As many as a third of pupils in Estonian schools which still use Russian as a language of instruction are being held back in progress beyond mandatory, basic-level school education, the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll) says.
This means an "exceptional effort" will need to be made in order to meet government goals of transitioning to all-Estonian education within the next few years, the office says.
The target level of language proficiency is set at B1 in the Common European Framework (CEF), roughly corresponding to intermediate standard – also the level required to obtain Estonian citizenship.
Auditor General Janar Holm found that: "Issues with language proficiency have been known about for a long time, but they remain unresolved."
For many years, the education ministry has been aware of the poor language level displayed by graduates of Russian-language basic schools, the audit office says.
At the same time, the ministry has not considered direct intervention or the direct imposition of sanctions as falling within its purview.
From the perspective of the ministry, language proficiency is simply one learning outcome among many, which must be mastered before graduating from basic school (Põhikool), the audit office argues.
However, this shortcoming affects the future education of students as few that have not attained the B1 level by the end of basic school then go on to Estonian-language higher education.
The mandatory basic school is followed by optional high school (Gümnaasium) in the secondary sector, and then tertiary education.
According to experts, the audit office says, the current number of Estonian language lessons taught at basic school as prescribed in the national curriculum is sufficient to attain the required language proficiency as a minimum. In fact, it is sufficient even to attain the higher, B2 level in the CEF – roughly corresponding to upper intermediate level.
In a report published today, Thursday, June 8, the National Audit Office finds that the Tartu-based Ministry of Education and Research should be much more active and systematic in ensuring the requisite level of Estonian language training in all schools.
The National Audit Office also notes that teachers and heads of school who themselves do not even meet the language requirements have been able to continue in their positions, often for very long periods of time, not the least because qualified teachers with the right grasp of Estonian are thin on the ground in some areas.
Heads of school, as employers, have had great difficulties in finding Estonian language teachers and teachers teaching in Estonian, the audit office says, while support from municipalities, as school administrators, in addressing this issue, has been sporadic.
Both local government and the state must exhibit "greater fastidiousness" in resolving this, the audit office says.
Auditor General Holm said: "In order for students to be well familiar with the Estonian language that their teachers to know the Estonian language is a necessary prerequisite."
According to the Ministry of Education and Research, the language proficiency of 1,300 teachers of Russian-language basic schools fails not meet the required level – in this case B2 when teaching in the Russian language, or C1 (proficiency) when teaching in the Estonian language, or teaching the Estonian language as either a foreign language or a native language.
By 2030 at the latest, all teachers will be required to be at language level C1, which means that the number of teachers who need additional language training will increase even more.
While, as things stand, completing the nine grades at basic school will expose students even in Russian-language schools to at least 1,050 Estonian language classes, the stated aim of 90 percent of those finishing basic school in Russian-language schools being at B1 level in Estonian, has not been met.
Over the period 2005-2020, only 63 percent have attained this level, the audit office says.
A more continuous overview of the teacher's actual language proficiency is required – the audit revealed that the data on teachers' language proficiency available via registers does not reflect their actual language proficiency, either, nor is the data adequately organized and reliable as a basis for making important decisions on education.
The audited local governments have mostly not implemented measures that would motivate school staff to improve their language proficiency, such as additional funding, training and cooperation projects.
At the same time, there is also no more rigorous control that would pressure school staff to decisively improve their proficiency in Estonian and bring it up to meet the requirements.
Even if the poor language skills of school staff are identified, the problem remains unresolved. To improve language proficiency, it is necessary to find a solution to combine language training and work.
Other issues include the fact that only approximately one-fifth of graduates of basic school have studied in language immersion classes in Estonian.
By way of a solution, the Ministry of Education and Research should develop clear criteria for which problems, to what extent and with which methods the ministry should intervene in the management of schools in order to help schools in a weaker position along in transitioning to Estonian-language education. From the next academic year, the transition to Estonian-language education will begin in the 1st and 4th grades, and the need for teachers proficient in Estonian will gradually increase.
The transition to Estonian-language education within the proposed schedule is a task that requires an exceptionally big effort, given the above, the office finds.
In fact, if anything Estonian-language standards among non-native speakers are slipping, the audit office says, citing statistics that show 78 percent of 6th grade students reading A2 (elementary) level Estonian in 2015, compared with 43 percent of 7th grade students doing so in 2022.
The audit office's survey excluded private schools and special education schools, and covered the years 2005-2020. A total of 90 schools with 6,658 school staff and 41,591 basic school graduates were surveyed.
The planned transition to Estonian-language education is to begin in 2024, with the reform scheduled to be completed in 2030.
A B1 level language user is supposed to be able to talk about a familiar topic, such as work, school, leisure, and describe experiences, events, dreams and goals, and give a brief explanation and description of their views and plans.
This level of speaker should also be able to convey the contents of a story, book or movie, presumably one they have read or seen, and describe his or her impressions therefrom.
The main goal of the transition to Estonian-language education is to provide all Estonian children, regardless of their mother tongue, with the opportunity to acquire high-quality Estonian-language education.
Editor: Andrew Whyte