Julianna Jurtšenko: Switch to teaching in Estonian could end in disaster

Julianna Jurtšenko.
Julianna Jurtšenko. Source: Krõõt Tarkmeel

Looking at risks accompanying the transition to teaching in Estonian and decisions coming out of the ministry, one is unfortunately left with the impression that the decisionmakers care not for whether children will speak more and better Estonian, Julianna Jurtšenko writes.

The Riigikogu is currently discussing switching all schools and kindergartens to teaching in Estonian. While the government had no questions and promptly sent the bill to the parliament, many others have misgivings. Perhaps the main question is whether the initiative aims to preserve and promote Estonian or whether it constitutes a last-ditch attempt to tick outstanding boxes in the runup to elections.

Fines of up to €9,600

The government's plan to switch the entire education system to Estonian could end in total disaster both for those who speak another language at home and those who use Estonian.

Let us look at the current situation and the future. Schools and kindergartens are short on teachers. Estonia is short 700 teachers between Estonian and Russian schools. The system has 1,500 teachers who are set to retire in the coming years. These two facts alone come together as an almost insurmountable hurdle for the Estonian education system. The new approach could cost 2,300 teachers their jobs virtually overnight as they do not have required C1 language proficiency. This could cause some schools to run out of teachers altogether.

The risk of something like that materializing is considerable as the bill prescribes fines of up to €9,600. It is easier to find a new job early on instead of paying the government for the privilege of teaching children. While new teachers are trained every year, a few dozen cannot replace thousands needed. The bill offers a solution: a person with secondary education is suited to teach as long as they speak Estonian. Is this really the quality of education people in Estonia expect?

Schools that already teach mostly in Estonian will be "more or less" okay. Estonia has mandatory basic education, meaning that all students will end up in schools that manage to weather the initial storms. This will pose a new challenge to teachers and students of Estonian schools. The results of such a reform are very simple: weaker educational institutions will be all but destroyed, while stronger ones will spend long in a crisis, with study quality suffering greatly in both.

Working project terminated

The Ministry of Education and Research initiated a series of new programs for schools and kindergartens under Mailis Reps (Center Party) in 2018. Students received C1 level Estonian training, passed the exam and got proficiency certificates. A project called "Professional Estonian-speaking teacher in a Russian kindergarten class" was launched in kindergartens and elementary schools. When the education portfolio went to the Reform Party, the schools program was leveled. The party claimed that the money was wasted, that there were no results and axed the program.

The situation is even more interesting in kindergartens. Teachers' contracts are valid until August 2023. While it has not been suggested in so many words, hints coming out of the ministry suggest funding will not be extended. Talking to kindergartens that are participating in the project, all are deeply concerned. The Lasnamäe pilot project involves eight kindergartens and a total of 26 classes. Additional teachers allow the children in those classes to learn Estonian, as well as about Estonian traditions and customs, on a daily basis.

The results of the pilot were fantastic, while there is no information on the project's future and contracts with additional teachers are set to run their course in August of next year. Most of them will not stay because it is one thing to work as an assistant teacher who teaches language, while it is completely another to work as a full-time staff member who has to do everything and still organize language training for the same salary. What for?

Sincere wishes or politics?

Looking at the risks the bill entails and decisions coming out of the ministry, one is unfortunately left with the impression that the decisionmakers care not for whether children will speak more and better Estonian. They also do not care about the attitudes of non-Estonian-speaking children and their families toward Estonia, nor those of Estonian schools and Estonian families. Unfortunately, the general quality of education also seems to be of no concern.

The only discernible interest is to bring into effect a political decision that education in Estonia is exclusively in Estonian. That the education system will likely collapse as a result after a brief period is different government and Riigikogu's problem.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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