No Estonian-only upper secondary school in Kohtla-Järve imminent

Mailis Reps at Tuesday's meeting at the Järve upper secondary school in Kohtla-Järve.
Mailis Reps at Tuesday's meeting at the Järve upper secondary school in Kohtla-Järve. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

Education minister Mailis Reps (Centre) has made no promises regarding an Estonian-language upper secondary school (Estonian; Gümnaasium) in the eastern town of Kohtla-Järve, alongside the existing bilingual Järve upper secondary, in the forseeable future.

The language situation at the Järve school had been the subject of controversy, with local Estonian-speaking parents wanting an Estonian-only school and stating that their wishes had been ignored.

Mailis Reps said last week that the Järve upper secondary school would remain bilingual, along a 60/40 Estonian-Russian language split, as it would not be ready to provide education solely in Estonian for the next academic year on 1 September.

New starters at the school, which covers grades 10-12, will receive their education in Estonian, it is reported, but for those already enrolled, the status quo will remain.

The previous director of the school, Irina Putkonen, had resigned over the issue.

No clear answer from minister

Ms Reps gave no clear answers as to if and when the school would transfer to Estonian-only education, at a meeting on Tuesday with the school representatives, the board of trustees and representatives of student organisations from the school, according to daily Postimees.

One parent, Mare Roosileht, said that Estonians have long tolerated the domination of the Russian language in Ida-Viru county school. Ida-Viru county as a whole has a substantial Russian-speaking population, around 80% of residents in the case of Kohtla-Järve.

"Please try to understand us, this is our experience for decades," Ms Roosileht is quoted as saying, addressing Ms Reps.

"Our wish is that the school be the best possible, and for us to be able to demonstrate together that we created an Estonian-language upper secondary school in Kohtla-Järve."

Ms Roosileht went on to say that Russian-speaking young people desire the same outcome, and asked Ms Reps to state directly, for the benefit of the students, what would happen.

While not giving a definitive answer, Ms Reps reportedly thanked the parent for summing up the topic. "This was the goal indeed," she said.

Change would abandon Russian-speaking students

"I will try and put it into words the other way round. If we leave out all the young people that we will be taking on now, leave out the young people who maybe didn't have that perspective before them in grades seven and eight – we haven't reached down there to the basic school with language skills, we haven't had support measures as a state for the learning of Estonian to expand here – I put it entirely the other way round," Ms Reps continued.

A switch to Estonian-only education would probably necessitate many Russian-speaking students taking on additional Estonian lessons as well as their regular curriculum.

"[I] agree 100%, if we are in the same boat together in the future and you support [acting principal of Kohtla-Järve upper secondary] Ülle Matsin, I truly believe that we will make a very good result starting in September," Ms Reps reportedly continued.

When asked by Anne Endjärv, current principal of Järve secondary school, which caters to students leading up to upper secondary grades, whether she supports a proposal according to which her school would continue as an Estonian-language high school run by the state for at least 15 more years, the minister responded that the same question applies to other Kohtla-Järve secondary schools, and that the existing practice of having state upper secondary schools was one which she had inherited from her predecessors, even though she wasn't a supporter of the educational policy which brought it about.

Key electoral issue

"I cannot say that any of the topics are off the table. But something was agreed upon 15 years ago and that direction has been maintained continuously since. I am not someone who was a fan of state upper secondary schools 15 years ago. But today we have been moving nationally in one direction and have stayed that this is our education policy goal. In all strategic plans it is stated that basic school and upper secondary school will be separated," the minister added.

Another solution to the issue had been proposed by Social Democratic Party (SDE) leader Jevgeni Ossinovksi, to create a state school which covers the full cycle, from grades 1-12, and provide education in Estonian-only, that way. Amongst other things, this move would override the distinction between primary and secondary education which is a part of the Estonian state's general approach to education.

The place of Estonian in education is a key battle-ground between parties in the run up to the election on 3 March. Reform and Isamaa favour Estonian-only at all levels; Centre, SDE and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) have tended towards providing education in the Russian language in areas, like Ida-Viru County, where that is needed.

If the Järve upper secondary school were to go Estonian-only, one option for those students who wished, or whose parents wished, education to continue in Russian, would be the upper secondary school in Jõhvi, about 12 km from Kohtla-Järve.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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