Exception becomes rule as many schools have over 24 children per class

First day of school ceremony at an Estonian school.
First day of school ceremony at an Estonian school. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

While the law puts the maximum size of basic school classes at 24, some schools have classes made up of as many as 33 students. The Tallinn Education Department says that the reason is shortage of teachers and finds schools responsible for complying with the law. At the same time, schools are obligated to accept every child the department sends them.

The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act states that basic school classes must have a maximum of 24 students. Only in exceptional cases can the operator of the school, which in most cases is the local government, following a proposal from the principal and with the board of trustees' permission increase the maximum number of students for a single year, provided all health and safety requirements are met.

Therefore, the law treats classes with more than 24 students as exceptions that need to be reviewed on an annual basis and are only allowed if 2 square meters of floor space per student can be ensured.

This limit takes many parents by surprise as it is rather commonplace for some schools to have over 30 students in one class. Why do boards of trustees agree to it if it means a single student receiving less attention from the teacher and potentially a poorer education?

Pressure from the city

The Tallinn Education Department, for example, has a number of children it needs to find a school for - everyone who will not be attending so-called elite schools that pick students using entry exams. While Tallinn is officially a single school area and is not obligated to send kids to the nearest school, having the school close to home is one of the main criteria the department considers. Prestigious city center schools that also held entry exams until recently tend to be sent the most students.

One such school is the Gustav Adolf Grammar School (GAG) where permission from the board of trustees sees some elementary school classes having up to 29 students, with the number of students per class growing to 32 starting from seventh grade.

Member of the GAG board of trustees Karin Madisson says she has not agreed to bigger classes. The school's board of trustees wrote to the city's education department in February of 2018, asking it not to send the school more students than can be accommodated in five classes of no more than 24 students each. The same request was repeated in 2019 to no effect.

Madisson finds that the whole process is upside down.

"The problem starts with the city that sends a school more children than it has classes or places for. Every school is allocated a random number of students before the board is even involved. The latter has no idea how many children the city is sending them. The education department simply tells schools to make it work."

Members of the boards of trustees of several schools told ERR that the matter of larger than allowed classes has not even been discussed in recent years.

Schools over a barrel

Schools are sent a final list of students on August 31.

Discovering they have been sent more children than the school can accommodate with existing resources leaves them facing difficult choices. Whether to try and find more teachers and form additional classes to comply with the 24-student requirement or turn to boards of trustees to have insensibly large classes. Boards give their formal permission because everyone realizes that the school is over the barrel, children need to be accepted and taught as no one wants to attend the night shift, not to mention how difficult it is to find teachers.

Madisson also says that another reason many schools create larger than allowed classes is money. "A lot probably depends on how much money the local government allocates for teaching. Sums allocated per student make up a big part of school budgets. It is clear that having ten extra students in a single class leaves the school with more money."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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