Tallinn's education chief: Transition to Estonian schooling not feasible

Kaarel Rundu.
Kaarel Rundu. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The new chief of the Tallinn Education Department Kaarel Rundu discusses teacher shortages, the feasibility of the transition to Estonian-language schooling, the coronavirus pandemic and Ukrainian refugees in an interview with ERR.

Rundu takes over the role from Andres Pajula, who had been head of the department since 2003. Rundu was previously the principal of Tallinn's German High School.

The previous chief of the Tallinn Education Board, Andres Pajula, held the position for over twenty years. Is your contract fixed-term?

I am not bound by any contract. The heads of city councils are appointed and removed by a decision. I have not signed anything new.

In other words, is the position permanent?


How do you feel about a single person leading a city office for nearly two decades? Is this reasonable, or does such an important position need to be more frequently rotated?

I certainly do not intend to stay in this position for the next 20 years, and I believe that change is always good for both the organization as a whole as well as its leader. When the time is right for the next move - that is a matter of personal choice.

You discussed your plan during the interview. Can you highlight some of the more important goals?

The issues of teacher and support specialist training and their career continuity are crucial, i.e., how to provide enough incentive to Tallinn's employees to retain, appreciate, and motivate them.

A separate issue is the lack of support specialists for students with special educational needs. We are aware of a short supply of psychologists, specialist educators, and speech therapists. This is generally speaking the number one concern for the Estonian education - nurturing the next generation of educators and support specialist.

Kaarel Rundu. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Let's discuss one of Tallinn's unique traits, the so-called elite schools. From 2015, you were the principal of Tallinn's German High School, which is considered to be a regular school. Do you think it is appropriate that there are also other, more autonomous schools that select their own students? Or should admittance be based on the concept of a local school?

I quite like Raul Rebas' concept of an elite school: a school where students want to go, where they experience a positive learning environment, and where educators are eager to teach.

The greater the number of niche-finding schools in Tallinn, the more robust the city's educational system will be. So I would shift the emphasis in your question.

Tallinn has regular admissions schools, schools with a single city-wide admissions class, and schools with a very strong, clear, and innovative profile: some in learning skills, others in entrepreneurship, or with a focus on a specific language, such as Japanese.

I support the right to choose. I'd like to see a system in place where there is a guaranteed spot at a local school, but if you have a deeper interest, such as in theater, you can give it a shot. And why shouldn't each school have at least one class with city-wide enrollment? Positive competition would encourage schools to develop their own "spunk" while also broadening the options available to families and students.

Let's start with the obvious: you were the principal of Tallinn German High School, which had thousands of students. Although the law on basic and general secondary education specifies a maximum class size of 24 students, Tallinn school boards occasionally approve larger classes. Is there a solution to the issue of limited space?

Unfortunately, not at the moment.

The board votes to allow larger classes, but it is up to the teacher to figure out how to manage them.

Tallinn has made consistent efforts to address the issue of space, such as by introducing modular classrooms, for instance. Kindergarten and school renovations are planned or prioritized to address this space issue.

Schools have the option of adopting a second shift and, unfortunately, many schools are forced to do so.

On the other hand, from a purely practical standpoint, the board and school administration take the actual situation into account when setting the upper class size limit. So the classes may also include students who are studying overseas or are schooled at home.

We are currently discussing the integration of Ukrainian students into the education system, which will require introducing exceptions in order to provide a learning opportunity for them.

Personally, I believe that 24 to 26 students per class is ideal, but there isn't much that can be done.

Kaarel Rundu. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Is Tallinn planning to open new schools in the near future in the areas where there is a clear need for more educational facilities?

We are evaluating where a new school or kindergarten is most needed and contacting necessary contractors. We are primarily focusing on newly developed areas of Tallinn.

Tallinn is currently building two national upper secondary schools (riigigümnaasium) that are slated to open in the coming fall, with a third school on the way. (Riigigümnaasium is a high school that provides exclusively upper secondary education, i.e. grades 10 to 12, as opposed to regular gümnaasiums, which teaches starting from grade 1 to 12 and covers the entire scope of basic and general secondary education in Estonia, - ed.) Will these national schools help Tallinn in resolving the space concerns, or do you view them as state-sponsored competition?

Diversity enriches, and it is a good collaboration practice between the state and the city that improves the entire educational landscape, along with perhaps a touch of competitiveness. However, I appreciate having more options for pupils. And what could I possibly object to?

You mentioned earlier that there is a teacher shortage in Tallinn and throughout the country. How will you address this issue once these brand-new national, upper secondary, schools open and also attract teachers?

The movement of teachers, I think, will be gradual: these national secondary schools are not opening classes at all three years at once, but are beginning with grade 10 and progress to grade 11 in the following year.

