Prevention of increasing inequalities requires ensuring the language proficiency and basic skills of the population with an immigrant background

The number of learners with an immigrant background is increasing in education. However, the Finnish education system does not guarantee that all of them will have sufficient abilities to get an education and find employment. Integration into society requires cooperation between many parties.

In the future, the proportion of learners with an immigrant background will grow because of the need for labour resulting from the demographic development in Finland. People come to Finland at different ages, for many different reasons and with different educational backgrounds.

The new Policy Brief article of the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) compiles results on immigrants’ competence and education and their status. We also propose recommendations for the development of competence, education and training programmes, and study paths. In the initial stage, the education and training programmes should guarantee that learners achieve the basic skills required in society and working life, i.e. reading and writing skills, numerical skills and the general learning-to-learn skills and information acquisition skills, regardless of their age group. They lay the basis for the continuation of the study path and participation in working life and society in Finland.

Some of the learners have inadequate skills when moving on to the next levels of education – education providers should ensure learners’ capabilities to progress on the study path

Earlier stages of the study path lay the basis for later studies, and currently some of the learners move on to the next levels of education with inadequate skills. For example, some of the learners with an immigrant background do not have sufficient knowledge of the language of instruction to cope with the studies when they start in VET. This makes it more difficult for them to do well in their studies, burdens the educational institutions and strengthens the increase in competence differences. It is therefore important to ensure the achievement of sufficient linguistic and other basic skills at all levels of education. Education providers should ensure that learners have the abilities required for moving on on the study path before they complete the education.

Language awareness should be developed at all levels of education – strengthening participation supports both language learning and integration into society

Although investments have for a long time been made in language-aware teaching, which recognises the importance of language in learning, teaching, assessment and all activities, a great deal of development is still required at all levels of education.  Further training on the topic is needed in ECEC, schools and educational institutions as language awareness promotes the opportunities of learners to progress smoothly on the study path. ECEC is an effective way of supporting children in learning the language and the participation of the children and the whole family even before the children start school. However, children with an immigrant background participate in ECEC less often than the main population.

In ECEC and education, it is important to ensure that each learner feels part of the group and has an opportunity to form peer relationships with speakers of Finnish or Swedish. Peer relationships engage learners in their immediate environment and community, and they also learn language skills from their peers.

Inadequate basic skills may become an obstacle on the school path – enough support and time should be reserved for the development of language proficiency

Many reforms have been carried out to make immigrants’ study paths smoother. In some cases, fast study paths are appropriate, but the current education and training programmes strengthening language proficiency and basic skills are not long enough for everyone. For example, if pupils who have come to Finland at a slightly older age (15-year-olds and older) have an incomplete schooling history or they are illiterate, the scope of preparatory education is probably not enough for them. Also, many pupils with an immigrant background who have started basic education in grade 1 already fall behind during the first years of school because of their weak proficiency in the language of instruction and insufficient support.

Solutions at the level of the education system should therefore be found for situations in which learners’ language proficiency or other competence is not sufficient for progressing on the study path without strong support. In addition, cooperation between teaching and guidance staff to make study paths smoother and to avoid overlapping should be strengthened. Especially learners who have come to Finland as adults should be offered more support in studies and in the transition phases of studies. The achievement of a functioning language proficiency and the adoption of learning-to-learn skills are long-term processes especially for adults who have a weak educational background.    Especially learners who have come from war and crisis-affected areas and suffer from mental traumas need competent staff to support their school attendance.

Cooperation across educational and sector borders and funding criteria do not always work

Education policy measures alone cannot guarantee that learners with an immigrant background will integrate into society. Although ECEC and education play an important role in learning the Finnish or the Swedish language and in familiarisation with Finnish society, integration requires cooperation between several parties. At the moment, there is great national variation in the cooperation related to guiding learners to the education and training programmes in terms of both the operating practices and how active this cooperation is. The smoothness of the study paths and the objectives set for learning require stronger cooperation with the social welfare, health, employment and other authorities.

The funding of education and training does not in all respects support the forming of an appropriate study path from the learner’s point of view. Because of the funding criteria, learners cannot always get a place in the most suitable education for them or they have to interrupt the education for financial reasons. The Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment should cooperate to develop the funding mechanisms related to the learning of adults with an immigrant background. The starting point for preventing inequality and the diversification of competence should be that the abilities to lead an independent life are guaranteed for the entire population.


Policy Brief article: Prevention of increasing inequalities requires ensuring the language proficiency and basic skills of the population with an immigrant background

This article is part of FINEEC’s Policy Brief series, which aims to support discussion and decision-making on education policy and societal issues. The publication series focuses on current evaluation results and recommendations for developing education and training.

Further information:

  • Raisa Hievanen,, +358 29 533 5542, (vocational education and training, basic education for adults)
  • Tanja Laimi,, +358 29 533 5567, (preparatory education, basic education)
  • Salla Venäläinen,, +358 29 533 5549, (preparatory education, basic education)
  • Hanna Väätäinen,, +358 29 533 5568, (literacy training in liberal adult education, basic education for adults, higher education)