Many young people's educational and employment options alike are limited by their subpar Estonian language proficiency. Education should be providing everyone with equal opportunities, but our system continues to consistently generate inequality, ex-education minister Liina Kernsa writes.
As I was driving over to my 89-year-old grandmother's along Lasnamäe's car-congested streets a few days ago, I smiled at two boys playing on the side of the road. The boys noticed me and ran after my car, excited and happy.
A little further on, I stepped out of the car by [her] building and called, "Hi, boys!" The boys froze. They didn't understand me. Seriously, these two apparently elementary school-aged little boys hadn't understood me. This happened just 2.5 kilometers from the city center of the Estonian capital.
My grandmother lives in one of the oldest apartment buildings in Lasnamäe, right next to the Russian-language Suur-Pae Kindergarten. The kindergarten recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, which I attended as well, as [education] minister. This kindergarten joined the language immersion program eight years ago. All groups receive Estonian as a foreign language lessons starting at age three.
I saw and heard for myself that the children there do indeed speak, sing and recite poems in Estonian. According to Tatjana Požogina, Suur-Pae Kindergarten's brilliant director, it is vital that children experience an Estonian-language environment as early as possible — that only then will they start to confidently communicate in Estonian as well. A major concern, however, is the fact that when they start school, there aren't enough language immersion classes for these children, in which their proficiency in the national language could continue to develop.
Seriously. Also next door to my grandmother's building is the massive Lasnamäe High School, where just 192 of 1,356 students are learning in language immersion classes. Another 80 students are receiving in-depth Estonian-language educations within the [high school's] basic school. This is clearly too little, as by the end of basic school [ninth grade], just under half of students at Lasnamäe High School had acquired Estonian language skills at the B1 level last school year.
Why is it that more than half of students aren't learning the national language at an elementary level by the end of basic school? According to principal Andrei Kante, it's very difficult to find teachers who are capable of teaching in Estonian. The school itself is prepared to hire several Estonian-language teachers immediately, because parents' expectations for increasing numbers of language immersion classes are high.
It was confirmed to me at a meeting with the school's administration and teachers that kindergarten education should be Estonian-language, which would make it easier for children in school as well. Agreed, it should be. But in reality, a lot of kindergarteners who have received Estonian-language education have to be placed in Russian-language classes due to a lack of spots [in Estonian-language ones].
The situation in Sillamäe is significantly worse than in Lasnamäe. Of those to graduate from the city's two Russian-language basic schools, just under 30 percent passed the B1 proficiency exam. Thus, a full 70 percent of students who'd attended school for nine years were incapable of speaking in Estonian at an elementary level.
Many young people's educational and employment options alike are limited by their subpar Estonian language proficiency. Education should be providing everyone with equal opportunities, but our system continues to consistently generate inequality.
What is our starting position?
The new government has decided that starting the year after next already, kindergarten education must be Estonian-language, and that all first and fourth grade classes in Russian-language schools must begin Estonian-language education.
There are just 25 months left until the start of the 2024 school year. Achieving this goal indeed demands turbo-speed action. Merely passing the necessary laws without systematic and supporting activities creates a breeding ground for total anarchy. But what is the starting position?
Below I will highlight 13 of the most important decisions made for the transition to Estonian-language education during my 18-month term.
In ten months and with expert involvement, we drew up an action plan for Estonian-language education through 2035. This is the first thematic document that the ministry has ever drawn up. This document was drawn up in order to achieve the target set in the Estonian Language Development Plan, according to which instruction [in schools] should be exclusively in Estonian by no later than 2035. The government has promised fully Estonian-language education five years earlier, i.e. by 2030, due to which the action plan needs to be updated in light of new targets.
While standardized testing for Estonian as a second language was previously conducted in Russian-language schools at the end of the second stage of study, i.e. in seventh grade, last fall we decided to conduct standardized testing at both the beginning and the end of the second stage of study, i.e. in fourth and seventh grade.
The results were shocking: just 40 percent of students had acquired proficiency of the national language at the most basic, A1 level by fourth grade and 44 percent by seventh grade. We decided that in the years to come, standardized [Estonian as a second language proficiency] testing would be mandatory for all fourth- and seventh-grade students at Russian-language schools so that we can continuously monitor the development of students' proficiency in the national language.
Prompted by the startling standardized testing results, we developed sector-specific monitoring in Russian-language schools in order to consciously and substantively promote the quality of Estonian-language education. Currently, monitoring has been conducted at 12 schools in five different local governments. We'll receive the results this fall.
