According to Estonian Minister of Research and Education Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200), political inexperience is the main reason behind the party's recent decline in support. The minister said, that political parties need to be open about their internal goings on, and she does not blame anyone for reporting on Eesti 200's internal disagreements. However, Kallas added, that such disputes are common in any organization.
The results of this year's national school examinations made several issues related to the education system more visible to the public. Kallas said, that she was not satisfied with the results. "I think the exam results show us the problem areas we still have in education," she said.
In the case of the mathematics exam, the problem is not students' average grades, but the high number of those attaining scores at the lower end of the scale. There needs to be some serious reflection on why 23 percent of students fail to reach the minimum level in mathematics at the end of basic school. I think this is a problem in society. Let's try to understand what the problem is. Whether it is caused by a shortage of teachers, by the curriculum, by the fact that the pandemic has left its mark. We are trying to analyze it now," Kallas said.
The minister is also concerned about the drop in Estonian language exam scores for upper secondary school pupils over the years. According to Kallas, it is necessary to examine the situation more closely and consider whether any changes are needed to improve the situation. It may be for instance, that that there is a lack of qualified teachers or that the language is being taught in a way that does not enable the necessary students to acquire the necessary skills. "I feel that we need to draw our own conclusions from the exam results. If we go on like this and don't change anything, then it will be no better next year," she said.
Suggestions that the exam threshold might be abolished are incomprehensible to Kallas. "What that essentially means is, that at the end of the day, you don't have to make an effort to show that you are at the minimum level," the minister said.
According to Kallas, the problem also lies in the order the exams are taken. Basic school pupils first take entrance exams to get into high school, and then sit their final basic school exams at a later time. In her view, this creates unnecessary stress and pressure for students. The ministry has therefore been discussing ways to make exam schedules more logical from the students' point of view.
Support staff also need a pay raise
The shortage of support staff is a concern when it comes to inclusive education, and teachers are also under more pressure than in previous years, Kallas said. The shortage of support staff is also down to school owners lacking funds. "In that area, we have moved to increase the size of the salary differentiation fund for local authorities and school governors, so that it can also be used to provide more resources, not only for teachers, but for all the professionals, who work in schools," Kallas said.
The education minister noted, that as a teacher she has seen the positive results of inclusive education for students, who were not previously able to study at university. "Perhaps we, as a society, have given more children the opportunity to achieve higher educational qualifications because of the fact that we have implemented inclusive education," she said.
According to the National Audit Office of Estonia, a third of pupils studying at Russian-language schools do not have a sufficient level of Estonian. Kallas said, the audit results came as no surprise to her, as she is well aware of the situation.
The minister also pointed out, that the audit had been conducted before the government's decision to switch to Estonian-language teaching. The ministry has since been thoroughly monitoring the situation in the country's Russian-language schools. While results vary widely, overall, they do corroborate the National Audit Office's findings.
Kallas said, that the plan for the transition to Estonian-language education is comprehensive and all the necessary resources have been accounted for. "The current situation is bad, however, I am optimistic that we will really deal with it. For the first time in 30 years, the Estonian state has really committed to this," she said.
In addition to Estonian language levels via proficiency tests, the ministry also monitors students' abilities in mathematics and science. According to the minister, it must not end up being the case that pupils acquire the necessary Estonian language skills at the expense of other subjects such as mathematics for example.
"One concern we have not been able to solve through legal means is in cases where results are poor. If a school is run by a local authority, we have no mechanisms to intervene," said Kallas. The National Audit Office also recommended creating the necessary mechanisms to do this.
The ministry wants to be involved in decisions related to school closures. The guidelines for closing schools or reducing the number of grades taught, have so far been too general and led to decisions that are not in the best interests of pupils, Kallas said. In her view, Ida-Viru County is a good example of a region, where the ministry has been involved in these kinds of decisions.
Decline in party support down to inexperience
Eesti 200's support has fallen significantly in recent weeks. According to Kallas, this is at least partly due to the party's lack of political experience.
"None of us could have imagined that the two-month period of learning, both in the Riigikogu and in government, would turn out to be as intense and difficult as it has," she said.
"There are so many political pitfalls out there that it's absolutely inevitable mistakes will happen at some point. This hasn't changed the reason why Eesti 200 entered into politics and what we can do," Kallas said.
According to Kallas, Eesti 200 will start implementing its plans more fully from the fall. "We've just had to learn a little bit and super-fast. It's been more painful than we expected, this learning process, but we've learned," she said.
Kallas pointed out, that internal conflicts happen in all types of organizations, adding that she would not refer to Eesti 200's recent disputes as scandals. "In the case of political parties, it's just being brought to the attention of the public. I wouldn't say that Eesti 200 have any more internal disputes than the others."
On the issue of Estonian NGO Slava Ukraini's alleged misuse of funds, Kallas said, that politicians wanted to know whether all the suspicions reported in the media were true before reacting. However, she also said, that political responsibility should have been taken earlier. "Perhaps we did not have the skill to realize, that political responsibility and real legal responsibility are different things. That legal responsibility cannot be expected, but political responsibility ought to have been taken before we knew if they were true," Kallas said.
Kallas pointed out that, according to the audit carried out on Slava Ukraini, the situation was not as bad as had initially been suggested.
There have also been questions within the party regarding allegations that personal data belonging to members of the party's Tallinn branch may have been misused. According to Kallas, the party will resolve that issue next week when it sits down in private.
Kallas said, that media interest in such issues is justified, because political parties exercise power, use taxpayers' money, having been entrusted to do so by voters. "Parties have to be open. From the inside too. Everything that goes on in a political party has to be transparent and visible to the public. I don't blame anyone for the fact that our dispute has been exposed to the public. That is a perfectly normal thing and that's the way it should be for political parties. All I'm saying is, that it's nothing out of the ordinary," she said.
There have also been disagreements among members of Eesti 200's parliamentary group over, who should perform the role of chair for the Riigikogu's Environmental Affairs Committee. Current Tarmo Tamm, was set to be replaced by Züleyxa Izmailova. According to Kallas, the group will have to discuss the issue and find a solution by the fall.
Editor: Michael Cole