'AK.Nädal' investigates why teachers in Estonia not paid dignified wages

High school.
High school. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The teachers' strike is back in the air due to low pay. Even though Estonia invests more than 6 percent of GDP in education, twice as much as it invests in security, and more than many European countries invest in education, we still fail to pay teachers a decent salary.

Teachers are the only public sector employees whose salaries will increase in the coming year; however, the promised 8 percent pay increase was reduced to 1.77 percent.

"Let's be honest, it is €29 minus tax. First and foremost, it is even a reduction in real earnings. We were promised a 8 percent raise, received 1 percent raise, and now earn even less than before," Maigi Varusk, German teacher at Miina Härma High School, said.

"This is complete nonsense. If the coalition agreement stipulates that teachers' pay must be equal to other higher education professionals by 2027, but foresees a 1.7 percent pay increase for the following year and no pay increases for the next three years, we are not approaching this goal and are in fact moving away from it at an alarming rate," Reemo Voltri, head of the Education Workers' Union, said.

Minister of Education Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) said that the 1.7 percent increase in the minimum wage was also the result of a lot of hard work, as every cent had to be fought for in the state budget discussions.

"We also left Vihula late at night because we couldn't agree to raise teachers' pay. During the state budget discussions, the leading party (Reform - ed.) said that we would not raise salaries at all, but rather freeze them. Finally, we settled on a 4.3 percent increase in average teacher compensation," Kallas said.

However, educators expect more. Maigi Varusk, a German teacher, said that she is prepared to strike. In addition to her full-time work, she has earned additional income by managing the school's social media accounts. She is also an aerobics coach.

"I have been taking on extra responsibilities in order to keep my employment. I've had that feeling of dread many times as a teacher, when I walk to the Swedbank atm to punch in a password, thinking about how much work I have actually done within the school's walls and how much I'll have left after paying my bills," Varusk said.

Estonia spends 6.6 percent of gross domestic product on education. But why is this not reflected in teachers' salaries?

"Maybe we spend on other things - building fancy school buildings, maybe too fancy compared to other countries. All kinds of calculations show that Estonia could more or less manage with 70 secondary schools. Today, there are many times more of them for different reasons. There is certainly food for thought here," former minister of education and current education cost model development consultant at the ministry, Jaak Aaviksoo, said.

Another major issue, according to Minister Kallas, is that wage money is distributed unequally.

The state distributes teachers' salary among local governments into two pots. The first pot is the minimum salary, which all teachers must receive a certain portion of. The second is the differentiation fund, which is expected to increase to 20 percent of the total salary bill in the coming year. Its purpose is to pay bonuses for classroom management or additional teacher qualifications.

It is up to school leaders and management to decide how and to whom the money from the differentiating fund is paid out. This, according to the education minister, is the source of much of the problem.

"If we increase the average teacher's salary by 4.3 percent, the additional funds must go to teachers' salaries and not to sustaining an inefficient school network or to extra hours at the expense of a pay increase. The wage fund allotted to municipalities by the state should adequately cover the average wage increase," Kallas said.

There are also schools where salaries are paid on the basis of a fixed career ladder; for example, in Võru and Kadrina high schools. In many schools, however, teachers only get extra pay by taking on extra work that leads to teacher burnout and resignation.

"If you take on a lot of extra duties, what happens to the main task?" Varusk asked.

Ten years ago, different pay grades were set nationally for junior teachers, senior teachers and teacher-coordinator. These were abolished in 2013 by then-education minister Jaak Aaviksoo.

"Some have a paper [qualification], but the results are not quite what it says. That's where the decision comes in. I am all for giving principals more powers, but headteachers are also different and some may be more supportive of their relatives and friends than focusing academic performance. A difficult question," Aaviksoo said.

"Ten years later, we have to realize that the decision made in 2013 has not produced the expected results. So we cannot continue in this vain. The plan now is that when we start salary negotiations again next year, we will have the first version of the career model in place by then," Kallas said.

At a time when the ministry is drafting plans to reorganize the school network and a new career model for teachers in order to find the money to pay them, a new teachers' strike is already looming. If the dispute between the teachers' union and the Ministry of Education and Research is not resolved by the national conciliator, the teachers will stop working.

"Certainly, the minimum rate for teachers has to rise significantly more than 1.77 percent, and we need to reach some kind of concrete agreement for the coming years," the head of the teachers' union, Voltri, listed the conditions for calling off the strike.


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Editor: Marko Tooming, Kristina Kersa

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