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No exemptions for Ukrainian children in switch to Estonian-language teaching

Classroom blackboard. Photo is illustrative.
Classroom blackboard. Photo is illustrative. Source: Ministry of Education and Research

Starting this fall, the transition to Estonian as the only language of instruction in schools, where previously Russian was used, will begin. According to the Estonian Ministry of Education, there will be no exceptions to the rule, and Ukrainian children, who have so far been attending classes in their mother tongue will have to start studying in Estonian.

On September 1, all children in the first and fourth grades will be required to begin studying their regular curriculum, with Estonian as the language of instruction, with no exceptions made for Ukrainian refugees, who have been attending Tallinn's Räägu School, which was established for them, will have no option but to start studying in Estonian.

"As far as the Räägu School is concerned, we decided not to open first grade classes [there] and so, these children will be transferred to the schools near their place of residence. And the fourth grade class will start learning in Estonian," said Tallinn Deputy Mayor Andrei Kante.

This means the school will need to find new teachers, who speak at an advanced level by this fall, to take over the three classes currently being taught by Ukrainian teachers. Kante does not believe the decision to create a separate school for Ukrainian war refugees was the wrong one, as Tallinn's already overcrowded classrooms were simply unable to accommodate the influx of Ukrainian children.

"When the children currently in the first grade finish sixth grade, this (Räägu) school will close," Kante said.

Ukrainian children in the seventh grade and above also study at the state-established Vabaduse (Freedom) School, where currently 60 percent of classes are taught in Estonian. Its fate depends on the City of Tallinn.

"The Vabaduse School is directly dependent on the Kristiine School. This is the agreement at the moment, so that these students will be guaranteed very smooth educational prospects in terms of where they will go after graduating from the Räägu School. This is the Vabaduse School and if at some point the Räägu School, the branch of the Kristiine School, is no longer needed, then that will also have an impact on the fate of the Vabaduse School," explained Ingar Dubolazov, head of the transition to Estonian-language education at the Ministry of Education.

Even if the transition to Estonian-language education does not make any difference for the children, it will have an impact on teachers. Teachers in schools where Russian has thus far been used as the language of instruction, will be required to speak Estonian at B2 level or above, while in "Estonian" schools they will have to speak it at an advanced level. Ukrainian teachers, however, do not generally meet these requirements.

"There is also a possibility according to the legislation, whereby for certain cases, they can be treated as specialists, who have come from abroad, and therefore have a delay when it comes to the language requirements. That is, they will be subject to them after being here for five years. So this postpones the requirements somewhat for certain positions. However, in the long run, I would recommend that everyone learns Estonian," Dubolazov said.

The City of Tallinn is currently organizing language training for school teachers. However, Deputy Mayor Andre Kante believes a large proportion of Ukrainian teachers will not be able to master Estonian at the required level in time for the fall. If they are able to do so by then, Kante said the most critical time is going to be fall 2025, when there will be a significant increase in the need for Estonian-language teachers.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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