The Ministry of Education has finalized a draft law outlining the process through which the country's schools will transition to having Estonian as the only language of instruction. The transition is set to begin in 2024, with the ministry hoping to have the draft signed into law by November this year.
The new draft would rule out the use of languages other than Estonian as the medium of instruction in schools, an option which was previously possible, if agreed by a school's board of trustees and the local authorities.
The draft also includes an amendment to the current law, which defines Estonian-language schools as all those in which 60 percent of teaching is conducted in Estonian. In practice, this meant some subjects in Estonian schools could be taught entirely in Russian, or other foreign languages, with the draft aiming to ensure that this will no longer be the case.
Minister of Education and Research Tõnis Lukas explained, that the changes outlined in the draft will not all come into effect immediately. "The changeover will start in 2024, beginning (with children) in the first to fourth grades," said Lukas.
"This is then estimated to continue until the 2029/2030 school year, by which time the entire primary school will have switched to Estonian as the language of instruction. By 2024, all kindergartens will also be (taught) in Estonian," Lukas said.
According to the draft, in 2030, when the first round of pupils, who have gone through primary school with only Estonian as the medium of instruction, reach high school, new, stricter standards on language use in the classroom will also be applied in the 10th grade. In 2032, the same will be the case for grade 12.
Prior to that, up to 40 percent of the high school curriculum may still be taught in another language. The same principle will also be applied to vocational schools.
Schools which are not ready to start the switch as soon as 2024 will be able to ask their local municipalities for an exemption, however, Lukas emphasized, that there must be clear reasons to do so.
"Exceptions can be granted by the Government of the Republic, which will listen to the opinion of a specially formed commission, " said Lukas. "So, there are mechanisms in place. However, there must be a clear reason why a school or kindergarten cannot switch to Estonian, with a specialist assessment required to justify any exceptions," he said, adding that exemptions would only be granted for a maximum of one year at a time.
However, according to Lukas, the aim is not to make exceptions, with school heads also required to have Estonian language skills and preparations for the changeover already scheduled to start from next year.
"The draft budget includes €41 million next year to cover the preparations for the changeover, and this amount will increase in the following years," added Lukas.
The funds may, for instance, be used to allow more teachers to study at university, and also to cover a proportion of teachers' salaries in Ida-Viru County, provided they conduct classes in Estonia. Lukas hopes the draft will be signed into law by early November.
Editor: Michael Cole