Coalition proposes sweeping changes to vocational education

Kristina Kallas.
Kristina Kallas. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

To make vocational education more attractive, the governing coalition is considering a major overhaul. For instance, vocational secondary education will be extended to four years, Estonian language instruction will get a boost, and a special engineering academy program will be launched.

In 2015-2016, the Ministry of Education and Research reported that more than 4,000 students were registered in upper secondary vocational education and more than 9,000 students were enrolled in general upper secondary education.

The number of students registered in upper secondary vocational education decreased slightly during the previous academic year, while the number of students enrolled in general upper secondary education increased by 1,500.

So while the public discusses the increasing popularity of vocational education and training, the data indicate the opposite trend.

"I wouldn't say vocational education is unpopular, but the issue with it is that there is a high drop-out rate in the first year," Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200), minister of education and research, told Vikerraadio on Uudis+ program.

The governing coalition vowed in the coalition agreement to make vocational education and training more appealing.

"Vocational education and training, particularly post-basic school vocational education and training, are about to undergo considerable transformations," Kallas said. "It is not simply a matter of conducting an information campaign or popularizing. The reason why, after basic school, upper secondary school is preferable to vocational school is still because of the curricula." 

The biggest challenge, according to Kallas, is the insufficient study program in vocational schools, which reduces the likelihood of going on to university.

The government's goal, as indicated in the strategy, is to enhance the proportion of upper secondary education curriculum within vocational education, which means that the latter will be replaced with four-year upper secondary vocational curriculum.

Kallas admitted that vocational schools are already transforming their identities and becoming more like educational and technological hubs.

While currently about 70 percent of basic school pupils continue on to general secondary school, Kallas is aiming for it to become more like in other European countries, where there is a traditional 50-50 split.

"I would be satisfied with my task if we had 50-60 percent of our students attending academic upper secondary school and 40-50 percent attending vocational upper secondary school, or if we had 50-50 situation," Kallas said, adding that she expects to see some changes in this trend in the next two or three years.

Kallas predicted that after obligatory schooling till the age of 18 is put into effect, the popularity of vocational education would rise. "It is now our task to reform it," she said.

According to Kallas the reform planning is still in its early phases. The action plan will not be finalized until the amount of funding required is determined in the second half of next year. Individual modifications, including four-year curriculum trial projects, will begin already this school year.

Estonia has 35 vocational education and training institutions. Last year, almost 25,000 people attended vocational education centers: 13,000 men and 12,000 women.

Extra year for learning Estonian

Triin Laasi-Õige, head of the Estonian Association for Advancement of Vocational Education (EKEÜ), wrote in July in Õpetajate Leht that the poor quality of Estonian teaching in vocational schools is a major worry. She also proposed that the nominal period of vocational education be prolonged by a year to make room for language learning.

Kallas agreed that this is an issue, but explained that the reason is rather that the language is not properly taught in basic school.

"These children end up in vocational education without even having B1 level Estonian language skills; in other words, they will not be able to study in Estonian," Kallas said. "This is not only a problem for children who speak Russian as their first language. There are now many children of Ukrainian origin who have spent insufficient time in Estonian schools."

The Ministry of Education and Research is now looking at the possibility of providing an additional academic year of Estonian language study at vocational institutions for young people who fail entrance exams due to poor language skills. The majority of the additional year would be spent on studying Estonian.

According to Kallas, the government's current concern is money, and they are vigorously seeking funding for the initiative.

Engineering Academy

There are proposals to establish an engineering academy in the government's action plan for vocational education and training.

"The Engineering Academy is a four-year study similar to the IT Academy. The funds for this initiative are provided by EU grants, with about €40 million being set aside for the next five years," Kallas explained.

The project aims to advance scientific, technology and engineering disciplines in universities, vocational schools and general education. This involves revising or developing entirely new curricula, bringing in top specialists from around the world, and sponsoring hobby circles and special workshops. The goal is to train the next generation of technology, manufacturing, construction and engineering professionals.

The Teachers' Academy, which enhances teacher training in universities, is a comparable project.

Extra funds, according to Kallas, have been channeled to ensure that there are competent teachers who can train new teachers.

According to Kallas, there is also a labor deficit in Estonia, which makes it difficult to locate trained specialists for vocational schools. The situation has deteriorated due to the general shortage of new teachers, particularly in science and technology. "We hope to sign a cooperation agreement with the universities on this matter by the end of this year," Kallas added.


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Editor: Nele Leit-Teetlaus, Kristina Kersa

Source: Uudis+

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