A bill sent out for coordination would see local governments reserve kindergarten places nearest to home for all children. Local governments would have to notify parents of the designation 90 days before the child turns 18 months old.
The city of Tallinn finds that choice of kindergarten should stay with parents and that primary education should have as few rules as possible.
"Our studies show that parents base their choice of kindergarten on many different factors, such as nearness to place of work, nearness to home. A lot of times kindergartens are chosen based on distance from grandparents," Andres Pajula, head of the Tallinn Education Department, told ERR, adding that the ministry's amendment plan fails to consider the interests of parents.
Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of Education and Research (HTM) Kristi Vinter-Nemvalts told ERR that the amendment is not aimed at local governments ignoring parents' wishes when it comes to choice of kindergarten. She said that local governments should propose a system that would help them learn parents' preferences instead.
"Neither the Preschool Child Care Institutions Act nor principles included in planned amendments set limitations for considering the wishes of parents. The bill simply aims to untie securing a kindergarten place from parental efforts, instead obligating local governments to offer the service proactively," Vinter-Nemvalts said.
The ministry official said that the solution proposed by the amendment is obligating local governments to find and offer people kindergarten places. The city or rural municipality would have to notify parents of a designated kindergarten place 90 days before the child turns 18 months old after which parents would communicate whether they want to use it at this time.
"The law aims to avoid a situation where parents need to queue for kindergarten places," the deputy secretary general explained.
Parents would not be under obligation to accept the place and could apply for a place in a different kindergarten. There would also be no obligation to have children attend kindergarten starting from 1.5 years old.
The bill provides that local governments must consider the distance between the kindergarten and the child's home, whether children of the same family attend the kindergarten as well as wishes of parents, nearness of the parent's place of work and the family's socioeconomic situation if possible. Applications from parents would prompt local governments to reevaluate these circumstances.
Vinter-Nemvalts said that cities and rural municipalities can use existing electronic systems, such as the ARNO education IT system, to ascertain parents' preferences.
Tallinn and Ministry of Internal Affairs criticize mandatory aspects
The bill includes other items that have caused controversy. One is mandatory progress evaluation for preschool-age children taught at home.
Secondly, both Tallinn and the interior ministry interpret the bill as rendering preschool education mandatory.
Andres Pajula does not hold this approach to be sensible. "Why are we forcing children to participate in the work of kindergartens – is this a sensible approach. /…/ There are other ways of preparing children for school," he said, referring to progress evaluation.
Pajula said that while he understands the amendment's noble goal of boosting the level of education, kindergartens should not be turned into educational institutions sporting rigid rules. "A child develops by playing and socializing, not by following a curriculum," he offered.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs points to a controversy in the bill in that it emphasizes that preschool education remains voluntary, while expecting parents of children three years of age and older to attend progress evaluation interviews once a year until the child goes to school.
"Therefore, the regulation provides that preschool education is voluntary, while also introducing a mandatory progress monitoring system for preschool children," the ministry pointed out.
The ministry wants the bill to cite scientific research according to which the development gap of preschool-age children taught at home is widespread enough to warrant mandatory evaluation and control of all children. Data provided in the explanatory memorandum of the bill rather suggests such children number very few.
The ministry also said that regulation should not send the signal that raising small children at home is wrong and that children who do not attend kindergarten are behind those who do.
The education ministry will wait for the Estonian Association of Cities and Rural Municipalities to also respond by February 28 after which proposals, questions and comments will be addressed.
VInter-Nemvalts said it is impossible to say when the bill might reach the government as it will take time to address and negotiate proposals. The bill's timeline will also depend on the priorities of the incoming coalition.
Editor: Marcus Turovski