Breaking segregation: Estonia’s controversial education reform

Children take part in the 'Song and Dance Festival' parade in Tallinn, Estonia, 06 July 2019.
© EPA-EFE/VALDA KALNINA   |   Children take part in the 'Song and Dance Festival' parade in Tallinn, Estonia, 06 July 2019.

Daruieste Viata

Estonia has managed to build a well-functioning education system by world standards: in the last published international PISA ranking for 2018, it ranked third in the world after China and Singapore. At the same time, this system is now facing one of the most difficult tasks of its existence.

The fact is that in Estonia, there are actually still two parallel systems: Estonian schools and the so-called Russian ones, where the language of instruction has so far largely been Russian. At the gymnasium level, 40% of all subjects are taught in Russian. As for the elementary and basic schools, as well as kindergartens, everything is taught in Russian there, with the exception of the Estonian language itself.

On the one hand, such a system allowed Russian-speaking children (and the Russian population in Estonia is about a quarter) to receive education in their native language. On the other hand, it led to the emergence of ethnic segregation, which was subsequently reflected in the labor market, reduced the competitiveness of Russian-speaking youth, and created political risks.

The PISA rankings also showed that the results of students from Russian schools in all areas tested were lower than those of their Estonian peers. At the same time, often after leaving school, young Russian Estonians do not speak the Estonian language, which significantly limits their opportunities for further education.

All these considerations, plus the war unleashed by Russia in Ukraine, speeded up the reform of education and its complete transition into Estonian, which has been a controversial issue in the country for decades. According to the current plan, the transition to the Estonian language in pre-school and primary education will begin in 2024, and the transition at other levels will last until 2030.

„The transition to Estonian-language education is necessary so that all young people, regardless of their mother tongue, have access to high-quality education. It is this goal that makes me optimistic," Estonian Minister of Education Kristina Kallas told Veridica.

The reform will affect both ethnic-Russian children studying in Russian language schools and Ukrainian refugees – many of the latter are Russian speakers themselves, and many have no interest in learning Estonian, as their families have no plans of settling in Estonia.

There is practically no political opposition to this in Estonia now, although for many years this topic determined, among other things, the outcome of parliamentary and municipal elections. Now there is a forced consensus in the country: those who opposed Estonian-language education had to admit defeat. Even politicians from among the apologists for the Russian school are sending their children to Estonian schools.

And this despite the fact that there are still voices in the UN criticizing the Estonian reform. Thus, in mid-August, UN human rights experts, special rapporteur on minority issues Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Alexandra Xanthaki, and special rapporteur on education Farida Shaheed «expressed particular concern about how the new provisions could affect members of the Russian linguistic minority, who make up a significant proportion of the country’s population».

A lack of Estonian speaking teachers for Russian students and the Estonian Conservatives’ resistance to desegregation

For the Estonian government, reform is a priority, but there are two problems. First of all, there is a need to find funding, which was also planned to be spent on increasing teachers' salaries. This year, the state budget strategy provides 41 million euros for these purposes. However, at the beginning of July, the media reported that the next year, due to an error in the calculations, there were not enough 27 million euros. These funds are to be found during negotiations on the state budget, which should begin in August.

„The coalition has agreed to switch to Estonian-language education. 41 million is available in the state budget for this year. 68 million euros are planned for 2024. Proportional growth continues every year. The coalition has known this from the beginning. I firmly stand for the fact that this money should come from the state budget so that the transition to Estonian-language education takes place as planned" Minister of Education Kristina Kallas assured Veridica.

Another almost insurmountable difficulty is that the country is in principle short of teachers, and there is a critical shortage of those who would be able to teach Russian-speaking children in Estonian. Even the fines applied to schools where teachers do not speak the state language doesn’t help. From August 1, the maximum amount of the fine is 10,000 euros, and according to the estimates of the Language Department, which plays the role of a supervisory body, there are about 2,500 such teachers in Estonia.

Particular attention is focused on the Russian-speaking north-east of the country. It is for this reason that Hannes Mets, director of the large Ida-Viru Vocational Education Center, lost his position after failing to ensure that teachers were ready to switch to Estonian. As of the end of July, 119 teachers worked in this educational institution, of whom 73 spoke the state language at the required level and 46 did not.

"I admit that it is difficult to find teachers. But the transition does not happen overnight, it happens gradually. Those teachers who do not know the Estonian language can give lessons to the older school level even in the 2029/2030 academic year. Seven years is a long time; teachers can improve their language skills, and the country can train more teachers. Of course, there are also those who need to be replaced, but there is time," Education Minister Kristina Kallas insists.

