nordic event at the Design Week and right after the Design Week we had Finnish artists attending the Biennale. This week there will be Jyväskylä Big Band touring the country and also attending the Bucharest Jazz festival.

In February we had a translation published in Romanian of one of the works of the most famous Finnish novelists Mika Waltari, translated by a young Romanian translator who used to work at the embassy as a trainee many years ago. She completed a huge work.

What makes us excited at the embassy is that starting from the 6th of December we’ll start celebrating Finland’s 100 year anniversary. We are preparing different events to mark the major centennial anniversary and share this important event with our Romanian friends in celebrations all through the next year.

Finland is a highly developed society (high-standard welfare, educational systems, the Finnish learning pattern is well known worldwide etc). Could these patterns be implemented in any type of society, for instance in Romania? Is it only the law and its implementation missing or it’s a more complex, long-term process that depends on far more elements?

I think these issues have to do partly with each country building its own national project. Every country has been provided and has to cope with different natural resources, starting from the climate and other basic pillars. Finland was a very poor country in origin. When Finland gained its independence it was an agrarian, rural country, most of the people were still living in the countryside and earning their living from agriculture back then. Over the decades we had to rely on what we had. I mentioned before our ‘green gold’, the forests. We started from very early days, already before our independency, to develop the forestry industry so that our wood and its deliverables became one of the main pillars of our economy. The other pillar were the people. We have always had this belief that educating children means investing in a more prosperous future of the country. So, education has played a crucial role in our state building narrative.

If it is possible to adopt our model to other societies… Well, I think it’s all about mentality, what is seen important and needed in the benefit of the society and then about relevant legislative framework that needs to be put in place and observed. Perhaps in Finland the institutional memory has had more time to develop and the firm sense of cooperation has also been there. There were some basic pillars that were understood by all. For instance, the educational reform that we did 40 years ago has not been politicized. It has only needed updates later on to cope with the new demands of the modern times, but there is a comprehensive support of all the society and all political parties over the positive elements of the system, so the education law has not been changed every time the government has changed. That of course helps a lot.

For example, there are some countries in the Persian Gulf area that have established private Finnish schools, starting from building schools according to the Finnish model, including the interior design, in order to have the most motivating environment for children to learn. They also have the head teachers and other subject teachers from Finland in those schools. It is one example of adopting the Finnish model in a very different cultural context.

And it’s working?

Well, I haven’t been there to see. But to me it seems that with adopting some elements that have brought results in other countries, to study that this is the answer to a particular question that needs to be improved in another country, the answer to more sustainable change in tackling certain challenges could be a longer-term commitment. In Finland, the political and societal stability or kind of a consensus-driven a society has worked in favour.

I know there was a Romanian Education Ministry’s delegation going to Helsinki on September 21-23. What is its purpose?

As I already told you, education has been among my priorities during my first year in Romania. I have had meetings with state authorities here, but also visited universities and schools. The purpose of the visit of your Minister of Education is to find out if there could be some areas of cooperation in between our countries at the experts’ level. There are elements that could be tackled without big reforms, perhaps teacher training, inclusiveness of the schooling system or teaching methods. It is interesting to see if these elements could be included in the Romanian schooling system. It is apparently the first ever visit of Romania’s Education minister to Finland. He had a meeting with the Finnish counterpart and of course visited universities, vocational training units and primary schools as well. He also joined a warm meal with pupils which is offered during lunch time in Finnish schools. We are hoping to explore if this visit will open a long-term cooperation between our countries. I find it interesting that there are already several private institutions inspired by the Finnish educational system in Romania funded by professionals in education. The Finnish educational method could be a promising platform to start exploring some elements that we could truly share with Romania.

The teachers’ role is of crucial significance, in Finland this profession is highly admired, which is not the case in all other countries. In Finland, we demand teachers to have master degrees and the mandatory training in the classrooms. Finns are very pragmatic, so we think that a practice is needed to complement the theory. Our teachers are also given a lot of autonomy, there is a national curriculum of course, but each municipality, each school and each teacher has a lot of freedom in adapting it. For example, as we have a lot of immigrants living in Finland, if there are many immigrants in a school, teachers take into account the immigrant children’s multicultural background in teaching. Or they take into account if there are specially gifted or multi-talented children in the classroom. Teachers are free to tailor-made their support for these multi-talented pupils and at the same time to ensure that other children are given the necessary support. At the same time, teachers need to tackle various cases of children with learning difficulties or with disabilities, under the concept that ‘no one is left behind’. It’s a kind of mindset. A lot starts from the teachers, who are motivated and trained to be able to cope with the new demands of the children.

Are teachers well paid in Finland?

It’s an ordinary salary so to say. They are qualified and have the Masters’ level degree or even more, but are not on the top of the wage grid. If they work in the public sector, they are civil servants, but they can earn more while in the private sector. What teachers in Finland mostly complain about is that they don’t have enough time to prepare their lessons, to concentrate on each child, but not about salaries. Another challenge is the integration of immigrant pupils in the classroom and schooling system, which is a new dimension.

