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Ministry starting talks to close dozens of Estonia's smaller high schools

Currently, 44 high schools across Estonia have fewer than 100 students.
Currently, 44 high schools across Estonia have fewer than 100 students. Source: Graphics: JJ OIdermaa

The Ministry of Education and Research says it is launching negotiations with local governments regarding closing enrollment for the high school level – i.e. 9th through 12th grade – at schools with fewer than 100 students. First up on the ministry's agenda are high schools with overall enrollment of under 40.

Currently, there are 14 high schools across Estonia with fewer than 40 children each. According to Henry Kattago, undersecretary for planning and administrative matters at the Ministry of Education and Research, it is the local governments maintaining these schools that will be the first invited to talks about the schools' futures.

"There are schools on that list currently attended by only two or eight 10th graders, for example," Kattago said, wondering what physical education class looks like in this case. "How do you play basketball, soccer and other team sports?" he asked.

"Likewise there are schools on that list where 43 percent of teachers don't meet qualification requirements," he added.

Whether and how much money could be saved by closing smaller high schools, the undersecretary was unable to say. He believes, however, that savings aren't the most important thing here, and noted that the ministry is basing its forthcoming negotiations on education quality instead.

According to Kadi Sebrak, a ministry adviser in the area of educational leadership and teacher policy, the ministry has mapped out all high schools across the country with student bodies of less than 100 – of which there are more than 40.

"The main focus of these talks will be on concluding enrollment for the high school level at these schools," Sebrak noted, but added that the ministry will consider various solutions together with the relevant local governments as well.

"We're launching negotiations precisely to discuss the details with local governments, as well as options for how to transfer high school students on," Kattago explained, stressing that the state doesn't want to forcibly shut down any high schools.

Sebrak noted that talks will come later with regions where a state school or school with more than 100 students is more than 30 kilometers away and where it would be possible to maintain a high school level of at least 50 students.

Some schools may merge

According to Kattago, the ministry is hoping to conclude all of its talks by the end of the year. Regardless, he emphasized that ideally, a local government would first and foremost make a decision themselves regarding the future of a school's high school level.

In some parts of the country, the decision has already been made. Maardu city government, for example, will be concluding enrollment at Kallavere High School this year.

In Ida-Viru County, Alutaguse Municipality submitted a bill for the closure of the high school level at Iisaku High School – Estonia's smallest with a student population of just 20 – to the municipal council in December. South of Alutaguse, Mustvee Municipality is considering closing down the 22-student Peipsi High School as well.

Even so, the municipality wants to keep Avinurme High School open. The hope is that the Iisaku and Peipsi schools dropping their high school grade levels would redirect students precisely to Avinurme, and that these numbers would be sufficient for preserving the latter school's high school level.

"This is a very welcome initiative and change on the local government's part," the ministry undersecretary acknowledged. "It's actually our own first choice that a local government would critically assess for themselves their capacity to provide high school-level education and thereafter make the appropriate decisions."

Municipal mayor on Kunda High: Everyone's in their comfort zone

Nevertheless, these decisions may not come so easily everywhere. Viru-Nigula Municipal Mayor Einar Vallbaum said that in Kunda, whose high school is attended by 37 students, people aren't in support of scaling down the school.

"We also commissioned a SWOT [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats] analysis regarding our school network," Vallbaum said. "I suppose we'll have to start proving something to the municipal councilmembers and on the school side as well."

He stressed that things can't go on like this. "Everyone is just in their comfort zone," the local government leader said. "The teachers are in their comfort zone; the municipal council is in its comfort zone. No one wants to make the bad decisions; the messenger gets shot."

According to Vallbaum, reforming the school system is largely an emotional matter, and the argument that maintaining the high school runs the municipality €50,000 a year doesn't speak to many local councilmembers. It would be a help, he noted, if the state were to adopt a more explicit position on the matter.

"Sometimes we're handed down guidelines from up top where it's one story today, another story tomorrow and a third story on day three," the local government leader said. "There needs to be an explicit vision, and specific days and years."

Carrots, sticks to emerge in course of talks

The fact that maintaining a small high school level is expensive as well as that bigger high schools may provide higher quality education was conceded by Elva Deputy Municipal Mayor Heiki Hansen as well.

Just over a dozen kilometers outside of the city of Elva, Rõngu High School is currently attended by 40 students.

"But currently we have no plans to shut down the high school level in Rõngu," Hansen said, adding that preserving the high school in Rõngu is even included in the current coalition agreement. "Right now, the community has deemed this high school level necessary."

