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Education leaders talk about Estonian state's planned reforms

Students in a hallway at Kiili High School during the nationwide teachers' warning strike on Friday morning. November 10, 2023.
Students in a hallway at Kiili High School during the nationwide teachers' warning strike on Friday morning. November 10, 2023. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The state wishes to resolve the concerns teachers and society alike with educational reforms, in the wake of the teachers' strike, which ended earlier this week.

However, the interested parties within the Estonian education system differ on what the most important aspect of reforms promised by Minister of Education Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) are.

Local governments, which run the bulk of Estonia's general education schools, favor organizing an education network and a career model which would permit teachers to self-actualize.

At the same time, the harmonization of, for instance, teachers' pay, and the drawing up of more clearly defined teacher career paths may see a tendency emerging for the state to increasingly play a part.

The ministry has pledged reforms as well as a wage hike for teachers, the lack of the latter being the formal cause of the recent strike.

Liina Põld, one of the Ministry of Education and Research deputy secretaries general, told ERR that: "Reforms have been launched in the field of education, most of which will be ready at draft bill stage from February to April."

"The Ministry has invited municipalities, private schools and teachers' representatives to the table, to find consensus on the career and salary model of teachers. In terms of pay, the goal is for the average salary for general education school teachers to reach 120 percent of the Estonian average, by 2027, across all municipalities," Põld said (in fact this pledge had already been made prior to the strike – ed.).

"It is only in cooperation with local government and with the owners of private schools that the changes can be implemented, as only in this way can we determine the working conditions which teachers wiill have. The goal is to sign a long-term education agreement for the years 2025-2027," the deputy secretary general continued.

A working party aimed at creating a career model for teachers has completed an outline version, which is still being refined. This career model would be implemented in schools from September 1 next year, ie. the start of the 2025-2026 academic year.

The focus of the reform of the school network is the consolidation of high school education places within larger high schools, and the consolidation of the third level of elementary schools into larger primary schools, within the focus of the municipality.

Põld said: "The state has opened up a support measure for rural schools, in order to support municipalities in running schools in more outlying areas, at grades 1-6."

"By 2035, there will be around 100 schools teaching at high school level level in Estonia. The longer-term goal of reorganizing the education network lies in transferring responsibility for post-elementary education levels, to the state," Põld went on.

A unified early childhood education system is also set to be created, one which will bring together the childcare service and the kindergarten service.

"Local government has an obligation to ensure that all children aged eighteen months to three years and whose parents have the desire, will get the opportunity to go to daycare. Nurseries, daycare nursery groups and creches will be combined. The bill will be presented to the government in March, with a view for the reforms to enter into force on January 1, 2025," Põld continued.

The ministry also has concrete plans on extending the school age, reforming vocational education and overhauling the zero budget (ie. balanced budget) in terms of education costs, which should serve to rationalize education costs.

Municipalities considering ways of reorganizing school network

ERR asked Saaremaa municipal council chairman Jaanus Tamkivi for his views on the planned reforms.

He said: "On Saaremaa, organizing the school network has been an issue for many years, one we already dealt with last year. We lowere the numbers and we now have 18 schools."

"Some of these are quite small, however, so how to reorganize the education network is certainly a hot topic on Saaremaa. Much the same can be said for other rural municipalities," Tamkivi continued.

The state's role in reorganizing the school network is small, he added.

"The state can hardly accomplish this since, ultimately, the organization of basic education is the responsibility of local government. The state hardly knows better how things are on the ground in the municipalities, than the municipalities themselves. I think that local governments should be trusted on this matter. The know-how is surely best within the local municipality buildings, though what the case is for Tallinn, no one can say," Tamkivi added.

Saaremaa does however have a state-run high school.

"We have a state high school in Kuressaare, and then a high school on Orissaare, belonging to Saaremaa municipality, which is definitely a separate issue. If the high school sector goes to the state, I'm afraid that it will end with Orissaare high school being closed down. There are 50-60 children there today. Currently, it continues to function, but time will tell," Tamkivi went on.

Orissaare is a small town in the northeast of Saaremaa.

According to Tamkivi, the Saaremaa state high school noted above is currently at full capacity.

"There is also the question of where these children should go to study, if they do not fit into the state high school on Saaremaa."

"In that case, they would have to go to the mainland or to a vocational school on Saaremaa. If they had to go to Kuressaare, where they would have to find accommodation, the children would be living away from home, which would bring additional expenses for families, so is definitely a painful topic," added Tamkivi.

Union believes in the quick enforcement of the career model

Prominent in the coverage of the recent teachers' strike has been, perhaps not surprisingly, the head of the main teaching union.

Reemo Voltri heads up the Estonian Education Personnel Union (EHL), and ERR spoke to him also.

Voltri said one of the key reforms certainly relates to the career model and the accompanying salary model, the calculation of working hours, and dealing with workloads, another sticking point with strikers.

"These are one of the first things we will start from February 19, when the collective agreement negotiations with the state get underway," Voltri said.

"For sure the question of the school network [will be on the table], but again, here, it is probably not possible to deal with the whole of Estonia in one fell swoop on this, but instead it is necessary to proceed step by step, in cooperation with specific local governments."

"In particular, the high school network will be reviewed as a whole, in order to find solutions to manage and maybe to reduce the burden on local governments," the EHL leader went on.

Voltri said agreement on the teacher career structure, and its entering into force, was certainly viable for this year though funding is definitely an issue.

"The working party has already started looking at the career structure, and different models have been proposed by the relevant parties. We now have to analyze these and then assemble the optimal one, which will be amenable all parties - both teachers and school administrators, as well as school managers. In order for it to truly promote our educational life, this should give teachers more motivation and direct them towards their personal development, so that all of this can ultimately return in a positive way to the students. This can all be carried out this year," Voltri went on.

