The legality of the "compulsory donations" system, said to be in place in several of the country's top general education schools, has been called into question on several occasions as irritated parents regularly raise the alarm. The National Audit Office has now ruled that regular collection of money from parents is incompatible with the principle of tuition-free education and should not be allowed to continue.
The National Audit Office found that eight of the ten audited schools in Tallinn and Tartu count to a certain extent on cofinancing by parents when implementing their curricula. However, this is incompatible with the principle that children must be able to study in the general education schools of local authorities without having to pay a tuition fee, and that schools are not allowed to expect money from parents.
The National Audit Office sees incompatibility with the principle of tuition-free education irrespective of whether money is requested directly or indirectly, via certain schemes so that the school’s approval of this is not too obvious.
"When a parent selects a municipal school, they should not have to answer the question of whether the school expects them to contribute financially so that their child can make good progress," Auditor General Alar Karis said. "Yet for decades, the general public has been aware of schools where parents know that their children will get the best with the help of their financial contributions."
"As municipal schools don’t usually require parents to pay tuition fees, unlike private schools, the matter is complicated by the vague line between collecting money for charity purposes and clearly for the benefit received in return for the money," Karis explained. "Donating for charity purposes is very welcome for the development of civil society. However, if money is mainly collected
for the purpose of giving a benefit in return, it is more of a case of buying education services than charity."
Hence, the audit found that the use of parents’ money in Tallinn English College and Tallinn Mustamäe Upper Secondary School is directly incompatible with law. Substantial sums are collected from parents via the organisations set up by the schools and used to pay teachers for the foreign language lessons included in the schools’ curriculum. Although the money is collected under the label of donations or education support, the expected contribution is usually agreed on by the school board in advance. Parents also receive reminders about the sum they're expected to contribute, with 80-90 percent making a payment.
In addition to the aforementioned schools, Tallinn Secondary Science School, Tallinn French School and Gustav Adolf Grammar School accept tens of thousands of euros from parents every year. The money is used to renovate school premises, pay bonuses to teachers, buy teaching materials, cover the cost of the security service and so on.
Moreover, there are several schools in Estonia were hobby education for a fee is closely integrated with the general education curriculum. Hobby education lessons are in the school’s timetable and influence the daily schedule of students. Only a few students do not participate in fee-charging extracurricular hobby clubs.
These are all schools that want to stand out in the public education network by offering more diverse and thorough education than usual. In order to achieve this, parents have established organisations that support the schools.
Despite being aware of such collection of money, neither the municipal authorities nor the ministry have intervened or formed an opinion of the legality of such money collection. The audit office insists, however, that a local government should not be a passive onlooker when it comes to the relationship between parents and schools. It also found that the Ministy of Education needs to take a firmer stand in the matter.
At the same time, the eight schools in question don't admit to any wrongdoing. “In general, the audited schools found that they had not erred against anything, either directly or indirectly," Director of Audit of the Local Authorities Department Airi Mikli said. "The justifications of money collection were very emotional. Some school principals said in their responses that they failed to see what was so bad about such money collection if the school doesn’t have enough money and the parents are prepared to pay."
"There are certainly municipal schools in Estonia that offer quality and diverse education without collecting money from parents. The fact that some schools collect money this way shows that something is wrong in communication between local authorities, schools and parents," Mikli found.
Moreover, the main threat that such collection of money from parents poses is the emergence of schools in the public school network that are not affordable for everyone. "The knowledge that parents have to pay in some schools, because that’s customary and expected, may start restricting the free accessibility of the education service," the auditor general said, adding that such consequences must be avoided.
Editor: M. Oll