I realise me writing about Finnish education may require an awkward introduction. Some may know me from television, playing such roles as “whore in a helicopter” offering my services to newly elected MPs in Armando Iannucci’s Election Night Armistice, or not starring in Miranda Hart’s Miranda. Or from film, being the one who doesn’t snog Colin Firth, Hugh Grant or Patrick Dempsey in Bridget Jones’s Diary I, II and III. More recently, I got to be crashingly rude to Seinfeld legend Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s vice-president, in the HBO sitcom Veep. This character happened to be from Finland.
Veep is part-improvised, so, for research, I cyberstalked Finnish politicians on YouTube and keep a store of pleasing Finnish facts for emergencies. It’s an inexpressible pleasure waiting for precisely the right moment to release the information that Helsinki has a Burger King with a sauna or reference Finnish heavy metal. My character, Minna, is notable for her tendency to tag on an overshare: “Finland tops both the Yale environmental sustainability index and the UN development technological achievement table. Coincidentally, we also lead the world in coffee consumption and use of sex toys.”
I became obsessed with the Finnish education system after the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman highlighted problems with US education. Finland, in contrast, has topped educational tables for more than 20 years. This is interesting to me because Finland also has the most inclusive education system in the world and my son, Olly, has Down’s syndrome.
Appropriately supported, kids with Down’s syndrome (DS) do miles better in mainstream education. Olly is in year 8 and loves his school, but it is struggling. Around here, kids with DS end up in special schools by year 9. In Finland less than 2% of disabled children go to special schools, and they got rid of their grammar school equivalents 40 years ago, so the vast majority of Finnish children are learning, playing and growing up together. In Finland, kids don’t fail; instead, teaching adapts. Whether a child needs extra help because there’s trouble at home, Finnish isn’t their first language or they have a disability, teachers will do what it takes to get them learning; 30% of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school.
There are so many bright and talented disabled children who could shine in mainstream schools with the right support. Yet the current political debate in the UK is moving against inclusion, as if it were an unrealistic ideology that always resulted in lower standards. Finland’s success suggests the opposite.
We need an inclusive education system for so many reasons. We need it so kids with additional needs can participate in the cultural and economic activities of the communities in which they live. The Prison Reform Trust reports that 70% of people admitted to prison require mental health support. The impact of excluding kids is huge and long-lasting.
We need it for typical kids – because they need to know who their neighbours are. They need to know that humans are a diverse breed but that we can have rewarding relationships. A 2010 study by the US Department of Justice showed that disabled teens between 12 and 15 years old were twice as likely to be victims of violent crime as teens without disabilities. In the UK, disability hate crime against children has increased by 150% between 2014 and 2016. We can do something about this by knowing each other and being known. Children learn so much from each other, not least how to be kind to someone who finds life harder than they do.
Lastly we need it because a diverse society is a richer society. I recently met a Finnish mother whose antenatal screening showed that her child had a high probability of being born with Down’s syndrome. “I’ll keep it,” she said. “In Finland we all grow up together, I have friends with Down’s syndrome. Besides,” she added, “Finnish women are strong.”
I’ve been an actor 20 years, so it’s rather galling to have to recognise the growing impact documentaries are having on the world. Now I’m working with the Videocamp Film Fund 2018, which launched at the UN on World Down’s Syndrome Day, in partnership with Unicef. It offers one film-maker $400,000 to make a film on the theme of inclusive education.
The fund exists to get films that change minds and provoke debate out to the widest possible audience. Access to its catalogue of films is free, so anyone, anywhere in the world can organise a pop-up screening. So far Videocamp has made more than 19,000 screenings possible, and they have been held everywhere from the UN to the Amazon. Stories of inclusion in education need to be brought to life in all their personal, painful, comic, mundane and heartwarming reality. The immense sense of victory after a learning breakthrough, the family hugs and battles at the school gate, the irrepressible joy of getting the giggles with your friends in assembly. If people can see that on the big screen perhaps government policy can begin to shift too.
• Sally Phillips is an actor
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010