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Eskola: The village that doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer

The end of summer is here, a new school year is starting and Covid-19 is not yet over. Schools might need to switch to online teaching mode again. While many schools have found it hard to live up to this new challenge last year, digital education has not been a new practice in the small Finnish village of Eskola. There is a lot to learn from Eskola's journey that often has led through bumpy roads.

The name of Eskola has an origin in the Finnish name Esko and means Esko’s place – although locals are unsure about who Esko actually was. Eskola, therefore, has nothing to do with the word ‘schola’ [latin origin of school], but nomen est omen: during the past years Eskola has been fighting to save local education using modern digital technologies and cooperating first with a municipality 500 kilometers away, later with their own mother town Kannus.

Due to depopulation and ageing, around 93% of local schools have been closed in Finland since the early 90s.

Public services (shop, post office, etc.) have been also closed down one-by-one in Eskola, but “the closing of the daycare and school in 2013 could have been the final blow to the village” – says Miia Tiilikainen, Project Worker at Eskola Village Society. This would have meant that children – even the youngest ones – should have had to get up early and travel more than 20 kilometers every day to the nearest school in Kannus municipality and back. Eskola has many industrial workplaces, and the people who live and/or work here preferred to educate their kids locally.

When Kannus municipality closed down the school in 2014, the villagers decided to set up a social enterprise – owned by Eskola Village Society (approx. 24%) and some 130 individuals - to save village services. The daycare - the first service that the enterprise offered – has been running at its full capacity with 25 children. Other services included catering provided by the local restaurant to workers, school children and elderly people (including home delivery of meals).

While some of the kids started to travel to Kannus, other families – some 14 children from pre-school to the sixth grade (age 6 to 12) - decided to start homeschooling. Parents paid teachers from money they earned mostly through voluntary work (e.g. daycare building renovation) to allow also the poorer families to benefit from homeschooling services with an equal chance.

Homeschooling has been running for 5 years, until a new pilot project has “brought back the school to the village” in 2018. Eskola started its cooperation with a school in Lapinjärvi, a municipality that lies 500 kilometers away. Kicking off the project has meant two years of “fighting bureaucracy”. When asked what the main reasons were for the resistance of authorities, Miia explains that:

“I think it has a lot to do with resistance to any kind of change. The school system in Finland has been so good for such a long time that many decision-makers think everything is fine and should not be changed. The Finnish school system is like a rock, you really can’t change it.”

The school has two teachers (main teacher and assistant). The costs of room rental, teachers, books and catering have been covered by Lapinjärvi that received state compensation in line with the public education law.

There have been joint courses organised for children of Eskola together with children in the Lapinjärvi school ­– such as Swedish, arts & craft - using Google jamboard technology. While the children adapted easily, it has been a bigger challenge for teachers to learn how to use new technologies, plan joint online courses and cooperate with teachers located far away.

Using digital technology in education is one of the main innovations of the Eskola school project. However, Miia stresses that the main novelty of the project is not digital, but social: the cooperation that emerged between the municipality, the social enterprise and the parents’ association.

The perseverance of Eskola was ever more needed, when after two years (just before the final year) Lapinjärvi withdrew from the project. Eskola didn’t give up and started negotiations with nearby Kannus municipality. The process has not been easy, but with the support of key people and organisations, such as the Finnish Parliament and the Finnish Village Movement, they managed to convince the majority of the municipal board to support the project during it’s final year.

When asked what she would recommend to villages starting similar initiatives, Miia Tiilikainen’s main recommendation was:

“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. We have been told ‘no’ like a million times: “no, this isn’t legal”, “no this will not be happening”, “no, this can’t be done”. Don’t believe them. You can always fight. We were told ‘no’ even this spring when we were trying to find a new municipality and we were trying to have a contract with Kannus. But we didn’t believe them, so here we are.”

...unfortunately, Eskola’s struggles are not yet over. Just a few days before publishing this article, Miia wrote the following email:

“The school was supposed to start in Eskola tomorrow, but yesterday, the board of education at Kannus decided to freeze the process, due to a complaint made by one of their board members. This is absolutely devastating for us. The children are directed to the existing public schools, as the decision-making process after the complaint is very long and the school year is already starting. Right now, the parents and the school kids are on strike! They won't attend the school until the final decision by the municipality.”

We are sure that Eskola will manage to overcome this new challenge, as they proved so many times that they do not take ‘no’ for answer.

In a Podcast interview, Miia Tiilikainen tells the story of Eskola’s digital education project. Get tuned!

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