I believe there are both teachers that would like a fresh start or try something new and who are truly happy and content within their own institution, where they have developed friendships, management teams, and have students who they truly care about and value, who are important to them.

Nonetheless, there are not enough teachers. We can transfer them from one school to another, but the shortage remains. Do you have an overview of the number of empty teaching posts at Tallinn's public schools for the forthcoming academic year?

No, I don't have such an overview right now. However, based on what we can see from Teachers' Magazine (Õpetajate Leht), Facebook and other social media posts, CV Centre that number is still high. Alarmingly high.

This is a problem that must be addressed; is it also a matter of state concern?

Yes, but on the other hand, there are great opportunities lurking here as well. I am aware that not everyone likes with this proposal, but I think we could start collaborating more with the private sector.

I am aware that not everyone supports this approach, but I feel that we should collaborate with the private sector more. Beginning with the Progress (Edumus) project, specialists from the private sector will be work in schools. The German High School, for instance, hired a physics instructor and an economics instructor, i.e., for precise and difficult-to-cover courses.

Again, this is not a complete solution and we still need to invest in the next generation of teachers and support professionals in the long run.

Despite the fact that there is much discussion prior to the start of the school year about teacher shortages, there seems to have been no such issue at the end of the school year.

We should also be aware that even principals are now teaching classes, and that some schools are sharing teachers. They've rearranged their curriculum so that one teacher spends half the year in one school and the other in another. I've even joked that we start making hologram teachers.

Kaarel Rundu. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

What about distance learning? A single instructor could teach a larger number of students.

No, we're talking about lecturing then, which is a kind of video lecture.

Looking back at the coronavirus crisis, we can see that there are some very effective technological solutions in Estonian education. However, what students require the most—that patting, praise, emotional support and encouragement, that someone asks how they're doing—has to do with emotional and social values and competencies that technology does not address.

How did you get through those two years of pandemic, in your own experience?  

All schools have demonstrated their ability to quickly adapt to a completely new way of learning and teaching. The way they took on new responsibilities ranging from catering to medical care, shows the efficiency of our educational system, which not only teachers but also can take on all of these other duties.

Adding even more responsibilities, however, is not sustainable.

The impact on people's mental health is of a special concern: students, families and teachers are under considerable pressure, especially in a situation where there is a shortage of support workers and long waiting lists to see a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Let's also talk about political decisions; the coalition has agreed to the transition to all-Estonian. Given that a timeline has already been set for this transition to begin in 2024 for grades 1 through 4, what is your assessment of this?

The goal is laudable; the schedule is unrealistic. I have just verified that, for instance, Tallinn University has accepted sixteen students this year on Estonian as a second language course, who should be hopefully graduating in two years of time. How many will stay, how many will further their education or change careers, and how many will work in Russian schools teaching in Estonian? Also in Estonian schools, there is a demand for these teachers.

Speaking optimistically, the good outcome of this transition could be a greater focus on the career continuation of teachers, but this concern is not restricted to the training of teachers of Estonian as a second language.

Where will these other specialization teachers come from, given that we are not only discussing language learning, but we are talking about teaching in Estonian all the other disciples, such as geography and history, which are specialized topics and require unique pedagogical skills.

Even if there had been 160 students, rather than 16... perhaps, 1600 would have done the trick, but this is not the case. This plan is not a feasible plan, unfortunately.

Is it possible that Tallinn will be asking for a exemption from the state introduced schedule in transitioning to all-Estonian teaching?

If such an exemption is requested, I believe it will be for a compelling reason. I understand that such an exception is possible, and this opportunity should be looked into. However, it is currently unclear what is meant by 'beginning the transition,' and there is no further guidance on how to proceed now.

Beginning in September, children of war refugees must also attend school. What will happen to the city-funded Ukrainian school on Raagu Street in Tallinn now that the state is opening a separate Ukrainian school on Endla Street?

470 new students have been admitted to the Raagu school as of Tuesday. In addition, there are students who will continue in the Tallinn schools where they registered in the spring, and there are also students for whom we are now giving school placements. Today, according to the education department, there are approximately 250 of them.

Kaarel Rundu Autor/allikas: Ken Mürk/ERR

This is a large number.

I should use this opportunity to remind everyone that the Raagu school is currently hiring; anyone interested in helping with the refugee situation is invited to join the team. All of you now employed in the private sector with a degree in education, this is your opportunity to contribute to managing this crisis.

What happened to the previous administration's decision to send Ukrainian children to Estonian-language schools rather than Russian-language schools in Tallinn?

Tallinn schools contacted the Ministry of Education and Research, where it was clarified that this is not a hard requirement and that the family could express a preference for an Estonian- or Russian-language school. We have taken this as our starting point.

Kaarel Rundu Autor/allikas: Ken Mürk/ERR


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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