Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Centre) has a plan in the works to make kindergarten mandatory, with all children not attending to officially be considered homeschooled. Former Education Minister Jürgen Ligi (Reform) supports her plan, but the Estonian Parents' Union believes that expectations for preschool education should be considered first.
Currently, 94% of children between the ages of 3-7 attend kindergarten. Reps told ERR that in a typical year, up to ten percent of children are left out of preschool education, and this is a problem.
"The majority of this unfortunate percent who do not attend kindergarten today are those who are actually socially excluded," the minister observed. "And we see in school that these children are the ones who later need learning support. Whether this is 6%, 7% or 10%, that is in any case too much for us to be able to say that all is well in this regard."
Thus the Ministry of Education and Research is working on making kindergarten mandatory in Estonia, and in doing so effectively reduce the country's mandatory school age. Each child would be assigned a spot in a kindergarten, and should a parent decide to keep their child at home, this would have to be formally registered as homeschooling.
"Then the opportunity would be established together with the kindergarten teachers for the child to attend kindergarten whether once a week, maybe once every couple of weeks, or once a month," Reps explained. "What's important is that someone is constantly keeping an eye on the child and we can see how they are developing. And naturally social workers and others can intervene should there be any serious problems."
As mandatory kindergarten should also be free of charge, the ministry is currently working on a solution which would allow for four free hours of kindergarten per child per week.
"And if they really don't end up attending five days a week or even once a week, then Finns for example have a system by which they attend a meeting once a week that include a social worker, an education official and a health professional who can ensure that everything is in order with the child," the minister described.
Kindergarten teachers: Kindergarten needs to be free
Estonian Kindergarten Teachers' Union board member Evelin Langus in essence supports the concept of mandatory preschool education, but found that should this be introduced, kindergarten needs to be free of charge, as four hours per week is not enough time to evaluate child development.
"If our kindergarten has children who are sick sometimes, for example, and attend kindergarten infrequently as a result, then it is already difficult to evaluate their development to ensure whether they are mature enough for their education level," Langus explained. "And we actually don't have a set national system of evaluation."
Estonian Parents' Union board chairman Aivar Haller also noted that expectations for preschool education should be considered first.
"I only recently sat on an expert committee that discussed introducing digital education in kindergarten," Haller recalled. "I'd say that that is certainly anything but a scientifically based age-appropriate approach. If we have agreed upon what exactly we want to offer to those beginning at age three and what conditions we should offer the child, then there is no problem."
Ligi, who served as Minister of Education from 2015 to 2016, said that he also essentially agreed with the ministry's plan.
"An additional argument is that non-Estonians should learn Estonian by the time they begin school, and that the children learn together," Ligi said. "Because otherwise we will not integrate Russians into Estonian society, or ensure their competitiveness or spirit.
Editor: Aili Vahtla