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Surrounded by children, Johanna Mustonen stands next to the oven wearing rubber gloves and holding a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. She turns to one of the 13-year-old boys stationed nearby. “Have you ever done this before?” she asks. The answer comes back somewhat sheepishly: “No.”“Well, you’ll be doing it today,” she says.

Even though it’s now 10.00, the feeble midwinter sun is only just rising and all that can be seen outside the window is a pale monochrome glow. But that doesn’t dampen the energy. After a brief demonstration, Mustonen leaves her charges to follow her instructions and they quickly begin the task at hand: opening ovens, taking out trays and scrubbing.

This is a kotitalous (home-economics) lesson at Hämeenkylän koulu, a secondary school just outside Helsinki that was recently voted the best in Finland by the national teachers’ union. Mustonen has worked here for six years and today she is teaching her seventh-grade pupils how to clean a kitchen and bake biscuits.

Just across the corridor, Tiina Huttunen is presiding over a more tranquil atmosphere as her group quietly and diligently practises its needlework, knitting and sewing skills. Veera Witikainen is meticulously crocheting a delicate flower out of purple wool while her neighbour uses typesetting blocks to decorate a gift card. And in the classroom directly below, Antti Partanen is teaching his class how to make small electronic gadgets and wooden toys.

These classes are just a few examples of a whole raft of subjects that are mandatory in the Finnish school system, bundled together under the umbrella taito-ja taideaineet or “arts and skills”. Alongside home economics (cooking and cleaning), children get to grips with textiles and woodwork as well as music and physical education. And unlike in other countries where these subjects are treated as an awkward add-on, here they have become a cornerstone of a child’s education.

These lessons have a long history as well, going back more than 100 years, and the social and historical context is hard to ignore. “One of our key observations about Finland is that it urbanised very recently, roughly from the 1940s to the 1970s,” says Juha Leppänen from Demos Helsinki, a leading think-tank based in the capital that carries out research into education. “The background of Finnish society is very rural. So when the school system was being created in the early 20th century people asked, ‘What’s the benefit? Who should education be for?’” The answer, it was agreed, was that schools in Finland could never be purely academic and had to cater to those preparing for manual professions as well.

The arts-and-skills lessons also illuminate another side of Finland’s social history: the country’s fabled equality. Like most Nordic countries, Finland never really had a wealthy upper class who could afford servants to do household chores for them. The result is that everyone has always done manual tasks for themselves, from mending and sewing to cooking and cleaning. When it comes to gender equality, the Finnish record is equally impressive. Since the 1950s it has been compulsory for both boys and girls to take these lessons up to the age of 13. Johanna Mustonen’s class today is a mix of boys and girls, working together in small groups of two or three.

The point is that these lessons have become a part of what it means to be Finnish. Back in 2010, Demos Helsinki published its manifesto for the Finnish state. Called Mission for Finland, this 360-page report outlines what the Nordic country needs to do to remain a world-beating economy and exemplary society between now and 2030. The dossier places a huge emphasis on manual work: “Finns are creative with their hands. Thread, needles, a screwdriver and a hammer can be found in almost every home in Finland.”

Educators in Finland swear by the arts-and-skills lessons and those at the Hämeenkylän koulu are no exception. But the question must surely arise: is it not a bit old-fashioned to teach children how to cook and sew? After all, when it comes to Pisa – the international body that judges and compares education systems – it is often countries such as South Korea that top the rankings. And there, or so we are told, children are taught how to write code and programme, not how to scrub an oven. Perhaps lessons such as home economics and woodwork belong in the 20th century and have no place in our modern world.

In his office, sitting in the glow of an oversized UV light (the sun is still not really up), Pasi Majasaari, the principal at Hämeenkylän koulu, is adamant that the lessons must be protected. “It’s very stupid to think that children should only learn academic subjects on their own with a book or computer,” he says.

“Society is not wholly based on working with computers; we must give children other skills. We need cooks and plumbers.”There could also be a dangerous side to diving headlong into the quest for a knowledge economy. “In Finland we put a lot of investment into ict at the beginning of the 2000s,” says Leppänen. “And it worked well – we had Nokia. But now many of those jobs aren’t here anymore.” When Microsoft acquired Nokia last year the tech giant announced thousands of job cuts that would affect the Finnish phone manufacturer. Many of these employees will have to change profession entirely or otherwise move abroad. “You have to be adaptable and resilient,” says Leppänen. “Now a lot of people who once worked at Nokia are using their skills and going into new businesses.”

Seeing Nokia as a cautionary tale is a good way of building a strategy for the future strength of the workforce. The key is to create an adaptable and resilient labour pool, not one that can excel at one thing but do little else besides. “It’s very hard to say what will be significant in 20 years,” says Leppänen. “Skills to help you adapt and change profession will become very significant in the near future.”

Back in the classroom at Hämeenkylän koulu, the children begin making piparkakku (traditional ginger biscuits) in what are now sparkling clean ovens. Leevi Ojala takes a small handful of flour and delicately sprinkles it onto the work surface before taking out a rolling pin and spreading his ball of dough. One of his schoolmates sets about cutting it into a dozen heart-shaped biscuits. Across the room other eighth-graders are busy laying their classroom tables as if for a vip guest: napkins are folded and tucked underneath plates, cups are placed on saucers – each with its own teaspoon – and chairs positioned in a row. You can easily imagine you have wandered into some utopian dream of how a successful gender-blind education system should look.

In 20 years’ time these children will have become the backbone of the Finnish workforce – and their country is taking no risks with their (and its own) future. By teaching students how to cook, clean, mend and sew, Finland’s schools are not only giving them the skills they’ll need to fend for themselves but they are also teaching them the values of self-sufficiency, resilience and adaptability. Because, with the structure of the country’s future economy uncertain, it is these values that will ensure they can overcome any obstacle.

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