Breakfast in Turku

“Are you the woman from Romania?” a strange man asked me as I hovered over the bain-maries and cereal bowls in the breakfast room of a kitsch hotel in Turku. “No, I’m from Australia,” I answered politely. “I’m sorry,” he said, “Perhaps you would like to join us anyway; we don’t have anyone from Australia.”  A bunch of educators from Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey, Portugal, the United Kingdom and hopefully Romania, if the absent woman finally arrived, were in Turku to study the Finnish education system. An affront to the shibboleths of economic rationalism, Finnish kids get free food, lots of music and art, very few private schooling options, and a couple of extra years at home having fun before they officially start school at the age of seven. In spite of this swag of sins against current educational orthodoxies, at least in Australia, Finland boasts the best educational outcomes in Europe, if not the world. Okay, so it’s a small place but it can hold its head high when it comes to musical exports, design originality and technological prowess.

I was interrogated over breakfast about what was happening in the Australian educational arena. It felt strange. Here I was in Turku on holiday, alone, and then all of a sudden thrust into being a “representative” for Australia in this multinational melange of bright and dedicated teachers clearly excited about what the next few days would hold. Thanks to my science teacher brother and a general interest in the subject, I was able to prattle on  intelligibly about how I saw the landscape. I enjoyed their energy immensely and wished I could join them on the study tour. If only I had more chutzpah I would have asked if I could tag along. If only I had said, yes, I am the missing Romanian.

A woman from the UK was curious about what was happening with multicultural education, telling me that “Australia has always been admired for its lead in multicultural education, is it still the case? I’m keen to see what the Finns are doing; their approach to multicultural education is also getting a good reputation.”

My jaw must have dropped – the Finns as leaders in multicultural education! What a counter intuitive thought. Where was the evidence of alternative cultures, I thought to myself, it all looked pretty homogeneous to me. But, no, I was wrong apparently. There had been a substantial intake of African and Asian refugees over the last few years, and with their characteristic sisu, the Finns had just adopted a no- fuss approach and come up with something original.

It may not be a Shangri-la, alcoholism rates are alarmingly high, but Finland has got a lot going for it. Not just saunas and sisu. A great education system, a thriving and valued university sector, generous support for working mothers, trains that run on time, a melodious vowel rich language, and an ability to fuse creativity with new technologies. Not to mention a prodigious musical talent.

Kitsch hotel in Turku