Aaviksoo: problems should be addressed all together

Jaak Aaviksoo is a former education minister and former rector of both the University of Tartu and of Tallinn University of Technology, and ERR went to him next.

In October 2023, a balanced budget project was initiated under the auspices of the education ministry, a project led by Aaviksoo.

He told ERR that he would divide the issues in need of potential reform into three sections, given that these represent very different areas and should be solved differently.

"One of the issues facing us is the problem of funding, especially in relation to teachers' salaries. Where do we find the funds for teachers' salaries, and how necessary is it to carry out any kind of reforms to that end. Another question that has arisen from the teachers themselves, publicly, is that they are overburdened, while inclusive education creates plenty of issues - they have more responsibilities, in short," Aaviksoo said.

"This relates to the management of work, and is probably also an area for consideration where perhaps reforms need to be made here too. The third area is a national or local career path for teachers, in which they can then be sure of when and how their pay can rise over time."

"I understand the seeming desire to carry out reforms in all three of these areas, but what these reforms may consist of, I cannot say, as there are no proposals on their content yet. The education minister will likely present them to the public on February 19," Aaviksoo went on.

Aaviksoo also would not be drawn on ranking the issues mentioned in terms of time criticality. "I can't rank them, and to do so wouldn't be very constructive either. They have to be looked at all together, since they have all emerged together, so all these three aspects, and possibly also related reforms, need to be addressed," he went on.

Counseling service would direct help to every elementary school teacher

Tiina Kütt is head of the  Education and Youth Board (HARNO) student counseling services, known as Rajaleidja (literally "tracker" or "pathfinder").

HARNO falls under the education ministry's purview.

Kütt said: "One of the very important things that the strike also highlighted is the issue of teacher support."

"There is a kind of conundrum going on here, however, whereby everything in the world has been changing; society has changed, people have changed, students, parents, teachers themselves, too, have changed, yet we still expect the teacher to work in the same way as before," Kütt continued.

"If they already go to work at a school, the teacher is at school, a bit like a mother or father, who accompanies a child's entire story. Supporting the teacher, providing definite roles and establishing boundaries is definitely be something which should be dealt with immediately. This could also be referred to as reviewing the teacher's workload," Kütt continued.

Kütt said that in addition to the teacher in the classroom, a teacher's assistant or an assistant teacher should accompany them, at least at first grade. "This would significantly reduce the burden on the teacher and the support specialist, and would support the child. A lot of children would be helped in the class right away, and there would be no more need for further aid. In our view, this would be one thing whereby we could immediately help the teacher and, through that, the student."

Kütt continued that: "This is really about building learning skills. If we consider that a child comes to first grade primarily from kindergarten, where there are 18 to 24 children in a group, yet with two adults, if not three, per group in many cases, in the schools meanwhile they only have one an adult - only one person to ask for help, and who cannot always reach everyone. Support of this kind for teachers and children would help to reduce many problems, and the teacher's burden as well."

According to Kütt, the direction towards inclusive education which started in Estonia a little over a decade ago is absolutely correct and it must remain on course. "We no longer have a lack of knowledge in this area, but we do have a lack of energy and endurance, as well as of thinking and attitude," Kütt added.

According to the hunter, attention must be given to every child, including a child with special needs. "A child with special educational needs is not really an exceptional and strange thing - every child can sometimes need more support during their education, be a so-called child with special educational needs. Also, if the child has been absent for a long time due to illness and needs support to succeed, it is actually special educational need at the time," Kütt said.

According to Küti, it would be better in Estonia to think about each child as a separate and distinct individual.

"This would not require huge sums of money and directions, but a change in thinking on the part of all concerned," she said.

Cooperation rather than confrontation. A little more teacher support, plus a reduction in workload, to allow for support specialists in schools and, where necessary, to form smaller groups on some basic subjects for those who find it hard to concentrate in a larger class setting," Kütt went on.

Teachers: Career structure would bring self-fulfillment

Margit Timakov, board member of the EHL, said: "The most burning issue, which has been raked over so much, is to get differentiated teachers' salaries, that is, to create a functioning career model which would motivate young and experienced teachers alike."

Timakov said that from the teachers' point of view, a career model does not related solely to salaries.

"The career model does incorporate teachers' salaries, but it should certainly be a more comprehensive reform than just writing differentiated salary numbers as a minimum in the regulation."

"With the career structure model, we would create better opportunities for the involvement of senior teachers and master teachers, for example in the development of study materials and exams, cooperation with universities, participation in education-related working groups and management of subject societies," Timakov added.

In Timakov's opinion, a teacher should be able to choose within this career structure between several paths, whether to move forward on the path of teaching, management or as an expert in a specific field.

"Certainly, the implementation of the career model should not mean heaping additional tasks on teachers, but rather a reasonable division of the workload," Timakov added.

Timakov added that uncomfortable political discussions about which school network would optimal for Estonia must definitely be on the agenda, too.

"What does Estonia need to do in order to conserve smaller schools, which vital and a key part of the community while at the same time we don't waste money on empty concrete elsewhere. Perhaps here would be the place to really think outside the box and be recognized as a digital country of the 21st century, as well to consider options other than closing down smaller schools or, at the opposite extreme, building palace-like schools," Timakov concluded.

The Estonian education system starts at the non-mandatory kindergarten level, while põhikool (basic school) is mandatory (the first few grades of põhikool are often referred to as algkool, or beginner school. High school (Gümnaasium) is the highest level and is not mandatory. A program for building new state high schools has been ongoing for several years. Additionally, vocational schools also exist in tandem with high schools.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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