Realisation of the cultural and social rights of children living in rural and archipelago areas in changes made to the school network and impact of the closures of comprehensive schools on the vitality of regions
Implementation of the evaluation
The Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) assessed the impact of changes made to the school network in rural and archipelago areas. The perspective was the impact of the shrinking school network on the realisation of children’s educational and social rights and the impact of the closures of comprehensive schools on national and regional vitality. The evaluation was commissioned from FINEEC by the Rural Policy Council (MANE/ Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry) and the Island Committee (SANK/ Ministry of Agriculture and Foresty) and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children (Ministry of Justice). As part of FINEEC’s evaluation, a statistical analysis of the national, regional and local impact that changes in the school network have on vitality was drawn up by MDI Public Oy, a regional development consulting office. The statistical examination focused on demographic development, economic development, the municipal finances, education and wellbeing. A report on the statistical examination has been published separately. The evaluation was implemented between 1 October 2021 and 30 November 2022.
FINEEC’s evaluation examined what kind of link the concentration of basic education to school centres and comprehensive schools has with the wellbeing of children, the quality of teaching and equality of education, for example, when the journey to school becomes longer. The evaluation looked especially at rural and archipelago areas, where the school network has been considerably reduced. The evaluation formed an understanding of the current situation in municipalities with regard to the provision of basic education and produced information on the operating environment in which decisions concerning the school network are made in rural and archipelago areas. Children’s educational and social rights and taking the child’s best interest into account have been the key questions of the evaluation.
In the evaluation, it was investigated how assessing the impact on children was implemented and how children were involved in the development of the school network. A comprehensive overview of regional development, the demographic change and vitality was also created with the help of a statistical analysis. A more in-depth overview was gained by conducting an examination of case municipalities. The evaluation provided information on what kind effects changes in the school network have on vitality and information on the diverse link between the decreasing school network and vitality.
The evaluation was implemented in line with enhancement-led evaluation by engaging the parties to the evaluation in the production and interpretation of information to create a shared understanding. As background for the evaluation, a synthesis of topical studies and reports was drawn up as well as a comprehensive statistical examination of the development and school network of the regions. The key evaluation data was provided by the self-evaluation of the municipalities, which enables the municipalities to use the information in developing their own activities. The information provided by the statistical data and the interview and survey material was specified in more depth with evaluation visits to the case municipalities, interviews with children and by organising several stakeholder hearings.
A total of 235 municipalities were classified as municipalities in rural and archipelago areas. Education services personnel and management from 104 different municipalities participated in the self-evaluation survey. Evaluation visits were made to six municipalities in rural and archipelago areas. In the municipalities, a total of 56 pupils from nine different schools were interviewed, as well as municipal personnel from the education services and schools and representatives of municipal policy.
Results of the evaluation
According to the results of the evaluation, the municipalities manage to provide sufficiently comprehensive education services despite the challenges in the operating environment. The school networks of municipalities in rural and archipelago areas were generally considered functional, although their development was planned or development measures were under way in several municipalities. Approximately 30% of the municipalities had closed schools in the past five years. The main justifications for changes made to the school network and for school closures were the number of pupils, which was determined to be sufficient or insufficient in different ways on a case-by-case basis, and the best interest of the pupil, the definition of which also varied depending on the situation. Active action and justifications by the village community were an important factor contributing to the decision to keep the school.
In the evaluation, special attention was paid to the situation in bilingual municipalities. Finland has 33 bilingual municipalities, of which 14 are municipalities in rural and archipelago areas. The challenge in bilingual municipalities was how to provide the education services comprehensively in two languages, although bilingualism has been taken into account in the strategies of all municipalities. Seventy-seven per cent of the municipalities considered they had succeeded in ensuring the children’s right to their own language. In the provision of services, the language groups are hardly mixed at all. When necessary, municipalities cooperate to organise services if the number of pupils is too small or the pupil can go to a school closer to their home. Almost half of the bilingual municipalities had closed or merged schools for administrative reasons in the past five years.
