Education minister critical of reforms by predecessor

Anneli Ammas
, reporter
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Photo: Erik Prozes

In eleven months, minister of education and research Jevgeni Ossinovski intends not to thoroughly alter Estonia’s educational system. He is convinced, however, that higher education reform was executed in too much of a hurry. And: transfer of Russian language schools to partial studies in Estonian language has been done wrong both being compulsory and by beginning at gymnasium level.

The attitude emanating from your first interviews in frightening. Almost all that has been done in educational policy, over these past years, is no good at all; everything needs to be analysed and changed.

Not so at all. Firstly, we must begin by how much time this government has to work – only eleven months.

The more frightening if you forward a message to educational figures and the public: all needs to be remade!

Physically, we will not manage to make big essential changes. I do not think that it would be essentially correct, given the time frame, to start doing these, as education political changes are the king which will very sharply be felt in 10–20 years. Decisions made in a hurry will bring no good. I have earlier criticised the former education minister Jaak Aaviksoo, because he was in too much of a hurry. Like with the higher education reform, in my estimation, all aspects were not debater till the end.

Universities are relatively satisfied with the reform, considering that the numbers of students are shrinking, but the state has granted substantially more money for higher education.

Surely the reform has its positive aspects. Surely we cannot question that effectiveness of universities is enhanced and there is a basic movement towards the student’s academic time being more effective, graduating within the nominal time. On the other hand, have the other things changed along the good things, like adult studies, in-service training, «open universities» – has that produced the results that we wanted?

Universities are obviously willing to use the opportunity to ask students for extra money.

Essentially, it is not prudent to push private money away from higher education. On the other hand, it is clear that higher education must be of excellent quality, the standard must not be lowered. Another thing very vital for students and which is not yet positively solved is study allowances. On the one hand, there are the need-based study allowances for those who need state help; on the other hand, there are the results-based scholarships for those that do better. 

There issued have been in development since the time the reform entered into force – when there were not very many students to apply for need-based study allowance – for whatever reason – then that has been adjusted.

There are many issues here that we are currently analysing. To cut administrative load, right now they are going by last year tax return data. The former education minister Jaak Aaviksoo promised that universities will have a special fund from which to support students whose situation has not changed during the year. That has not been done, so far.

The other issue is the notion of family, in which the lines have been drawn somewhat arbitrarily. The third issue is that the three major universities will, as a rule, demand a fee if students will fall six credit points short. Then, as soon as a student has one point less, he will lose his study allowance.

Already when the law was proceeded at Riigikogu, I raised the issue – there is a risk that a student will be simultaneously paying for his studies and being without allowance. Let’s see to is that those who need support will also get it.

We will also continue establishing state gymnasiums. Surely, there are basic differences how to look at support specialists. Or how to basically look at state gymnasiums being in a favoured situation.

What do you mean by state gymnasiums being in a favoured position? I haven’t heard that the teachers there would be paid better.

They are favoured in the sense that if a commune which has no gymnasium sends its child to a municipal gymnasium, they have to also send the so-called box-money i.e. the money to maintain the gymnasium building. If they send the child to state gymnasiums, they do not have to provide that money. Communes are interested in sending their children to state gymnasiums, even though a municipal gymnasium may be nearer.

This is a school network issue, regarding which you have also said it needs to be analysed. But both the school network and the optimal administrative division have been repeatedly analysed – for years already, these largely coincide. It is known, where there are people and where there are no people. What else is there to analyse?

There is a fresh Praxis’ analysis which models the school network needs not politically, but demographically, and considering how far a school is supposed to be. On the basis of that analysis, decisions will have to be made.

On the basis of that, we are now trying to compile school networks development plan, we will be able to show which schools are definitely sustainable. This will not mean that the rest are not. With the ones that are sustainable, we would be moving towards curriculum-based financing. Which would mean that the capitation fee would not depend on the yearly up-an-down movements of students.

Basically, we will continue the direction that we must ensure primary and basic school near home, which the ministry will be considering. From this year, the smaller basic schools got extra money, which is totally prudent. Overall, there is the problem that local government is the keeper of the school, but teachers’ salary money or educational subsidy more broadly is given by the state. For all decisions, mutual agreements are needed, which is complicated.

