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Government's Estonian-language transition committee unlikely to make exceptions

Anti-bullying poster in a Russian-language school.
Anti-bullying poster in a Russian-language school. Source: Ministry of Education and Research.

As outlined in the law, the Estonian government will set up a commission to assess whether some first or fourth grade classes can continue to be taught with Russian as the language of instruction after September 1. The Ministry of Education and Research however, says there are no plans to make exceptions for anyone.

When the Riigikogu passed the transition to Estonian-language education, into law, it included an allowance for some exceptions to be made in certain circumstances. Soon the government will set up a special commission, which the councils of different municipalities and towns facing challenges with the transition will be able to send requests to and seek advice.

Municipalities will be able to request permission to continue teaching partially in Russian on a class-by-class basis, but not for entire schools all at once. The deadline for applications is March 31. "There is no kind of standard form. Rather, we are waiting to receive substantive justification," said Ingar Dubolazov, head of the transition to Estonian-language teaching at the Ministry of Education and Research.

According to the draft published on Friday, the commission will be chaired by the Minister of Education. It also includes the Minister of Culture, Minister of Regional Affairs as well as other top officials from those three ministries, and representatives of the Estonian Language Council and the Integration Foundation. The government will be required to take decisions on the basis of the commission's advice no later than by the end of May.

Teacher shortage can be only reason

"However, it is clear today that there are no plans to grant these exemptions in this way," Dubalazov said, explaining that only a shortage of Estonian-speaking teachers would justify an exemption being given.

"Today we are in close contact with the municipalities regarding the transition and according to them, they have the teachers available to provide the first and fourth grades with those who can speak Estonian at an advanced level," Dubalazov said. "So I can see absolutely no justification for granting exceptions here."

The ministry cannot predict how many applications for exemptions the commission may receive. "The commission has to be established, as the law has created this possibility. However, these exemptions are unlikely to come from there," Dubalazov reiterated.

The commission will remain in place for the duration of the reform. Several municipalities have also signaled that greater challenges may lie ahead, when more teachers able to teach in the Estonian-language teachers are needed for more classes.

"However,  if we also look at the numbers of teachers who are undergoing language training today, we are moving towards a situation where these exemptions will not be needed in the future, perhaps in two or three years' time," Dubalazov said.

Some pupils with special needs can continue studying in their first language

Under a completely different section of the law, some pupils with special educational needs will be able to continue their education with Russian as the language of instruction. This will not require the approval of a government commission, but a decision from the municipality instead.

Dubalazov added that this exemption has very clearly ben included to cater for those students requiring special care and assistance.

According to the law, municipalities can ask the government for exemptions only for elementary school classes. At the same time, the transition to Estonian-language education also has to take place in kindergartens, for which there is no exemption mechanism in place.

Dubalazov believes that municipalities will be able to manage on this front too. "In certain places, some municipalities will probably have to implement a system of one teacher and two assistants instead of two teachers and one assistant in some kindergartens," Dubalazov said. "But everyone has said that it will be possible to have all groups with teachers with advanced Estonian language skills in place by September 1."


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Editor: Michael Cole

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