Mairo Rääsk: Place of new immigrants in Estonian education

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Mairo Rääsk. Source: Private collection

Schools that teach in Estonian have adopted a noncommittal so as not to say standoffish attitude toward new immigrants from the territory of the former Soviet Union. The separation of the two communities in the Estonian education system will persist if this trend is allowed to continue, Mairo Rääsk writes.

Immigration has outperformed emigration in Estonia since 2015. The reason is Estonians returning from abroad and Estonia becoming a migration destination for third country citizens a notable part of whom come from countries that used to belong to the Soviet Union.

Estonia is seeing the most new immigrants from Russia and Ukraine. The country saw 21,227 more people than left in 2015-2019.

New immigrants overlooked

Estonia becoming an immigration target country is having a clear effect on the education system. Society and schools have tried to adjust to the new situation that has sparked a debate on the need for a more inclusive, caring and tolerant society. However, to what extent have we succeeded in this?

Education debates and coverage in the dimension of migration have paid attention to the fate of Arabic and other exotic new immigrants, while largely overlooking the children of new immigrants* from the territories of the former Soviet Union and how they are coping in Estonia.

Considering relevant proportions and the great number of new immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, the topic deserves extensive debate and critical analysis as a lot more depends on it for Estonian society than might first seem.

Distribution of new immigrants based on study language

In the RITA-ränne project (Challenges of migration dependence and integration for the Estonian state, employers, communities and education), we looked at distribution of new immigrants between Estonian and Russian schools in 2017-2019. Estonian general education schools enrolled a total of 1,387 new immigrant students in that time, which is about the total number of students in Estonia's largest general education school.

A third of them were children of Estonians returning from abroad. But even without considering this fact and comparing the figure to the total number of students in Estonian and Russian schools, it turned out that new immigrants were far more likely to go to schools that teach in Russian.

While 80 percent of all students go to Estonian schools, only 52 percent of new immigrant students end up there, including Estonians returning from abroad. The remaining 48 percent are distributed between Russian schools (42 percent) and English schools (6 percent).

Even a cursory glance at statistics makes things clear. If we count those who joined language immersion classes, over two-thirds of children of new immigrants from former Soviet countries, most of whom live in major Estonian cities, went to Russian schools.

Considering the relative importance of Russian-speaking people in Tallinn and cities in Ida-Viru County and recent integration progress, it is likely that new immigrants who continue attending Russian schools will find it more difficult to integrate into Estonian society.

The historical and current role of Russian schools

To better understand the position of schools that teach in Russian and approaches they use in cultural and identity-creation processes, one needs to analyze the reasons why Estonia has two separate school systems.

The need for two separate systems arose from mass immigration of various Soviet national groups into the Estonian SSR.

Considering the rather varied national makeup of immigrants who arrived in the industrial regions of Soviet Estonia and the fact that Soviet population policy aimed to shape people with a special Soviet identity based on the Russian language and emphasizing events and achievements of the Russian people in the school program, Russian schools worked as smelting furnaces for immigrants from various corners of the empire to shape them into so-called new Soviet people using comprehensive school principles.

Considering the historically important goal of Russian schools to ensure the cultural and linguistic self-determination of the largest cultural minority in Estonia, this position deserves critical analysis in many schools, as well as preparedness to take a broader view of matters of ethnicity and language.

This matter is rendered even more important looking at new immigrants' tendency to attend Russian schools. Schools should raise as an important topic dialing back attempts to assimilate into Russian identity and culture students from other cultures and ethnic groups.

We should move toward conscious efforts to notice, value and nurture the cultural and linguistic characteristics of students.

Even if the school prioritizes integration of students into the Estonian society through language training and other favorable methods, the approach might not consider cultural diversity in schools and communities and might, on the contrary, be indirectly catering to a forgotten system that only works to deepen isolation.

At the same time, schools that teach in Estonian have adopted a noncommittal so as not to say standoffish attitude toward new immigrants from the territory of the former Soviet Union. The separation of the two communities in the Estonian education system will persist if this trend is allowed to continue.

Integration of new immigrants into the Estonian value space

Assuming that the trend of positive net migration will persist, something that is highly likely considering the international situation (instability in Ukraine and it falling behind economically, the situation in the Russian Federation and tensions in Belarus), efforts to integrate new immigrants from former Soviet territories into Estonian schools right away are vital. The latter need to offer native language classes and make use of pro-integration methodologies and support systems.

We need a series of preparatory activities on the state, local government and school levels. Starting with data analysis in specific regions and local governments based on which to put together activity plans that must determine the need for support measures, additional funding and additional- or retraining.

In a situation where Estonian schools manage to teach children with a Tamil or Bengal cultural background, I'm sure they are capable of teaching children from former Soviet countries. In order to move closer to achieving the goals of a universal Estonian school system, it is very important to render Estonian schools more open, ensure necessary support systems for students from different cultures and speaking different native languages, as well leave behind ambitions of assimilation.

This cannot happen overnight, while purposefully moving toward goals will make it possible to take an important step and end indirect efforts at enforcing a parallel education system. The Estonian education system should re ready to enroll all new immigrants in Estonian-speaking schools by the 2025/26 academic year. It is absolutely necessary for equal opportunities and a more coherent society.

* A new immigrant student is a child who starts studies in an Estonian school after spending fewer than three years living in Estonia.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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