On the one hand, why not negotiate; but on the other hand, the state needs to take a tough line so that the people locally would think about these things – all schools cannot be kept forever, in their current form.

We will try to talk with the local governments. For instance, if we currently have 14.3 square metres of area per one student, then in the new state gymnasiums it is under 10 square metres. The ministry has made a project how it will be in 2020 or 2030 when there will be fewer students. In 73 percent of local governments, in six years, the use of school area will become more ineffective. 

There will be fewer children, but the heated area will be almost the same as now. Well we will be trying to say, as we talk to local governments: look at these numbers. It’s decision time if we will have, in Järva County for example, an average of 36 square metres per pupil in 2030. I acknowledge the former education minister Jaak Aaviksoo who has said that the part of educational support that goes for teachers’ salaries is very small. A lot goes to heat the buildings. The less we will heat the buildings, the more money we can channel into teachers’ salaries. There is a clear correlation.

In your initial interviews, you have focussed on Russian language based gymnasiums, but the serious problems are in Russian basic schools. As revealed by PISA test results, Russian language based basic schools are substantially weaker than the Estonian ones. And here it’s not the issue of subjects taught in Estonian. 

Compared to the last PISA test, there is a sharp rise in Russian schools’ level. Much sharper that in Estonian schools. Surely, results of Russian schools in Estonia are much better than those of schools in Russia. On the other hand, we cannot deny that Russian language based schools are doing considerably worse that the Estonian ones.

There is a clear language-based stratification in the Estonian educational system, the reasons for which are basically clear to all. In the Estonian educational system, the approach to studies has gradually been changing. In Estonian language based education, this has caused quite a lot of emotion. Well we were all used to study so that the teacher stands in front of the class, she knows; the students are objects, and knowledge is put into their heads like blocks, and afterwards the students will have to recite these.

You have been critical towards topics taught in Estonian, in Russian gymnasiums in Estonia. You say that the Estonian language based study should have started in primary school, or even kindergarten.  Such a plan could easily have been labelled assimilation. That was not an alternative!

I think it was. The issue is how to implement the various educational changes. In all integration issues the world experience tells us the processes are emotional if they touch upon vital questions such as identity or mother tongue. These processes are only successful if done by positive inclusion and motivation, not by prescription and punishment. Every time it is attempted to do this otherwise, it breeds spite, ill will and tensions.

So what now? Is it your message that we stop Estonian subject studies in gymnasiums and start from the bottom, in primary school, and totally voluntarily?

When it comes to moving from the bottom, we have to do that anyhow. That will not mean that now we close down the Russian langue basic schools – that’s not prudent.

When it comes to gymnasiums, it is written in the coalition agreement: we will analyse what are the results of Estonian language subject study. This summer, the first ones will graduate (i.e. the first students that, from grade 10, studied 60 percent of subjects in Estonian – AA). Let’s see if it’s true that this has affected study results. I’m convinced that schools have managed very differently.

Should the analysis reveal that the result, when it comes to knowledge, is catastrophe, then surely the government of the Republic and Riigikogu need to review the current decisions. I still think it isn’t so bad. If basically it’s like there are some bottlenecks, then these will need to be dealt with. In eleven months, it is surely not prudent to turn the system upside down. In that issue, there is no plan to change the law – this is agreed in the coalition treaty.

Are any decisions that you definitely want to make, during your eleven months in office?

There is one thing, which will surely not come to a final decision, but regarding which I desire to start an essential debate in the society so that the next government might come to a decision faster. This concerns lifting of compulsory school attendance. Right now, the compulsory part is nine years of basic education i.e. till 17 years of age. So those who have graduated from nine grades can exit the educational system, as well as those who turn 17 and don’t graduate. In has been in the soc dems programme, for a long time, that the threshold needs to be raised to 18 years of age, till the person becomes adult.

3 ideas

•    Integration processes are only successful if done by positive inclusion and motivation, not by prescription and punishment.

•    The less we heat schoolhouses, the more money we can channel into teachers’ salaries.

•    Should analysis reveal that the result (of partial Estonian language study in Russian gymnasiums – edit), when it comes to knowledge, is catastrophe, then surely the Government of the Republic and Riigikogu need to review the current decisions.