Ossinovski: Estonia's segregated school system has to go

Jevgeni Ossinovski (SDE).
Jevgeni Ossinovski (SDE). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonia has to do away with its segregated school system and gradually transition to the multicultural school model, finds Social Democratic Party (SDE) MP and former education minister Jevgeni Ossinovski.

Chiming in on recent comments made by Tallinn Deputy Mayor of Education Andrei Kante (Center) regarding the possibility of Estonian-speaking students ending up in predominantly Russian-speaking schools next year, as well as the critical response they already drew, Ossinovski said that it certainly won't happen that a native Estonian-speaking child will somehow by chance end up in a classroom with 20 or more Russian-speaking kids.

"It is theoretically possible that if a parent fails to submit a school application in time, then they may be assigned to a school close to home," Ossinovski said in an appearance on Vikerraadio's "Uudis+" on Tuesday.

"But of course in a situation like that, the [Tallinn] Education Department will communicate with each parent specifically and find a solution so that a native Estonian-speaking child can attend school together with other native Estonian-speaking children," he continued. "So there's no point in overemphasizing this particular concern."

According to the former education minister, it's already apparent that the parents of native Russian-speaking children increasingly want to enroll their children in Estonian-language schools from next year.

"This is definitely going to start increasingly happening, and that's really the core task — how can we establish a multicultural school model in a way that doesn't affect the quality of education," he highlighted. "We know that we'll have a greater need to accept Russian-speaking students at Estonian-speaking schools starting next year. We know that Tallinn's schools are currently very full already."

Ossinovski also criticized the understanding that "some politicians, among them Mr. [Tõnis] Lukas, have expressed" that the nationwide transition to Estonian-language education is something that affects "those Russian children in those Russian schools" and that "this doesn't affect everyone else," calling such a position inadequate.

"It's even methodologically inadequate," he added.

The SDE MP said that in order to genuinely promote integration, improve language learning and put an end to a separate school system, Estonia has to gradually transition to the multicultural school model.

"Which means that Estonian- and Russian-speaking children would attend school together," he explained. "And that's actually the core issue of this reform. And we also know that this is going to happen anyway, regardless of any political decisions, because the parents of Russian-speaking children are increasingly making these decisions. And the question for us — and by "us" I mean the Estonian state, both the Ministry of Education as well as the City of Tallinn and every school — is how can we manage to apply this multicultural school model in such a way that no one's quality of education suffers."

Ossinovski highlighted that various international studies have indicated that if the share of native speakers of other languages grows too large, there ends up being a line.

"Studies say that if it's more than 10 percent — and for certain support measures that can surely be several times higher than that as well — but there still ends up being that line beyond which other children's quality of education starts to suffer," he acknowledged. "So that's definitely something for which we need to create reasonable models in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and provide schools with additional personnel in order to make this work."

The former education minister admitted that this issue has been debated a lot already, but not conclusively.

"I've argued with representatives of various parties as well," he said. "But when [former Isamaa chair] Helir-Valdor Seeder says that he certainly wouldn't be offering up his own child as a lab rat to the multicultural school model, then you can see that there are in fact quite a lot of such attitudes along the lines of 'Let those Russians there in their own Russian schools improve their Estonian language skills somehow.'"

Ossinovski reiterated that Estonian society has to come to the understanding that the transition to Estonian-language education means the gradual phasing out of the country's segregated school system. "And that means that Estonian- and Russian-speaking children are going to start attending school together," he emphasized.

"Of course it can be said that doing this entails great risks — it does," he continued. "And that is precisely why this matter must be approached very methodically, systemically and calmly. And indeed to reach such school management solutions that will ensure that the education of both Estonian-language children as well as Russian-language or whatever other native language-speaking children continues to remain at a very high level following this reform as well."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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