He noted that emotional arguments in favor of maintaining the school's high school level outweigh the rational ones, which would actually favor its closure.

What sort of value proposition, then, will the ministry approach the affected local governments with – meaning, how do they intend to increase the weight of arguments in favor of the reform? Kattago declined to show his hand just yet.

"That's what we'll be discussing in these negotiations, really – whether we'll need a carrot or a stick, or what the incentive at the time might be," he said.

Funding model change, school nationalization considered

There has been talk for years already about reforming Estonia's network of high schools. In 2022, the Ministry of Education proposed to local governments that the state would pay the latter €1,152 per student for the closure of schools' high school levels. In response, many municipal and city leaders scrambled to affirm that their local high schools would remain open.

According to MP Liina Kersna (Reform), who was still serving as minister of education at the time, this measure had been intended as a reward for local governments that had already decided to close down high school levels within their school systems.

"Even a positive nudge of a measure like that garnered a great deal of criticism," Kersna recalled. "I went to the [Session Hall] of the Riigikogu several times to explain why we're doing this."

Even so, she stressed that the reforming of Estonia's school system must go on.

Kersna, who is currently serving as chair of the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu, noted that there are other options for reforming the country's school system beyond just carrots and sticks.

One such alternative would be changing the school funding model. "Saying, for example, that basic school money cannot be used to maintain [a school's] high school level," she suggested.

According to Kattago, changing the school funding model has been discussed within the Education Ministry.

"But I don't want to get ahead of myself on this particular issue right now," the undersecretary continued. "On our agenda right now is launching negotiations. Should it become clear as a result [of these talks] that changes to funding models need to be made, then we'll communicate and discuss that separately."

Kersna went on to note that development plans in the field of education offer yet another option – with which the high school level would be turned over in its entirety to the state to maintain. This route would require legislative amendments as well.

"In this case, the state could better provide high school education in smaller or more remote regions as well," she said, adding that centralizing and nationalizing high school education would promote cooperation with both vocational schools and state high schools as well.

"For what it's worth, I think we have the opportunity today for more flexible high school education as well, where instruction takes place partly in person and partly remotely," the former education minister added.

The Ministry of Education and Research homepage likewise describes a model in which maintaining high school levels would be the responsibility of the state, while local governments would be involved in the provision of high school education spots via administrative contracts.

Võru Municipality: The problem is lack of kids in schools

One of the schools the state intends to begin negotiating the closure of is the 35-student Vastseliina High School. According to Võru Municipality, however, this issue isn't a topical one for them yet.

"We haven't had any discussion lately regarding the closure of Vastseliina High School, however when we drew up the municipality's development plan, we agreed that we would reevaluate each year," said Võru Deputy Municipal Mayor Piret Otsatalu.

According to Otsatalu, a bigger concern than savings is the fact that there just aren't enough children to go around between the municipality's more remotely located schools.

"Children go to school in the [bigger] centers – to Võru and to Parksepa High School, and those whose parents work in Tartu attend high school in Tartu as well," she explained.

Even so, she continued, it came up at a meeting with the Vastseliina community that it's still essential that Vastseliina's high school and basic school are kept open; there were calls for local parents to put their children in school locally as well.

If the state were to stop funding Vastseliina High School, however, that would put the municipality in a bind. "We have a lot of educational institutions, kindergartens, schools, so things could get difficult for us," the deputy municipal mayor admitted.

Should Vastseliina High School nonetheless end up being closed, Võru Municipality can organize children's transport to other schools in the municipality, however none of them provide student housing.

Värska school highlights unique local culture

Located in the seat of Setomaa Municipality, which today unites most of the Estonian side of historical lands inhabited by the Seto minority, Värska High School has 37 students, a dozen of whom are seniors – i.e. 12th graders – this year.

Nevertheless, neither the school nor the municipality is interested in dropping their high school grade levels.

"What makes our school special is first and foremost the fact that we're in a very unique cultural space, and members of our school community and our students are strongly linked to the region's culture and its history," said Liina Palu, principal of Värska High School. "Connected to [our] history are our current students' parents and grandparents."

The municipality believes that cutting the region's high school-level education would do more harm than good.

"We've actually long since been of the opinion that the high school is absolutely essential for [the] Setomaa [region]," emphasized Setomaa Municipal Mayor Raul Kudre. "Making rough calculations or considering what would happen if there were no high school – that's 30-40 youth that wouldn't be here in Setomaa. That's an enormous loss for us. And they'll immediately start building their lives somewhere further away; their parents will start looking somewhere further away too." 

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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