May has become a gruelling time for some Finnish schools, as the Muslim fasting month, Ramadan, complicates the learning process, the newspaper Suomen Kuvalehti reports.
Hungry children experience difficulties in maintaining concentration during their lessons and while preparing for the final exams at the end of the spring semester, the newspaper said. Furthermore, the anxiety of the fasting children is quickly passed on to their classmates.
In early May, the administration of the city of Tampere announced that Ramadan would not be observed at the city's schools. Katja Simonen, an organiser of language and cultural education at a secondary school in Tampere, equated school to working life, where people need to adapt to certain rules.
"It is about the state of Muslim children and the welfare of all students. In Finnish schools, children should eat," Simonen explained. "Young children can fast at home and cannot cope at school without food," she added. According to her, primary school children don't need to observe Ramadan at all, since only healthy adults in the Muslim community fast.
However, the prescription is not strictly observed. At Pohjois Hervanta school alone, where 40 percent of the schoolchildren are migrants, 60 students observe Ramadan, despite the city administration's instructions.
"We cannot force-feed children or give injections with nutrients. All we can do is advise parents not to force children to fast," school headmaster Ilpo Nybacka said.
According to the director, the effects of Ramadan are tangible.
"Ramadan is noticeable due to increased anxiety in everyday school life", Nybacka explained.
At Pohjois Hervanta, the lack of concentration has reached such high levels that parents were asked to immediately stop the children's fasting. However, it is still difficult for some parents to accept the school's instructions.
"It may be hard for them to understand the school's call to stop fasting if, at the age of 9, the child is already a Muslim believer who wears the Islamic headscarf as a symbol of faith," Katja Simonen explained.
For those pupils who observe Ramadan, despite the city of Tampere's instruction, water is offered alongside an additional 15-minute break.
According to headmaster Nybacka, the most problematic aspect of the school's point of view is the students who parade their piety as a way of getting additional benefits.
"Religion and fasting cannot be used to obtain special status. Sincere religiosity is one thing, yet reluctance to eat food that 'doesn't taste good enough', have a longer recess or buy food from the kiosk is another", Nybacka argued. According to him, there should be the same rules for all students in Finnish schools.
According to the Finnish Teachers Trade Union, schools and municipalities have different approaches to Ramadan. While some forbid fasting, others support it.
"Schools play a big role in integrating Muslim migrants into the Finnish education system. Ways to ensure freedom of religion can be sought together, but the rules should be common to all. You can not seek benefits, hiding behind Ramadan or prayers", union representative Päivi Lyhykäinen explained.
"The freedom of religion is entrenched in the Finnish constitution. However, families' religious principles should not adversely affect school life or work," Leena Nissilä of the Finnish Education Commission said.