Cultural and religious diversity in primary school (CARDIPS)

Project manager

Straarup, Jörgen - Professor emeritus/emerita


The Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies

Project type


Religion is becoming an important topic in the public school’s class rooms. Due to migration, pupils meet invigorated religion in the form of diversity, alongside their teachers’ teaching. The diversity varies with history, pedagogy, national and local culture and values. The experience of diversity varies with age and family tradition.

Using pupils’ experience of diversity in school as a point of departure, the project’s aim is

  1. to describe the bearing of structural factors on that experience;
  2. to describe the effect of variation in age and family tradition;
  3. to compare differences in three countries; and
  4. to develop tools for teaching about diversity in intercultural teacher education.

Especially in the years following the events of 9/11, 2001 in the USA, religion has become a major topic of public debate globally. In academic literature, there has been a growth in writing about the place of religion in the public sphere and in policy development, at a European and a wider international level, there has been close attention to education in schools about religions and beliefs.

In most European countries, it has for a long time been assumed that increasing secularisation would lead to a gradual withdrawal of religion from public space. Following the work of recent sociologists attention has been drawn to the fact that, worldwide, religion is not retreating. On the contrary religion becomes a more and more active entity in politics and social development. Europe, especially northern Europe, has been seen as an exception from the global trend, but also here religion and religiosity seems to be revitalized and thriving. Culture and religion are intertwined; sometimes culture seems to be dictated by religion, in other instances religion serves as a form and name given to a specific culture.

The countries chosen for description and comparison are Sweden, Finland and Estonia. A research team at the University of Helsinki, sponsored in Finland since 2012, carries out that part of the project. Research teams are formed in each country. The pupils’ development with age is investigated through analysis of 3rd, 6th and 9th grade pupils.

Regardless of the variety of conditions prevailing in different European countries, it is increasingly important to study a factor broadly defined as culture, individual religiosity, and organized religion, as well as the factor’s two-sided potential, for dialogue and appeasement as well as for conflict and tension. Education in compulsory school is a vital arena within which this issue can be studied. The degree to which culture, religiosity and religion serve (or might be made to serve) as a criterion of exclusion or prejudice in schools should be investigated as well as the degree to which the same factor can promote peaceful coexistence of cultural and religious groups.

The countries Estonia, Finland, and Sweden represent three experiences of cultural and religious diversity. In Estonia, the country has already had an ethnically and religiously diverse population for several centuries, with sizable Lutheran and Orthodox populations and smaller communities of Jewish, Muslim Tatar and Old believers being present already from the 18th century onwards, some of the communities long before that. Although the influx of immigrants in recent decades has been relatively small, the immigration in the Soviet period has massively affected the composition of the population of Estonia. Finland has until recently been a country with limited reception of refugees and other immigrants, meaning that the country’s learning process of how to handle diversity has started late. In Sweden, there is at least half a century’s experience of diversity to rely on, from the labour immigration in the 1950s and 60s until today’s diversity resulting from refugees and bringing together of families. The three countries open a possibility of describing and comparing diversity as an impact of three kinds of national heritage.

Religious education (RE) (the term is here used in a broad sense, i. e. philosophical and practical aspects of religious and values education at school) is organized in different ways in Sweden, Finland and Estonia: In Sweden it is a non-confessional obligatory school subject throughout the entire school system, in Finland parents and pupils choose religious education in relation to what religious tradition the family belongs to, and in Estonia it is a school subject that is non-confessional but only arranged for if there are enough pupils who demand it.

RE is discussed in the Nordic countries and in the southern Baltic region. Increasing immigration has led to changes in children’s life worlds. The proportion of children and staff with minority cultural and religious backgrounds in day care centres and schools has grown and continues to grow, albeit at different rates in the different countries. Despite a number of research projects in the past decades dealing with multicultural issues, three deficits are visible: there is a lack of (a) mixed methods approaches, of (b) data from different grades and of (c) triangular validation, each of which is addressed by the present project.

  • The emphasis on qualitative analysis means that there has been very little quantitative research focusing on cultural and religious issues relating to children’s and young persons’ life worlds. Basically, the lack of quantitative measures and mixed methods means that it has been impossible to assess the scope and reach of the observed tendencies and correlations. Such knowledge, however, is important in dealing with nationwide educational systems. Therefore, the present project – with a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods – studies the ways in which pupils experience and react to cultural and religious diversity in school and at home.
  • Preliminary data from Finland shows that age groups show significant differences. In short, the older the pupils, the more tolerant they are. The present project addresses this important difference in its design with three age groups.
  • Validating findings are important because of the potential scope of the results. In research so far, triangulation has been scarce. The present project allows for various triangular analyses and validations.

Jenny Berglund - Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor
School of Historical and Contemporary Studies

Olga Schihalejev, Associate professor, University of Tartu

Arniika Kuusisto External link., Lecturer, University of Helsinki

Arto Kallioniemi External link., Professor, University of Helsinki

Research area / geographic area

Historical and Contemporary Studies Culture and Education Teacher Education Study of Religions CBEES Historical Studies History Baltic Eastern Europe

Project time

2014 — 2017


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