A visit to a “special needs” school in Finland

Today as part of our course, we had the chance to visit a “special needs” school here in Oulu. Tervavayla has been in existence for about 100 years, first as a school for children with hearing impediments and then it grew to a school of learners with different “special needs”. There are about 100 children in the school which also acts as a training and resource centre for anyone who wants to be trained in “special needs” education and care – which is normally parents, care givers and teachers in “normal” schools.  Most children move on to “normal” schools from this special school, some just come for a few weeks to receive special training or therapy and others stay on at the school their entire education.

View from a pupil’s desk

The Building:

The building is literally an award winning building.  The was a competition and the winning design was chosen and built as the school. Um yes. Then you know. It was built in 2006/2007 so everything is spiffy and new and shiny.  It houses the school,  the training centre as well as accommodation for the 15 students who live at the school on a semi perminant basis because their homes are far away.

The accommodation area at the school (the bedroom is unused at the moment).

The building is well suited for wheelchair (and every kind of chair) access and mobility with elevators to move between the five stories and wide brightly coloured corridors. An example of small attentions to detail are how the floors are decorated as one exits the elevators: Some pupils at the school may not be able to read words (yet or ever) but they are taught and can read symbols. So, the symbol for home (a house) was inlaid into the flooring in front of the elevators that open to the accommodation level of the building. This is so that pupils who can only read these symbols can read that they are on the “home” or accommodation level of the school. This allows for independent movement for many more pupils than just having a number (like, level 2) painted on to the wall.

The floor (picture below) and the wall (picture above) in front of the elevator

The Curriculum:

Finland has one curriculum for all schools. What happens then in the “special schools” is that individual learning plans for each pupil are created in with parents and professions according to what they understand are the pupil’s abilities and needs. This is constantly reviewed and assessed and adjusted accordingly. As with the Finnish general curriculum, the idea is that school is child centred and learning is the aim, not marks or grades.

Classroom resources

Teaching teams and adult:learner ratios

There is one teacher for every class and there are about 4 to 6 pupils in a class. Sounds pretty fantastic, hey? But wait, there’s more… There are about 3 to 4 teacher’s assistants (TAs) in each class too. These TAs are themselves (Finnish) qualified teachers. In addition to this, the school works closely with the university hospital and each pupil has a team of nurses, doctors and every kind of therapist who care for the pupil and consult with teachers and parents about best practices for each child’s specific situation. The modus operandi of the school is, after all, “individual solutions through collaboration”.

A relaxing area for the pupils

Classrooms

Classrooms are light, airy and spacious. There are teaching aides, decorations and timetables on the walls. Height adjustable desks are on wheels and can easily be moved around the classroom. There is a digital projector in each classroom (and a smartboard) and all manner of educational aides. I saw screens to enlarge objects, words and pictures being used in a few classrooms but there were probably all sorts of things that I did not recognise that were also there. All the classrooms that I saw had little rooms adjacent to the classrooms which I presume were teachers’ studies or spaces for focused learning for pupils (not really sure what they for actually).

Movable classroom desks

Spaces in the school

The school has a gym, a cafeteria, an outdoor play space… all the things a “normal” school in Finland has. These spaces are somewhat modified for the needs of the pupils. For example: there is a trampoline in the colourful sports hall which has some other machine working with it so that children in wheelchairs can bounce on the trampoline. A-mazing,

The school’s cafeteria

The sportshall

In closing, I was astonished by this school – its architecture, the relaxed teachers, the happy and confident pupils, the resources, the attention to detail for each child… There is a lot more I could say and I may have got some facts wrong but if you want to read more about the school, you can go tho their website (available in Finnish and English)  http://www.tervavayla.fi/en.

For me, the thought that kept revolving around my head all day was… “this is all free, this is all free”. That made me so angry and frustrated when I thought of all the people I know back home with similar challenges who, even if they paid incredible amounts of money would not be able to get this type of education and care. And here it is, all for free for everyone.

In thinking about this school and the South African context I come from, its easy to just think, well, we don’t have the money for that so, ja, whatever. But if you are reading this and seeing these photos and you have some doorway into “special needs” education I hope that seeing this will inspire you rather than depress you. That you will see ways to change and challenge knowing that there are other ways for things to be done… ways that retain the humanity, dignity and spirit of those who are so often not counted as part of “normal” society. The Finnish approach to “special needs” education is not perfect and should not be copied out of its context but for me, my take away from today is to not stop dreaming about future possibilities in education and keep trying, trying, trying.

Lots of wheelchairs all around the place

(A few notes on this post. 1. I have never really thought that much about “special needs” education before this and I am really no expert in this area. 2. I was only at the school for 2 hours.  3. I know there is no real politically correct way of naming these schools or spectrum of challenges so I’m putting them in quotation marks to show that I am uncomfortable with the term, but have not yet had any brainwaves about new names. 4. I have called non-special needs schools “normal” school because that is what they are called in Finland).

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7 thoughts on “A visit to a “special needs” school in Finland

  1. Anita says:

    Divine Bronwyn! Awesome blog, awesome opportunity to see this school. It’s wonderful to see what is possible. Love the heart of what you felt in this place: that every single student who walks or wheels into this school knows that they are worth the best, biggest, loveliest, well considered investment in the world. Because that’s the truth. Thank for inspiring me and making me smile! 🙂

  2. Bee says:

    Thanks Anita. The responses I have got from this article have been interesting… from parents of children with special needs, to workers in the field to people who (like me) know very little about special needs education. I think this is probaly the beginning of a journey for me and myabe in a little while my views and opinions will be quite different (especially of the SA context) as I find out more. But I think the big change for me at this point was the impression that got from this school that special needs children matter, not because they have special needs, but because they are children and children matter.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hey, Im seeing this for the first time. Very interesting read as I am a Special Needs teacher. That school seems really awesome. The special needs curriculum in SA is very similar to this example where each learner has there own individual learning plan called a Individial Educational Development plan (IEDP) which is drawn up by a multi displinarian team which includes Occupational therapist, Nurses, educators, doctors etc. The SA teacher learner ratio is also similar. With a ideal maximum of 12 and a educator with a classroom assistant. In terms of the education being being free, it technically is cause those damn parents don’t pay school fees 😉 . Special Needs education is a really awesome field and is generally well equiped as they recieve plenty of sponsorships and often benefit from dual funding from the department of Health and the department of education. All I can say is, to survive in this field, you would need some hair on your teeth. Thanks for the great article.

  4. Ashish says:

    Hi,

    My organisation is sending me to Finland. I am from India.
    I have a daughter who is in the autistic spectrum.
    Does this school or any other school cater to the needs of children in the autistic spectrum in Finland? I will appreciate your advise in this.
    Thanks
    Ashish

  5. Dear Miss Bee,

    My name is Ming -Yang Lee, a special education teacher in Taiwan.

    I wonder if you agree to allow me to translate this article into Chinese, and then introduce it through my nonporfit blog to my countrymen?

    I will make it clear that where the teanslated article first appeared and specify the publication date and the link for the article.

    My blog is here: http://leespeedu.blogspot.tw/

    Kindly regards,

    Lee

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