School transport plays an essential role in the realisation of the social rights of children and young people, but organising the transport poses challenges to municipalities in archipelago and rural areas. On average, 40% of the pupils in the municipalities needed school transport. The longest one-way journey to school was between 25 and 40 kilometres in more than one half of the municipalities. Twenty-three per cent of the municipalities estimated that the number of children needing school transport had increased. At the same time, the costs of school transport have increased. The most important impact of school transport is on children’s and young people’s leisure time, hobbies and opportunities to move around independently. It is almost impossible for pupils who use school transport to participate in the hobbies offered after school. It is difficult for municipalities to combine the child’s best interest with effective competitive tendering of school transport.
Prioritising the best interests of the child when developing their school network was considered important by the municipalities. However, municipalities carry out little assessment of the impact of the measures taken to develop the school network or the changes made to the network, and assessing the impact on children has not established itself as part of their activities. Almost 45% of the municipalities had not conducted an assessment of the impact on children when planning or developing the services of the municipality. There is room for development in children’ and young people’s opportunities to influence decision-making. It would be important to strengthen especially the role of the youth councils when changes are made to school networks.
Between 2010 and 2020, almost one quarter (23.8%) of comprehensive schools have been closed. This is a total of 657 schools. The development has continued in the same direction as the number of schools in 2021 had declined by 45 from the previous year. Although the school network shrank in almost all the municipalities, schools have been closed especially in the rural heartland areas and in small municipalities. The statistical analysis indicated several negative effects of changes in the school network, such as increasing out-migration, weaker developments in employment and jobs, and weaker than expected development of education costs. In the municipalities that had conducted major changes in their school network, the state of vitality had already been challenging to start with. The response to the situation had been reduction and concentration of the school network. School closures focus most on areas the development of which had already declined before the closure. School closures do not lead to savings in education expenses. Changes in the school network do not appear to solve the problems with vitality. At worst, they weaken the future outlook for the development of vitality.
Recommendations given in the evaluation
The evaluation strengthens the view that hearing and involving children and young people is a long-term process requiring a variety of methods, an environment that supports their application, taking into account children’s views and experiences in decision-making, and monitoring the implementation. Expertise related to assessing the impact on children should be increased. Municipalities should have a long-term strategic plan for taking into account the child’s best interest and ensuring the rights of children and young people in changes related to the provision of education and the development of the school network. To ensure the functionality of the school network in sparsely populated areas, flexible distance learning methods should be developed to supplement contact teaching. Clear criteria and quality requirements should be created for organising transport services for pupils.
Municipalities should monitor and evaluate the impact of their decisions on a regular basis. Special attention should be paid to the fact that there are great regional differences in the development of the state of vitality. Differences in the development of vitality can also be seen within municipalities. Significant changes in the school network and school closures should be preceded by an advance impact assessment of the decisions, including examination at the level of villages. Statistical tools and quantitative and qualitative indicators should be developed for also monitoring the development of the so-called soft vitality and the impacts on vitality. There is also a need for more specific research and assessment examining the impacts of school closures from the point of view of the municipality’s internal development in the long term.
FINEEC acted as an independent implementer of the evaluation. FINEEC appointed an evaluation team, the members of which were Senior Evaluation Adviser Tanja Laimi, Counsellor of Evaluation Mari Räkköläinen (Project Director) and Senior Evaluation Adviser Carola Åkerlund from FINEEC, Senior Specialist Esa Iivonen from the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare, Leading Senior Researcher Tomi Kiilakoski from the Finnish Youth Research Network, Lead Specialist Sari Rannanpää from the regional development consulting office MDI and University Lecturer Jari Salminen from the University of Helsinki. The person responsible for the statistical examination implemented as part of the evaluation was Specialist Rasmus Aro from MDI.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry appointed a steering group for the evaluation. The chair of the steering group was Senior Specialist Sami Tantarimäki, and its members were Secretary General Elina Auri (Island Committee), Secretary General Antonia Husberg (Rural Policy Council) and Ombudsman for Children Elina Pekkarinen (Office of the Ombudsman for Children), Director Hannele Seppälä (FINEEC) and Counsellor of Evaluation Mari Räkköläinen (FINEEC). The secretary of the steering group was Senior Evaluation Adviser Tanja Laimi (FINEEC).
The results of the evaluation were published on KuntaTV on 30 November 2022 (in Finnish)