One of the projects supported by the Finnish Embassy this year referred to the famous maternity kit granted in Finland and the debate on how could this project be implemented in Romania? Do you think these kinds of projects can be implemented in all types of societies after all, the poorest ones included? It’s only a matter of governmental decisions or it also needs an entire mentality to become reality?maternity-kit-620x330

The origin of the maternity kit in Finland was to meet the low-income mothers’ situation already in 1937. Since then it was soon extended to cover all the mothers. The idea was not only to give a financial aid but make women to see the doctor and midwife, to motivate them to have regular health checks during pregnancy. It had a huge impact on the child mortality rates, which were quite high back then. Since decades Finland has the lowest child mortality rates worldwide. The invention brought very good results, the combination of the health checks and the kit with all the necessary items new parents would need for the baby. When it comes to the content of the kit itself it is super – if you go to buy all those items yourself, it would cost far more than the amount of the optional grant. If you have a second or third child, you could opt for the money, for you already have all the basic items for the baby. The kit is still very popular, for it is so helpful for the first months of the baby. That’s why the rate of the mothers opting for the kit instead of the grant is so high. The materials used for the baby clothes are very good quality. The fact that the maternity kit pattern has been adopted by so many countries (Canada was the most recent state adopting the kit) proves that it is welcome.

And yes, I think that Romania could adopt the model, maybe not all the items, but the basic ones. There are some NGOs studying the possibility that Romania adopts this model tailormade. As an ambassador of Finland, of course I would be delighted if the Romanian government, this one or the next ones, would implement in a similar project. What in other countries has been considered is the positive impact on the child mortality rate due to the regularity of the health checks at the midwives, and thanks to it a safe start in life. I am not giving advice, but only sharing an idea that I know would be very welcome or have an impact in some parts of the Romanian societies. I am happy that there are some NGOs that are planning to activate this idea in Romania.

In Finland, the maternity kit is part of our social policy, and has helped all working mothers, not depending on incomes, or how prosperous mothers are. In our case, the state has supported women to have it both: family and work. It was our particular case after the Second World War that all Finns had to be activated in the labour market. All hands were needed to put in the work. So it was a mindset, it was “let’s do it together” -kind of an approach, for Finland had to be re-built after the losses of war. Finland wanted at the same time to ensure that children had good chances in the future. The maternity kit was part of that policy. That’s why we are so engaged in this project even nowadays, it’s part of our lives. I can say that we are proud of the maternity kit.

Our online newspaper has launched a project among the ambassador ladies accredited in Bucharest, focusing on the woman’s role in the modern society. Do you think women are better represented in diplomacy compared to let’s say 20, 30 years ago? What about in politics and other fields?

In Finland, the Constitution states that all persons are equal in front of the law, regardless of their gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. It was already in 1906 when Finland, – as the autonomy of the Imperial Russia -, gave women the right of voting or to run in the parliamentary elections. So the historical platform for the position of women in society is very strong. In politics, Finnish ladies have done it fine. We have already had a woman as a President and as prime ministers, and the balance of the ministerial positions has been good. When it comes to diplomacy, we already passed the 50% threshold of the women in the diplomatic career. As far as lady ambassadors we are approaching the 50%, and we estimate to reach the threshold real soon. It is a merit-based approach. There is advisory legislation on equality but there are no gender-based quotas for these positions.

The situation is more challenging in the private sector. We don’t have there either mandatory quotas for women shares in the companies’ boards. It has been a strong debate for quite some time. There are women that feel that it has to be a merit-based issue, and if they have the same capacities as men they wouldn’t need to be subject of a quota for women. Then, there are women who think that they will never get there without this quota. It is complicated, but there is progress, there are more and more lady directors who enter the companies’ boards. In companies where the state is the majority shareholder, it is a recommendation to study the possibilities of including more women directors in the boards.

What challenges do you think the contemporary woman is facing right now?

I think the major challenge is to cope in between the family and work. There are only 24 hours a day. Luckily there are societies, as Finland, that believe women have to be supported to have it both, family and work. For that reason, there are the kindergartens and extra school activities, which are very welcome for we don’t all have grandparents living next to us and that are able to help us with the children. There is also the possibility of working from home, be able to make use of different ITC tools as eg. arrange video conferences during the day and this is of big help.

I think that an additional challenge is that too often elderly men and women are not assessed for their performance and results as, however, are somewhat younger women, who are often under a magnifying glass. I’ve always thought that professional women need to support each other. That’s why I am very delighted I’ve been invited here to start mentoring other women leaders, to share my experience to the advancement of women leadership in Romania. We have to find the balance to carry out our responsibilities in the professional life and the personal one, and not to forget to support each other.

Also working environments have become more competitive in our days. You’re somehow competing with the available working time and you feel easily to be under constant pressure. One should be above it, but it’s often difficult. Controlling time also depends on the cultural context. In the Nordic countries, Finland included, husbands and fathers are more and more involved in the family duties, they share a lot of work with the moms and that helps a lot. Children also have to learn to share responsibilities at home, to make their beds, help in the kitchen and so forth.

What would be Romania’s pros and cons?

Definitely one of the pros are the people, who are very kind to get acquainted with and when asked for help. Also another pro would be the immensity of landscapes; Romania is such a beautiful country, also rich in culture and history. Always when receiving guests from our country they are positively surprised, like “How come we didn’t come here before?”. I am here with my family and we already think how sad it’ll be to be leave after my posting.

Every country has its own challenges, and traffic and lack of sufficient infrastructure can be difficult here. This is important, as how infrastructure is perceived by the foreign investors is crucial in the eyes of foreign investors as well. What is also pro is the advancement of the work of the anti-corruption. Perhaps it is not always seen in Romania, but in abroad it is celebrated when a country is tackling corruption, as the impact always benefits the citizens of that country in different ways.

Have you managed to travel in Romania? What place mostly impressed you?

Yes, I have, I have seen lovely places already, in Transylvania for instance, there is Cluj, Brasov, Sibiu, mountains, landscapes, and I still have so many places to see. You have such a beautiful country.

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