While Minister of Education and Research Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) claims Estonia cannot continue to maintain 158 high schools in the long run, several municipal leaders believe their municipality has more to gain than to lose in maintaining even small high schools. They believe the solution may be the closure of some small elementary schools instead.
There are currently a total of 37 high schools across Estonia with fewer than 100 high school-level students, according to Ministry of Education and Research figures. In terms of the restructuring of the country's school network, 100 students has been set as the criteria, as according to Kallas, high school levels with smaller student populations than that aren't viable.
The education minister also believes that closing smaller high schools, i.e. restructuring Estonia's school network, would help increase wages for the remaining teachers.
Municipal mayor: Many advantages to Suure-Jaani High School
One such high school with fewer than 100 students is Suure-Jaani High School in Põhja-Sakala Municipality, which is attended by 65 students in grades 10-12.
"There have been all kinds of different proposals [regarding maintaining the high school]," Põhja-Sakala Municipal Mayor Karel Tölp told ERR. "The minister of education only just recently came to show us how we should organize our school network. In her view, the school needs to be relocated, but in fact, no other position has been formed within the municipality than the fact that we want to continue operating the school."
According to Tölp, the so-called premium they paid on the high school last year was "very small" – €17,000.
"That's the financial side, but even more important than money is the fact that teachers who teach more difficult subjects have a better distribution of their workload thanks to the high school, which means that we're also able to maintain a much stronger basic school this way as well," he highlighted.
The municipal mayor pointed out that Suure-Jaani High School is attended by students from outside the municipality as well, and that this year the school was even able to choose which students to admit to the high school based on their academic results.
"Our high school is of very high quality, and that likewise has a positive impact on our basic school," he explained. "I certainly don't see the point of closing the high school at this point, because there are a lot more upsides involved."
"If we want to talk about where we're wasting money, that would be two six-grade schools in the municipality," Tölp said. "There are plenty of thoughts on the subject of these schools, but no decisions have been made. If these schools were closed and children transferred to other schools, then not a single new class would have to be made up, which means that four teachers' wages could be redistributed."
He admitted that finding wage funding for teachers within the current school network would be very difficult to do in Põhja-Sakala Municipality.
"If we were to start closing down a big basic school with 100 students, then that would have a major impact on the area," Tölp acknowledged.
Lääneranna municipal mayor: Lihula needs a new school building
Lihula High School, the only high school located in Lääneranna Municipality, is currently attended by 60 students, but local municipal leaders nonetheless are not inclined to close it down either.
"As things currently stand, we haven't considered that Lihula High School should be closed," confirmed Lääneranna Municipal Mayor Ingvar Saare.
"If the Ministry of Education visits us as promised, then I suppose we'll discuss those aspects," Saare said. "Operating the high school is necessary for us. Pärnu County's development plan likewise states that Vändra, Kilingi-Nõmme, Häädemeeste and Lihula's high schools must remain, because they're located too far away from county seats to commute to and from daily."
Thus the closure of any of these schools would entail expenses for students' parents, he continued, and in fact effectively require children to live alone in aforementioned county seats, such as in Pärnu. But no inexpensive boarding facility exists there, he pointed out.
"Thus acquiring a high school education could end up expensive for households, especially considering average wages in Pärnu, which fall below the [national] Estonian average," the municipal mayor acknowledged. "This would create additional social challenges for families."
Saare noted that the notion that there are a lot of resources currently tied up in maintaining small high schools is in fact accurate and that the school network does indeed need to be reorganized, however socioeconomic background needs to be taken into account therein as well.
"It's a one-hour drive one way from Lihula to a high school in Pärnu," he pointed out.
Editor: Aili Vahtla