A whopping 400 kids needing English education

Anneli Ammas
, reporter
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Photo: Sander Ilvest

Just some few years ago, only the private International School of Estonia in Tallinn provided English language based education in the land. By today, 400 children are studying according to international curriculum in three schools in Tallinn plus one in Tartu. A third of these are «the ordinary Estonian» kids.  

«For years, we have only been able to hire the unmarried,» said Tallinn University of Technology IT faculty dean Gert Jervan. «At least in IT faculty, I do not know a single scientist who has come here with a family, except for the mixed families where one is Estonian,» he noted. «If we want to get more highly qualified scientists and specialists into Estonia, we need schools for their children.»

«An increasing problem may also be the return of Estonian children into Estonian language based schools when for a longer time they have studied abroad and reached at least the mid-level with their studies,» said Tartu Miina Härma Gymnasium headmaster Ene Tannberg to cite a reason why international curriculum is needed in Estonia. She pointed out a lad who for five years lived in America with parents, returning to Estonia into 11th grade. «The gap between Estonian curricula and what he had studied abroad proved so wide that the young man went back to USA to finish high school,» recalled Ms Tannberg.

For years, foreign parents only had two options: pocket book allowing, to send the kid into the very expensive International School in Tallinn (up to €19,000 a year), or an ordinary Estonian school.

According to Ms Tannberg, the main difficulty is not in the language of instruction, but the differences in subject syllabi. «It’s easier for such students as move between countries with similar curricula, and therefore there is an increasing need in Estonia for curricula applied in most countries in the world (IB studies are in 147 countries of the world, European schools in 12 European countries – edit), so that mobile parents should not overly worry about children’s education while moving with the families, and the kids could move from class to class problem-free,» said the headmaster.

Elite dearness

Teaching according to the international curricula is many times dearer than with Estonian ones – one student place may cost ten times more.

«Naturally, we are closely monitoring the developments, so as to not break the comprehensive school principle and the admissions conditions must prescribe the target groups for whom the IB studies are meant i.e. truly for the kids whose parent’s job requires a mobile arrangement  of life,» said education minister Jevgeni Ossinovski (SDE, the soc dems). «Surely this is not meant to create some sort of elitism.»

«The main questions are unanswered: who are these schools meant for; do all schools have such rights; do all kids have the right to choose between the state curriculum and the international one; and, finally, who pays,» said former education minister Jaak Aaviksoo (IRL). «By principle, I’m for equal educational opportunities, especially at the general education level. Therefore, I am not able to support creation of separate schools or curricula for the children of the «elite»,» he added.

All is clear with the European School: this is a private school for children of parents on assignments abroad. The International School is also a private school and they have no clear-cut restrictions on who are expected first and foremost. Nearly a third are children with Estonian citizenship for whose parents the high fee is no problem.

Tartu Miina Härma Gymnasium’s primary school also holds children of foreigners only (there are six at the moment, in grades 1st to 4th), but the gymnasium level IB studies are mainly composed of Estonian students – for the two classes, 28 all in all. On top of that, the older level basic school ordinary classes have children of foreigners who, for extra money, get additional English hobby lessons. At the moment, there are seven such students.

Foreign ministry money

It’s more confusing at Tallinn English College. As admitted by the headmaster Toomas Kruusimägi, during the initial years they had no kids without Estonian citizenship in IB gymnasium classes. During the past three years, the picture is changing. «In the gymnasium, we also have youth from Vietnam, South-Korea, Slovakia, Georgia, Finland,» listed Mr Kruusimägi.

The English College primary school is split in two: there are two parallel classes for grades 2 to 4 – one Estonian language based under Estonian curriculum, and the other in English under IB curriculum. On 1st grade (the city of Tallinn demanded they accept more students) has two parallel classes in Estonian and one in English. The English language classes also accept Estonian kids.

On which basis and who gets the opportunity is a bit opaque. According to Mr Kruusimägi and the IB study coordinator Katrin Rahi, all kids admitted into English College have the option, should they (their parents) so desire and the international curriculum fit them. Through the IB study, the school has been able to train its teachers by international programmes and to make general use of their knowledge in their curricula.

A thing altogether remarkable, however: since its conception in 2009, English College IB studies gymnasium part is supported by foreign ministry by close to €10,000 a year. For the primary school, nearly €125,000 of additional money is sent from education ministry.

«For us, it is important that all Estonians returning from assignments abroad may have their children continue education smoothly and without interruptions,» explained the foreign ministry when asked why they, for years already, are supporting one specific school with such large money. «This ensures the motivation needed for assignments abroad, for the foreign service to function, maintaining the intactness and stability of families.»

By municipal school status, English College has a financial limit as opposed to the two private schools offering international education (as all private schools in Estonia, these get the usual capitation fee from the state, while also asking for tuition fee). A municipal school may not take fee for tuition. On the other hand, the lack of tuition fee – free education – grants the college an advantage before the other two, especially the International School.

For the time being, the college isn’t able to fully utilise the advantage, having no IB studies in all classes. Many a parent, when returning from abroad with one kid in primary school or gymnasium, and the other in grade 5th to 9th, will not pick the college, desiring the kids to attend the same school. In a couple of years, the lack will disappear.

Too few students

«Surely the goals and functions of IB studies and state general education are totally different, wherefore we need to see that the lines get not blurred,» said education minister Jevgeni Ossinovski.

«Estonian state should not be developing a foreign language based school for its minor citizens, to compete with the national curriculum, be it on basis of IB, EK or some other educational standard,» said Jaak Aaviksoo. «This is not in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution regarding sustainability of the language and the national language, to say nothing about the costs of maintaining two systems.»

According to Mr Aaviksoo, the option might be offered by private schools which the state would finance on the same basis and scope as the schools operating under national curriculum.  

As observed by Mr Ossinovski, at least for the time being the schools are unable, without state help, to offer quality international education as there are too few pupils needing it.  

Mr Aaviksoo says this is a total educational myth that the IB or often simply a «foreign» curriculum is intrinsically better than the national one. «There are no scientific data to support this, and, rather, the imagination feeds on a regrettable sense of inferiority towards Estonian language and state,» said the former education minister.