Many schools starting new year without speech therapist, psychologist

School classroom.
School classroom. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Many schools across Estonia are starting the new year without a speech therapist, social pedagogue or school psychologist on staff. While their numbers in schools remain on the rise, the need for their services continues to outstrip that.

Tallinn Mustamäe High School is one such school starting the new school year without several vital support specialists of its own.

"Mustamäe High School is currently lacking a school psychologist for the first and second stages [grades 1-3 and 4-6], a social pedagogue," said Mustamäe High School educational director Sirly Illak-Oluvere, listing the gaps in their school staff. "We're missing a speech therapist, which we've been seeking for a very long time already. In some ten years we haven't had anyone interested — people aren't even responding to the ads."

Right now, the school's special education needs (SEN) coordinator and sole school psychologist are splitting the missing specialists' loads between them.

A total of 339 support specialists are employed in Tallinn's schools, however some 60 positions, or nearly one fifth, are currently unfilled. Across the country, school psychologists are only available at just over half of schools, but specialists at these schools are often likewise overburdened.

"We are still missing a lot of support specialists in schools throughout Estonia," said Kristi Feldman, board member at the Estonian Association of School Psychologists (EKPÜ). "The situation is better in bigger cities — meaning Tallinn, Tartu — but in particularly bad shape are rural areas where there are no support specialists, and there are no full-time positions to offer either."

The need for their services, however, is increasing steadily. One factor is the fact that seeing a psychologist is no longer taboo among school-aged children and young people. Another is the principle of inclusive education providing for children with learning or behavioral disabilities being placed in standard classrooms together with their peers.

The Ministry of Education and Research lacks an overview of how many support specialists Estonian schools are short on.

"An average of 72 percent of children in Estonia receive the services they need in schools, meaning that we are missing more than one third," said Jürgen Rakaselg, director of inclusive education at the Ministry of Education. "At the same time, this is fairly unequally distributed across Estonia. While nine of ten students in Hiiu County may receive the service they need, the situation isn't nearly so good in Lääne County or Rapla County; some half may receive [needed services] there."

The ministry believes the situation has improved over the past four years, as specialists graduating from university have joined the labor market and interest in special needs education is high. Schools don't share the ministry's optimism, however, as recent graduates aren't eager to work at schools.

"Young people don't dare come [work at a] school, as burnout is quick to happen as the variety of problems is so great," Illak-Oluvere acknowledged.

On top of stress and heavy workloads, low salaries are also discouraging specialists from working in schools.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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