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School Closures in Rural Finnish Communities Weaken Surrounding Village

Finland has seen a dramatic drop in its number of small rural schools, and the ramifications for the surrounding village appear to be similar to American communities in the same situation.

Two researchers, Outi Autti of the University of Oulu in Finland and Eeva Kaisa Hyry-Beihammer of both the University of Salzburg in Austria and the University of Oulu, recently published a paper, "School Closures in Rural Finnish Communities," in the Journal of Research in Rural Education, which is housed at Penn State University.

Finland is one of the most rural countries in Europe, with just 17.6 residents per square kilometer, and rural schools have played an important role in Finnish educaiton, according to researchers. Finland's education system often is touted because of its students' success on the Program for International Student Assessment, an exam administered worldwide.

In 1898, Finland had a goal of every village having a school, and no student was supposed to travel more than about three miles for school. As time passed, recessions hit and birth rates declined, the country again and again shuttered more of its small, rural schools. The closures were exacerbated in 2006 when the country ended additional money for small schools; a record 186 schools closed in one year. The country had about 722 small comprehensive schools in 2010.

Researchers talked with residents who had experienced school closures, and some of their findings appear to be universal. Those included:

  • Village schools bring local people together: Finnish village schools are considered the heart of the community and serve as a gathering place for community meetings, activities and celebrations.
  • The school building serves as a place for common activities: Closing a school decreases opportunities to interact with other members of the community and weakens social capital, which is described in the study as "the relationship between the individual and the community and the characteristics of formal and informal social networks."
  • A living school is a sign of a living village: If schools are closed, a prerequisite for a vital village diminishes and the village isn't considered as "tempting" for families.

Those kinds of effects seem to mimic to what some rural education advocates say happens when small American schools are consolidated.

"Put simply, the loss of a school erodes a community's social and economic base—its sense of community, identity and democracy—and the loss permanently diminishes the community itself, sometimes to the verge of abandonment," according to a National Education Policy Center report.

The Finnish study's conclusion echoed that assessment: "Closing a village school accelerates the withering of life in the surrounding countryside, reduces the 'immigration attraction' of the village, potentially increases emigration, and leads to a downward spiral in which the remaining services in the village are terminated."

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