Penalties for schools delaying the transition to Estonian-language education have been raised to almost €10,000 - more than 10 times higher than the old fine. The Language Board (Keeleamet) has also been given the right to visit classrooms and check teachers' level of Estonian.
Until now, the Language Board has been able to issue fines of no more than €640 to education workers and institutions.
But from August 1, schools caught repeatedly breaking language requirements can be fined up to €9,600, the Ministry of Education and Research has decided.
Ingar Dubolazov, head of the ministry's transition to Estonian-language studies, said the higher rate is needed so schools will feel the effect.
"Because we have seen before with the fines that have been issued to individuals have not had an effect. And this new penalty rate applies to legal persons," he said.
Mayor of Narva Katri Raik said the increase sends a good message to city councilors, many of whom do not understand the importance of Estonian-language education.
"If, as a municipality, you have to spend €3,000 on five school principals, it's easy to find it in the budget. But if you have to find €50,000, even Narva's city councilors will start to wonder if this is a good idea," said Raik.
She said there are still people who believe the new requirements will not be implemented.
"It was difficult to make it clear to a Russian person that this transition was coming when there was no law, because the last change to the law was in 2007, and nothing had happened for 15 years. There is a lot to be said for all these soft things, but the change in the law put the issue on a different footing. But even today, there is still a lot of talk about how the power in Estonia will change - I don't know which way it will go - and it will pass," said Raik.
The Language Board's powers for assessing education workers have also been increased.
Agency workers will now be able to check what is happening in classrooms rather than only accessing teachers' level of Estonian from conversations.
"The checks so far have been rather formal. We look to see whether the teacher meets the language requirements and has passed the relevant level exams, but we don't know what he or she can do with the language in the classroom, which is the most important thing, but we know from the learning outcomes that they are not the best. We are not satisfied with the Estonian language skills of graduates from basic schools and even from upper secondary schools," said Ilmar Tomusk, director general of the Language Board.
Kohtla-Järve Slaavi Basic School is among the top five most fined schools for breaking language rules. It has received 22 fines this year.
Principal Svetlana Vladimirova said unfortunately, even people who have passed the C1 exam do not always have the required language skills.
"If a person obtained a C1 level 10 years ago and has not used the language in the meantime, then of course it will disappear. You need to have practiced the language to match the certificate. But yes, if you look at the certificate and reality, they are often different things," said Vladimirova, who is also Kohtla-Järve City Council's education and culture committee chairman.
Almost 200 fines have been issued to schools in Ida-Viru County this year by the Language Board. Fines have ranged between 30 and 400. The penalty prices depend on what efforts teachers have made to improve their language skills.
Ida-Virumaa Vocational Education Center had been issued the most penalties this year - 64. Narva Pähklimäe Gymnasium followed with 34 and Narva Soldino Gymnasium with 33.
In 2022, 211 fines were handed out to educational institutions.
There are approximately 2,500 educational workers in Estonia with insufficient knowledge of the Estonian language, the Language Board said.
The transition to Estonian-language education is set to begin in kindergartens grades 1 and 4 grades in 2024, with the aim of completing the process by 2030.
Editor: Helen Wright