Minister: Center does not support Estonian-language education action plan

Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center) at a cabinet meeting.
Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center) at a cabinet meeting. Source: Office of the Government of the Republic of Estonia.

An education ministry action plan aimed at transitioning to all-Estonian education in schools by 2035 has not met with the approval of the Center Party, one of its ministers told ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) Monday night.

While regional minister Jaak Aab (Center) and education minister Liina Kersna (Reform) hold a similar view on the importance of accommodating schoolchildren whose native tongue is Russian but who want to study in Estonian, Aab does not agree with legal amendments as propsoed by Kersna in the action plan.

Aab, who is also Center's lead representative in the cabinet, told AK that the party opposed legislative amendments on the issue per se.

He said. "If there is anything inside [the action plan] that requires administrative decisions or changes in the law, the Center Party will not support that."

Funding support services that encourage students to voluntarily study in Estonian would be more beneficial and would have the support of his party, he added, whereas Kersna's proposal would have the opposite effect to that desired.

"If we intentionally, or forcibly, set deadlines and percentages again, it may have the effect of counteracting this voluntary desire," he said.

Liina Kersna told AK that teacher training was the biggest challenge in the proposed transition.

She said: "As of today, we have more than 3,000 teachers in the classroom whose level of language proficiency does not meet the requirements."

"These teachers have been trained, but only 3-5 percent of the teachers took part in training have completed that training," Kersna went on, offering as a solution retraining and in-service training for teachers, and boosting the number of Estonian-language teachers in universities.

As to the legislative changes Kersna called this a major issue, where nonetheless the goal of all-Estonian-language education in general schools by 2035 should be written into that legislation.

Over 21,000 pupils are currently studying in Russian, in 77 Russian-language schools nationwide.

The bulk of these, 55 in all, are bi-lingual in their education, while 22 teach purely in Estonian.

Minister of education Liina Kersna (Reform). Source: ERR

The action plan hits the Riigikogu culture committee's desks today, Tuesday, and Kersna will present it to the cabinet in the next few weeks, AK reported.

Reform is in coalition with Center. All-Estonian education has long been a Reform Party policy plank, while Center has traditionally drawn much of its constituency vote from among the Russian-speaking populace in Tallinn and Ida-Viru County. In more recent years, that support has ebbed, though not to any other party's benefit so far – the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) tried to corner the Russian vote in the run-up to October's local elections by focusing on social issues and the perception that Russian speakers are highly conservative on most of these, but made only limited gains.

Kersna's predecessor as education minister was Mailis Reps, a Center Party politician who served in the role over close to seven years, across three stints 2002-2020. Aab briefly replaced her after her resignation over a costs scandal, while the entry into office of the Reform-Center coalition in January this year ushered in Liina Kersna into the role.

The action plan Kersna unveiled late last week would see the proportion of Estonian-language education in Russian schools increased in increments, first to 40 percent, then to 60 percent and then to 75 percent, between its inception and 2035.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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