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Estonian Tiger Parents and Elite Schools: A Conversation with an Education Official

A senior adviser with the Ministry of Education, Epp Rebane, sat down with journalist Indrek Treufeldt on ETV's “Kahekõne” and talked about Estonian elite schools. In the following excerpts, along with saying that school entrance exams for those entering the first grade are unreasonable, she spoke on the gymnasium system and "elite school privatization."

Note: basic school is grades 1 to 9 and gymnasium or upper secondary school is grades 10 to 12.

A large proportion of teachers across Estonia are women. What's your opinion on this?

It is kind of inevitable and isn't exclusive to Estonia. Similar trends are common in the world, with maybe a slight variance in the Nordic countries. Certainly there's a desire for more men to work in schools, but how to achieve it? That is the million-dollar-question.

How does the ministry view the elite school try-outs that recently took place?

Dragging children from one school to the next is inhumane. That has never been the point of the law. Tallinn has simply interpreted it for another year that the three criteria - proximity of the school to where the family lives, siblings in the same school, parents' wishes - are all given equal billing. By next year, we should be able to fine-tune the legislation so that there is no confusion and the criteria are read in descending order. Basically, there shouldn't be these entrance exams.

Lets look at the situation from a practical side. Basic school classes have a curricula, a set of standards that each pupil should reach. Is the Education Ministry safeguarding this system?

There's a basic education curriculum describing the so-called levels of school readiness. It does not state clearly at what point a child should be able to read or write, but rather lists the milestones of a child's development through various aspects. Preschool institutions give a description of the child for the [future] school. The teacher who accepts the pupil with the help of this information knows how to approach the child, gets to know them and understands what aspects to develop.

One example from Tallinn. A child is attending trials or however you wish to call them and has to write the sentence "Suur vöödiline pall veeres põõsa alla." [This dictation sentence includes various pitfalls – Ed.] They are attempting to get into the first grade!

And they do just fine writing the sentence, by the way. A couple of years ago, when the previous draft law was being discussed, the school try-outs were a serious issue; we had multiple discussions going on with school psychiatrists and kindergarteners. They assessed the exams to be on par with the second grade in an average school. Since it [the success on the tests] interests parents, basically they go and prep and tutor their kids so that they can pass the exam.

Is that normal?

Of course it's not normal. A child should be happy and be able to play, not study year-round and then maybe - fulfill the parents' dreams. It's not bad for parents to have dreams, but pushing the kids into the schools - and I don't want to use the word “elite schools,” indicate the lower grades are treated as sort of a pre-gymnasium. Maybe they even see six pillars of a university glistering. Perhaps a child's future path is written in stone in the first grade.

Let's look at a broader aspect. In a way, we could say the Tallinn conditions provide children with a head start, compared to the children living in Pärnu for example, or in some rural areas.

Yes, but as far as head starts go, they could turn sour at some point and the children have to put in a lot more effort somewhere near the end of basicschool. As we discussed, parents help. I know of many examples where parents helped the so-called “elite school” pupils along until the end of basic school, but then tire of learning together, giving aid to the children and seek home tutors.

This deepens the already unfair situation in Estonia. There are rural areas with no standards on acceptance, everybody gets in. And then there's Tallinn with its tough and passionate struggle. Perhaps this divides Estonia into two echelons – the "first" and the "second"?

When talking about basic schools, this does not apply. These schools are generally very even throughout Estonia. The  difference in level starts from the gymnasiums – they indicate whether pupils can go on to universities.

So elite school classification should be restricted to gymnasiums?

Yes. Basic schools should have a different face and purpose than gymnasiums.

A well-known school in Tallinn - Reaalkool - recently announced it is going partially private. How to react to it?

I know my colleagues are currently trying to delve into the subject – reading the papers and talking to people. I don't know the full details, but watching and listening indicates it is unfair and against reason.

I mean, why expand a municipal school with a private school. Nothing is preventing, should Tallinn decide to do so, them from adding extra basic school classes. Nothing. To say nothing of the fact that the teachers are the same, the rooms are the same, the curriculum is the same.

Is it the creation of a class system? The children are bought into the school by parents who can afford to do so?


Can the ministry do something about it, restrict it?

The ministry could analyze the situation and weigh in through [giving a] schooling permission. So, yes.

It's a paradox. We have a situation where we have fewer students but some people are driving up the prices for education.

Yes, it's counterintuitive. There might turn out to be some good reason hidden beneath, but I don't well believe it.

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