Kallas: Both ministry and schools failed to prepare transition to Estonian

Coalition negotiation press conference March 21, 2023.
Coalition negotiation press conference March 21, 2023. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Minister of Education and Research Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) reacted to the National Audit Office's report, saying that she is aware of the problems identified in the audit and that the ministry has begun actively monitoring the situation.

Despite completing at least 1,050 hours of Estonian during their nine years of basic education, one-third of students in schools which teach in the Russian language do not reach the target level of B1, which would enable them to continue their studies successfully in the next level of education.

The National Audit Office believes that both increasing the level of Estonian language instruction and transitioning to teaching subjects in Estonian require more instructors with Estonian language skills, as well as higher demands from state and local authorities.

"I cannot say I was surprised; we all knew about it," Kallas said at the government press conference on Thursday.

During the pandemic hiatus, the number of B1 passers has decreased, and Kallas predicts that learning outcomes will continue to decline over the next five years.

"It is also true that the Ministry of Education has not managed or monitored the objectives for teaching Estonian as a second language. Regarding this, I have nothing more to say than that the ministry has neglected to carry out its responsibilities," Kallas said.

"Today, we are in the process of monitoring all institutions that teach in Russian. We have evaluated half of them so far. By the end of this year, all schools should have been checked, and this time the inspections will be more comprehensive, meaning that we will not only examine the Estonian language proficiency certificates of teachers, but we will also look at how Estonian is taught in the classrooms," the minister said.

According to Kallas, monitoring has so far revealed nothing encouraging. "These are good schools, but the problems run deep," she said, adding that the language issue in vocational schools is even more dire.

Wednesday, Kallas met with representatives of the Tallinn city administration and agreed to identify the institutions that require additional support.

Kõlvart: The study of the Estonian language has not been systematized nor adequately resourced

Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) said he agrees with the findings of the State Audit Office that show that the current organization of Estonian language teaching has not ensured adequate language skills among graduates of schools which teach in the Russian language.

"Today we have to admit that the problems are not only limited to Russian schools, but the entire Estonian schooling system is at risk. The teaching of Estonian language in high schools, but also for adults, has been done without a unified management and system, relying primarily on EU funds. The shortage of instructors is fundamental and existential, and the source of the problem is the higher education system. The demand for teachers of subjects in Estonian has been insufficient and there is even a shortage of people to teach teachers."

Kõlvart said that the state has done essentially nothing to enable a smooth transition to Estonian-language instruction in schools that currently teach in the Russian language, that would also not affect negatively the quality of education, pupils or teachers.

"Both Estonian and Russian schools are now competing for the same pool of teachers and the situation will probably get worse as the transition progresses. Also, Russian-speaking families are increasingly enrolling their children in Estonian schools. According to the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, the municipality is required to provide school places close to home, rather than on the basis of mother language. At the same time, teaching children with a different mother tongue means special methods and resources that schools have not received.

"In 2024, we will start the transition to teaching in Estonian in general primary education in the first and fourth grades, again without necessary preparation. In Tallinn alone, there is a shortage of nearly 700 kindergarten teachers with C1 Estonian language skills. There will be a shortage of 144 teachers of the same level in the first and fourth grades, rising to 290 in 2025. Although the Ministry of Education and Research and the city organize training and language courses for teachers, it is not physically possible to significantly increase the number of teachers within a few years. Teachers' workload should be lowered and their working conditions improved, but now the opposite is happening."

According to Kõlvart, the potential of language immersion, which has proved successful, has not been fully exploited and now the state wants to abandon this methodology altogether by 2027.

"At the same time, we know that young people who attend language immersion classes are 4.5 times more likely than their peers to enroll in higher education. According to the National Audit Office's report, barely one-fifth of Russian schoolchildren have benefited from effective language learning approaches such as integrated subject and language learning, including early language immersion."

"The National Audit Office study expressly indicates that the Ministry of Education and Research must support local governments and schools more systematically than before. Resolving transition-related issues cannot be left to school administrators and local governments alone. Tallinn is prepared to collaborate constructively with the ministry in order to mitigate any possible adverse consequences of the transition and ensure the quality of education in all schools," the mayor said.


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Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Kristina Kersa

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