Although the number of state upper secondary schools has multiplied and the total number of upper secondary schools has fallen over the last decade, the goals set by the Ministry of Education and Research for the reorganization of the upper secondary school network are far from being achieved, the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll) says.
In order to continue the reorganization of the school network, the owners of schools must come to a common understanding as to which criteria are the basis for closing or continuing of high schools, the National Audit Office found in a report published Wednesday.
In the opinion of the audit office, a decision should be made on which level of government is responsible for providing the opportunity to acquire general secondary education and a detailed plan for the reorganization of the high school network, also known as the upper secondary school (Estonian: Gümnaasium) network, should be established.
When the reorganization of the school network commenced more than a decade ago, the education ministry set the goal of reducing the number of high schools, increasing the size of the institutions that continue operating, giving preference to high schools that are separate from basic schools, and significantly increasing the number of state high schools.
The main goal of the re-design has been to bring the school network in line with changes in population and, at the same time, ensure equal access to high quality education in all regions of Estonia, the audit office says.
Over the past ten years, the number of upper secondary schools in Estonia has fallen by about a third. While in the 2009-2010 academic year there were 226 high schools, there were 68 fewer schools providing full-time general secondary education by the start of the 2020/2021 academic year – at 158.
The number of state-run high schools has increased from five, to 16. The experience of setting up state high schools is generally positive, the audit office says, and although some of the state's objectives, such as the occupancy of student places, efficient use of space and the compliance of teachers with the qualification requirements, have not yet been fully achieved, students and local authorities where state high schools are located have reported being rather satisfied with their activities.
"Progress in the reorganization of the upper secondary school network is noticeable, but the current state of affairs is still quite far from the goals set," commented Director of Audit Ines Metsalu-Nurminen.
According to the development plans, there should be 24 state upper secondary schools operating as of now instead of the 16 noted above, while the number of schools providing general secondary education should have dropped to one hundred.
"These goals are ambitious, but at the moment, the upper secondary school network is reorganizing on its own. The owners of high schools who are predominantly local authorities would need a better understanding of the standards based on which schools either remain or are closed. Living in a constant threat of closure or uncertainty does not contribute to a healthy working environment in schools," added Director of Audit Ines Metsalu-Nurminen.
The National Audit Office concludes that the Ministry of Education and Research should develop clear criteria for both the quality and accessibility of secondary education that would be the basis for keeping or closing a high school.
It became clear in the course of preparing the report that in many places it was not ambiguously clear to local authorities which changes the design of the high school network should bring in the quality of education. It is the clear requirements for the quality and accessibility of secondary education (including transport and accommodation) that should be at the heart of the design of the high school network.
According to the National Audit Office, the provision of student places for general secondary education should be assigned to one responsible level of authority.
The current shared responsibility of the state and local authorities enacted as a compromise does not support decision-making on the design of the high school network. Assigning responsibility to a particular party does not mean taking away the other party's right to own a school.
However, the existence of a single leader that can be held accountable would create better preconditions for substantive cooperation. In addition, the ministry and local self-governments need to come to an agreement on how many student places of general secondary education are needed in each county and how these places will be ensured to those wanting them in the future.
The National Audit Office is pointing out that a detailed plan for the reorganization of the high school network should be established.
This would include the number and locations of upper secondary schools by counties and local authorities. In addition, this plan would have to show more precisely the options for integrating secondary and vocational education.
As the students' commute to school becomes longer when the upper secondary school network is optimized, it is important to ensure functional transport connections and accommodation when designing the high school network. At present, there is no certainty that the organization of transport and accommodation will enable everyone who wants it to study at a state upper secondary school.
Since 2005, the Ministry of Education and Research has been commissioning and preparing school network forecasts for supporting and guiding the decisions of local authorities on the design of the school network. These take into account changes in population and certain requirements (possible types of school and number of students in them), the audit office says.
According to the latest forecast prepared in 2013-2014, it would have been sufficient for Estonia if there were a total of 352 basic schools and 44-58 so-called pure upper secondary schools by 2020.
This forecast has also been the basis for supporting investments in the reorganization of the school network in the period 2014-2020; however the Ministry of Education and Research estimated the realistic target number of upper secondary schools to be in the region of 100 high schools (gümnaasium).
The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act passed in 2013 provided for the obligation of the state to establish at least one state high school in each county.
The School Network Program 2015 established a goal for the year 2020 to reduce the number of schools with the upper secondary level from 202 (as at 2014) to about 100 and to increase the number of state upper secondary schools in counties from 5 to 24.
The current Education and Youth Program envisages the establishment of 26 state upper secondary schools by 2024.
Editor: Andrew Whyte