Student shortages force several Estonian schools to close
Several Estonian municipalities are considering closing some schools from the fall as the number of children in attendance has fallen to unreasonably low levels. At the same time, a number of Estonian high schools are planning to operate as basic schools going forward.
In less than two months, there will be greater clarity regarding which schools in Estonia will no longer operate from the fall. By law, school owners in Estonia must notify the Ministry of Education of any decision to reorganize or close permanently at least five months before the start of the next school year.
The ministry has already been informed that Aravete School in Järva Municipality, which until now has operated as a high school, will revert to being a basic school from the fall. In Viljandi Municipality too, Kalmetu Basic School will merge with a local kindergarten and change its name to "Kalmetu School."
In Põhja-Pärnumaa Municipality, Pärnjõe Basic School and Kindergarten will close three of its grades, while the Oskar Luts Palamuse High School in Jõgeva Municipality will also operate as a basic school from the fall.
Asso Nettan, deputy mayor of Jõgeva Municipality, told ERR that the change was being implemented due to the low number of students at the school. When the decision was made last spring, the Oskar Luts Palamuse High School had just three children studying in grade 10, seven in grade 11 and 12 in the last grade.
When the decision was made, a transition period was factored in, so tenth graders at the school were transferred to Jõgeva State High School and the last group of students to graduate this spring will be those currently in the 11th grade.
"Things went the way they did. Municipalities don't close schools, it's up to us, but if there are no children, then there is no need for a school," Nettan said.
Nettan added, that it has long been state policy in Estonia for the government to take responsibility for the organization of secondary education and that the closure of the Palamuse school was a natural result of this.
The small number of students had also made it difficult to provide opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities, which are an important aspect of school life.
The deputy mayor added, that the school's closure would not result in teachers being unemployed, as they will instead continue working at Palamuse Basic School.
Lääneranna Municipality concerned about lack of children
In Lääneranna Municipality, Pärnu County, discussions are taking place regarding the possible closure of Metsküla Elementary School and Lõpe Basic School, with a decision expected by the end of March. Lääneranna Municipality Mayor Ingvar Saare stressed, that no decision had been taken yet, but added, that changes were definitely needed. According to Saare, the main problems are the lack of pupils and the poor state of the school buildings.
"We need to look at what services it makes sense to provide, as well as where and in what form the can be provided. We also need to see how far the purse strings can stretch, so we are looking at all the possible areas," he said.
According to Saare, the municipality is aiming to ensure, that there are kindergartens as well as schooling available for children in the first four grades in every district. The municipality also aims to make sure school buildings, which are in poor condition, no longer need to be used.
As things stand, it makes no financial sense to build a new primary school or renovate an existing premises to cater for just 30 children, when there is already another school 15 kilometers away, which can be reached easily due to good bus connections.
Lääneranna Municipality currently has four primary schools, with 27, 38, 45 and 50 students respectively. However, Saare pointed out, that in the bigger picture, this is a small amount of children and there may be even fewer in the future. Questions have also been raised about the amount of money the municipality spends on bringing small numbers of children to schools by separate buses from distant locations, when they could simply attend different schools elsewhere.
"In this sense, we are victims of habit. There are still certain routines being followed, from before the merger of municipalities, and we have not yet become accustomed to the way the new municipality works," Saare said. He added, that it might be best to shake things up a little and see what happens.
Nine children study in a 400-seat house in Mõisakülä.
In Mulgi Rural Municipality, Viljandi County, the Mõisaküla School, which has just nine students, is a concern. Municipality Mayor Imre Jugomäe said, that last week representatives of the municipality had met with the school's staff and parents to discuss the issue.
"If we look at the number of children aged six to ten in Mõisaküla, then there could be about 30 (attending the school), but for some reason, there are only nine children in four classes, or two composite classes. This shows that the children are here (in the municipality -ed.) but the decision has been made to send them to another school. We were trying to understand what the factors might be that influenced parents to make this choice," he said.
According to Jugomäe, on one hand, the problem seems to stem from the learning environment. The school building can accommodate up to 400 students and is far from ideal for such a small number of children. On the other hand, the Mõisaküla kindergarten is full of children and there is even a queue for places. So, the municipality wanted to gather information from the parents of children, who will be moving on to basic school soon, to gain a better understanding of the reasons for their choices.
Jugomäe said, that a decision needs to be made about whether to work towards increasing the number of students attending the school. He pointed out, that for a small town with just over 700 inhabitants, one primary school with four classes would be optimal.
As soon as the next school year, a child could be taken to a larger school up to 10 kilometers away. However, with the current number of students, running the school is not economically viable, with the learning environment also suffering as the social and support structure children require cannot be guaranteed on such a small scale.
"At the moment, nothing has been decided," said Jugomäe, adding that the school would not be closed this fall.
Changes are also in store for some educational establishments in Ida-Viru County. In Narva, the Narva Central High School, Kreenholm High School, Pähklimäe High School and Soldino High School will all operate as basic schools. At the same time, two new state owned high schools are also due to open in the city.
In Sillamäe, Ida-Viru County, the high school and the Estonian elementary school will both be nationalized. The high school will also move to the building of the Ida-Viru County Vocational Education Center (Kutsehariduskeskus).
Sillamäe's increasingly popular Estonian Basic School will move to the high school's current premises. There are also plans to merge the Vanalinna and Kannuka elementary schools.
This fall, three new state high schools are set to open in Tallinn's Tõnismäe, Mustamäe and Pelgulinn districts.
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Editor: Michael Cole