According to her, universities will enroll 400 more young people in teacher training this year, and the state will pay each of them a stipend of 400 euros per month. „This is a very generous scholarship, and admissions results show that the teaching profession is one of the most popular," says Kallas.

But many teachers are now either retiring due to age or being forced to look for other jobs. Schools also have to conduct intensive searches. "Today, there is a particularly acute shortage of teachers, methodologists, speech therapists, as well as psychologists and sociologists, not only to support teachers but also children. Schools on their own are forced to quickly create centers of competence and train specialists on the basis of their own employees. Many actively attract and train university graduates and retrain teachers of other specialties so that children can master the curriculum in the required volume," says Denis Presnetsov, director of one of the largest Russian schools in Tallinn, the Läänemere Gymnasium, and a member of the capital city council from the Center Party.

At his school, at the end of the previous academic year, more than ten teacher vacancies were not filled, and a replacement had to be urgently sought in the summer. It was not possible to find everyone, and those who came often had neither subject specialization nor pedagogical education.

Presnetsov emphasizes that educational institutions themselves invest in the retraining of teachers. "Now schools and local governments are solving problems that the state should have solved. But there is no other way," he says.

Many Russian parents send their children to Estonian schools, but not all Estonian parents are happy about this. There is a widespread belief among the conservative-minded part of the population that Estonian and Russian children should study separately from each other. Principals of Russian schools also complained that Estonian colleagues do not always want to participate in experience exchange programs, in which students and teachers of Russian schools would have the opportunity to be in the Estonian language environment.

„Yes, we have discussed pairing schools. Not just as partner schools where projects are done from time to time, but to guide them into long-term cooperation. We’ll take one school from Narva and another from Viljandi and put them together. Since a large part of general education schools are owned by municipalities, it would be difficult for the ministry to force it, but we are considering possible places of motivation," Minister Kristina Kallas promises.

The problem of education affects not only Estonian-Russians, but also Ukrainian refugees

Another problem facing the Estonian education system is related to Ukrainian refugees. Many of them, when choosing a country, are guided by the idea that a common language in Estonia is Russian, which is native to many refugees. However, the Estonian state is not at all interested in the arrivals increasing the Russian-speaking population, and the process of integrating Ukrainians into Estonian society implies, among other things, teaching them the state language.

Obviously, Estonian schools are not able to accommodate all the Ukrainian children who arrived, so last year the Ukrainian School of Freedom was opened for them in Tallinn.

"In the beginning, when we were just organizing, we probably didn’t even have any expectations or ideas about how it would all go because we had no experience and there were no schools for refugees in Estonia. We didn’t have time to think; we were just trying to create a school where children could feel safe, where they could continue their education, integrate into Estonian society, and preserve their language and culture," Olga Selishcheva, school director, tells Veridica.

She assesses the past academic year as successful, but the lack of teachers still worries the Freedom School. "The difficulties we are experiencing are, first of all, the lack of teaching staff, when at the beginning of the school year you realize that you have children and there is no person who could teach this or that subject with high quality. And now we have two weeks left, and, fingers crossed, we are trying to find those specialists that we lack," Selishcheva admits, noting that, first of all, there is nowhere to find teachers of the Estonian language.

Sometimes help comes from unexpected quarters. Oksana Tandit – an ethnic Ukrainian and a Russian philologist – is a famous fashion designer in Estonia who designs premium clothes for Estonian celebrities and politicians. Since last year she has been teaching Estonian at the Freedom School.

The most difficult thing, according to her, is motivating students. "When you come across guys who don’t need it at all, and they are in every group, it can be difficult to find an approach to such students," she notes. "Apparently, their parents are determined to return to Ukraine. Perhaps they are told at home that Estonian is not needed. They even answered me in English during Estonian lessons," says Oksana Tandit.

At the same time, according to her, most of the students clearly connect their prospects with Estonia; they are very motivated and showed a high average result in the language exam. The teacher managed to achieve this using non-standard methods, creating conditions for communication. To celebrate the end of the school year, Tandit invited Ukrainian students to a cafe on one condition: they would make an order in Estonian themselves.

In most schools, innovative teachers are rare. Whether enthusiastic teachers and parents of schoolchildren will be able to bear the brunt of the school reform on their shoulders, whether Russian and Ukrainian children will join Estonian society, whether the country will have enough money for this, and whether the quality of education will not suffer, will be shown, among other things, by future PISA rankings.

Olesja Lagashina

Olesja Lagashina

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