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Prime minister: Education system needs reforms to meet long-term teacher wage pledge

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) talking to the press pack following a coalition council meeting on day one of the nationwide teachers' strike in Estonia, Monday, January 22, 2024.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) talking to the press pack following a coalition council meeting on day one of the nationwide teachers' strike in Estonia, Monday, January 22, 2024. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

If the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition is to implement its agreement to get teacher wages up to 120 percent of the national average wage by 2027, education reforms are required, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says.

The education ministry is currently preparing those reforms, the prime minister told ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" on the first day of a nationwide teachers' strike, and in an interview which follows in its entirety.

Interviewer Priit Kuusk: Can you comprehend why Reemo Voltri, head of the Estonian Educational Personnel Union (EHL), has called the government's attitude on this arrogant?

Prime minister Kallas: No, I don't know, as I haven't sat at the negotiating table next to him. But on that, Estonia actually invests more money in education than other European countries do; there are the funds for this field, but they are distributed poorly, and they do not find their way to teachers' salaries.

To achieve this, some reforms are required, and for this reason we pledged that by 2027, we will work to increase [teachers'] wages to 120 percent [of the national mean wage].

A positive thing is that today, the minister of education came up with a preliminary reform plan with which to move forward on, and addressed issues to move forward on. Teacher work overload is a major problem, [as are] career structures; whereby a new teacher and an experienced teacher receive the same wage.

There are plenty such demands [coming from teachers]. When I meet with teachers, they often highlight the issues as career structure and workload. But if you look at what we invest in: It's [school]houses; a school network that is over-proportioned, and people drawing a wage who are not teachers. All this means reforms need to be carried out, and the education ministry must prepare to that end.

Kuusk: But you do understand why your coalition partners see it that you have not been taking teachers' concerns seriously? Why does one government party say one thing and the other another?

Kallas: We have made agreements and decisions within the government.

For instance, you approved the [2024] state budget – 45 days ago.

Quite so. One where everyone agreed that we concur on wage rises for teachers. We always look at these things as a whole, in the context of the state budget strategy. Then when we discussed this at cabinet level last Thursday, it was clear why we are doing this; more precisely, that there are needs in respect of police personnel, first responders, road construction.

At the same time, we are in the midst of a recession; how do taxes get collected – so we have to look at the bigger picture. The right place [for discussion] comes when we enter the process of putting together the state budget, in the context of the state budget strategy (known in Estonian as the RES, a four-year strategy drawn up every year – ed.).

This means we have a two-faced government – one [face] where you discuss things with each other, and then the other, in front of the cameras, where it seems that there has been no cooperation at all. Is the coalition [internally] cooperative?

Yes, we have put together all these decisions. It really does seem to be that popular decisions have 12 parents (ie. the 12 government ministers – ed.), while unpopular decisions have only one parent, and that one parent is the evil prime minister.

Teachers are looking for some assurance, some pledge. Can you promise anything as of today?

Just as we agreed in the coalition agreement – that we will aim for teacher wages of 120 percent of the Estonian average by 2027. For this, we need to make reforms, in order to find it from a source where the money actually is. In other words, those places where we do spend more than the average European country.

Will the government find these funds by 2027?

If we effect these reforms [yes]. The reforms are challenging, but the education ministry is preparing them.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera,' interviewer Priit 'Wend' Kuusk.

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