A recent analysis identified the biggest challenges in education, linked to the age of teachers, the confusing division of roles and other shortcomings in national education governance.
Praxis analyst Sandra Haugas told Vikerraadio's "Huvitaja" program that teacher shortages remain a major school issue. "There has been much discussion, but the situation is indeed quite serious and there is no positive trend," she said.
Over half of teachers are 50 plus years old, while the average age of teachers in OECD countries is 34. The National Audit Office (NAO) estimates that half of Estonia's teachers could retire by 2035 if the trend continues and young instructors are scarce.
Haugas said that teaching is getting more popular and more young people are entering teacher training, but half of the students do not become teachers. Third of graduates who become teachers quit in their first year. "There are a number of reasons for this, but these often boil down to the issue of pay," she said.
Another issue is the very demanding workload. The fact that our national curriculum is very dense is rarely mentioned. "Curriculum teachers feel pressure to push themselves and their students through these subjects. It prevents them from developing and using innovative methods," the analyst continued.
Praxis also found governance issues in public education. Haugas links this to a lack of clarity about state, local and private sector obligations. "One of the most remarkable examples of state policy supporting tiny rural schools and creating assistance measures is Metsküla Primary School. Families want the school to continue, but the local government doesn't. Thus, the three major education stakeholders disagree. Children ultimately suffer from this lack of clarity," Haugas said.
International research have found Estonian general education teachers lacking. Haugas claims Estonian instructors utilize less assessment methods than other OECD nations. Perhaps students often receive numerical assessments but not verbal feedback. This also means that there is little personalized approach in Estonia.
Students who study in a mother tongue other than Estonian are disadvantaged
The analysis looked at how well Estonia has done in educating children in other languages.
Unfortunately, Russian schoolchildren struggle with Estonian. "However, the state prioritized this objective to guarantee a fair labor market and equal higher education opportunities for all young people," she said.
The fact that learning outcomes in Russian schools are substantially lower than those in Estonian schools is another indicator. "If you look at the PISA surveys, the gap in subjects is roughly one year, which is a significant difference, and there has been no positive trend in recent years," she said. Haugas said that with such a starting point, the transition to teaching entirely in Estonian in all institutions cannot be particularly smooth.
Educational inequality is also an important issue. Educational inequality in this context means that some children or families have different educational opportunities. Some would probably say, "But that is what we want in a modern society: a wide range of educational options. That is certainly correct, however I believe the issue arises when different social groups have differing educational opportunities and outcomes," Triin Lauri, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Tallinn, said.
Society is not holding together
Lauri said that inequalities in education contribute to social divisions, which is why society is no longer cohesive. "Because different social groups have nothing to talk about, some people may feel isolated from society. As a result, there is a lack of agreement on issues. The educational system has the immense capacity to bring society together," the associate professor explained.
Although international studies indicate that there is little educational inequality in Estonia, Lauri said that it is worthwhile to examine the data in greater detail. In Estonia, educational opportunities and outcomes vary primarily between schools, as opposed to within schools. According to Lauri, the Estonian educational system is heavily dependent on place of residence. A child typically attends the school nearest to his or her home. Nonetheless, the fact that communities are distinct plays a role here. So the school of residence can generate substantial educational inequalities.
When schools choose which students to enroll, educational inequality also arises. "The earlier this occurs, the more dangerous it becomes. In other words, when a school chooses a child for first grade, it is also choosing a family. Children are graded on how well they are prepared, i.e., how well they were prepared at home. In other words, such a school system enhances the child's existing social advantage, which is the exact opposite of what the school system should be doing," she said.
Lauri said that schools in Estonia work under very different conditions: there are schools with between 15 and 1500 children. "In this context, it is quite surprising that the differences between our rural and urban schools in Estonia are actually quite small. We have very strong rural schools and educational inequality is not the face of rural schools. In Estonia, unfortunately, educational inequality is the face of Russian schools," she said. The differences in results between Estonian and Russian schools in Tallinn are much greater than between rural and urban schools, she said.
Free higher education was argued to minimize educational inequality. Lauri examined how free higher education has enhanced access to education: one finding was that rural youth's access to higher education has not been improved.
Lauri said that there is an explanation for it: "If today's free higher education requires students to study full-time, but the studentship allowances are comparatively meager, then a young person must have another source of income to move from the countryside to the city," she said.
Access to higher education for rural adolescents has not improved, but the percentage of students graduating within the nominal time has increased. "So perhaps then this goal of free higher education was easily attained," Lauri said.
Editor: Kristina Kersa
Source: Vikerraadio "Huvitaja"