In collaboration with experts in the field, we developed new curricula for Estonian as a second language with which we are increasing language proficiency requirements — from B1 to B2 by the end of ninth grade and from B2 to C1 by the end of 12th grade. In connection with this, we will be increasing the number of Estonian language lessons at the first level of study from two to four, in addition to Estonian-language subjects, and from four to five lessons at the second and third levels of study. These changes just need to be approved by the government.
We tied national language proficiency requirements for teachers, school principals and support specialists to other educator qualification requirements. This decision had been awaited for years. According to Language Inspectorate data, 2,300 employees with non-compliant language proficiency are currently working in our education system, but that doesn't stop anyone from concluding open-ended employment contracts with them.
For example, just under half of all teachers at Sillamäe's schools and kindergartens speak Estonian at the required level, meaning that more than half do not meet legal language requirements.
According to the director of the Language Inspectorate, educators are among the most sluggish language learners as they lack motivation. They have been able to easily continue working without knowing the national language. Even when the Language Inspectorate has issued fines, school administrators frequently repay the employee in the form of a bonus.
This ends now. Starting in 2025, it will no longer be possible to conclude open-ended employment contracts with teachers not in compliance with language requirements. This change was supported by support specialist, principal and educator associations alike.
We nationalized two Estonian-language schools in Ida-Viru County: the century-old Järve School, Kohtla-Järve's only Estonian-language basic school, and Narva Estonian High School (NEG). The handover of the latter to the state was an important step in establishing Narva's Estonian-language education campus, in which the state is investing approximately €30 million. The walls are already going up. Talks for the nationalization of an Estonian-language school are already underway with Sillamäe city government as well. The negotiations working group is expected to submit its proposals to the government by the end of the year.
We decided in the government to support the renovation of two big Russian-language basic schools in Narva and Kohtla-Järve on condition that they become early language immersion schools, i.e. that instruction is 100 percent in Estonian beginning from the first grade.
We developed a support measure for Estonian-language schools where at least 10 percent of students speak a native language other than Estonian. For half a million euros, 23 basic schools received support beginning in fall 2021 already. Before leaving office, managed to sign a similar support measure for Estonian-language kindergartens as well.
We submitted to the Riigikogu the kindergarten education and childcare bill, drawn up in cooperation with experts in the field, which would have closed down kindergarten groups in which the language of instruction was not Estonian by 2027.
76 percent of residents support Estonian-language kindergarten education, including more than half of people with a different native language. For example, the Russian-language Suur-Pae Kindergarten in Lasnamäe already meets the objective defined in the new kindergarten education bill of at least 50 percent of instruction taking place in Estonian. The Riigikogu excluded the bill from procedure with the votes of Center Party and Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) MPs. There was reason to be sad and disappointed.
For €1.4 million, we ordered a total of 141 additional spots in teacher education degree programs at the University of Tartu and Tallinn University, including 28 additional spots to expand the Estonian as a second language teacher education program at Narva College for €450,000.
For example, the Early Years Teacher in Multilingual Learning Environment degree program to which admissions were expanded saw significant competition this year: 320 candidates for 50 spots. In light of our new targets, these figures need to multiply.
As a result of the government's 100-day plan being fulfilled, the +1 teacher project expanded to include 70 Estonian-language teachers in kindergartens and schools. Currently employed in Russian-language schools and kindergartens are a total of 190 Estonian-language teachers being paid separately by the state.
We supported the language immersion, an evidence-based method of education promoting language learning. This school year, 3,720 children in kindergartens and more than 8,000 children in basic schools will be receiving language training under the language immersion program. We also doubled the volume of additional professional training offered by the Education and Youth Board, and as a result we will reach up to 2,000 teachers by the end of the year.
And the baker's dozen: we sent Tallinn Education Department a formal notice that we are terminating the infamous so-called "three schools agreement" according to which three Russian-language schools in Tallinn, including Lasnamäe High School, received €750,000 annually for the development and monitoring of Estonian-language teaching methodologies. As a result [of this funding], high school graduates were supposed to achieve C1 proficiency in Estonian.
The methodologies have not been developed, and they have not been monitored in an evidence-based manner. Students' language proficiency hasn't improved. We redirected the money freed up here into the field on equal terms for the development of Estonian-language education.
As they say: "Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what they are." Never before has the Ministry of Education and Research directed as much money into children and young people's language training as during the year in which the budget was mine to manage. This year, the field has €16 million to use. We sought another €14.6 million for next year.
In order to meet the incredibly ambitious new targets, this sum should be double that at least, as we need Estonian-language teachers in kindergarten groups and classes just two years from now already.
Editor: Aili Vahtla