Estonia's Russian-language schools face tough choices over new curriculum

Whiteboard in a school classroom with Estonian writing on it. Photo is illustrative.
Whiteboard in a school classroom with Estonian writing on it. Photo is illustrative. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The new Estonian language school curriculum, which comes into effect in the fall, will present heads of Russian-language schools in the country with a difficult choice. The number of lessons being taught in Estonian is set to increase significantly, however, the shortage of suitably qualified teachers means some "group teaching" will have to be dropped.

Under the current curriculum, children in Estonia's Russian-language schools have to have 2 hours of Estonian lessons a week at the elementary school level and 4 hours at basic school.

Starting from September 1, this will increase to four hours of Estonian lessons a week for elementary school pupils and five hours a week for those attending basic schools.

Andrei Kante, head of the Lasnamäe Russian High School in Tallinn, said, that while this is a " long-awaited and welcome change, there is another side to the coin."

"At the moment, for example, our school can offer three full-time teachers of Estonian as a second language. Next year we will need two more," Kante said.

According to Kante, finding new teachers is extremely difficult and there are already some on temporary contracts, who do not meet the current requirements in terms of qualifications. At the moment, classes of students are divided into two roughly equal halves for Estonian lessons.

As Lasnamäe schools are overcrowded, children currently study Estonian in groups of 14 or 15.

"If we can't find these teachers, then unfortunately we will have to give up on 'group teaching.' This means that we will have to take a class-by-class approach. That is, one teacher for a whole class of pupils. This cannot be considered a very effective teaching approach," said Kante.

According to Vjatšeslav Konovalov, director of Narva's Pähklimäe High School, finding Estonian teachers in the border town is difficult in any case. However, the opening of two new state high schools in Narva this fall should help to attract teachers to the city.

"There is also the problem that the textbooks for Russian-language schools are based on the current number of lessons. If this increases by two hours, or one hour in basic schools, there will be a big question mark when it comes to the textbooks," he said.

Ingar Dubolazov, head of the Estonian Ministry of Education's transition to Estonian-language teaching, said schools were free to choose their own teaching materials.

"The increase in the number of lessons may lead to a need for differentiation when it comes to some teaching materials," said Dubolazov. "However, in general, I would say that changing the number of lessons to this extent will not immediately lead to a surge in the need for (new) teaching materials," he added.

Although teacher training options have been increased significantly, the ministry has no immediate solution to the teacher shortage. According to Dubolazov, its task now involves finding ways to encourage people to pursue a career in teaching.

"When looking at policy regarding teachers as a whole, we also need to think about how and what the flexible transition options are for those for whom teaching is a second or third career," he said.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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