Reps to take care of Russian schools

Mailis Reps.

PHOTO: Jaanus Lensment

Let it be said right away that talk of Mailis Reps' ambition to secure the position of justice minister was, according to her, mere speculation as the Pro Patria Res Publica Union (IRL) was dead set on reserving that position for Urmas Reinsalu from the first. The Center Party's 41-year-old deputy chairman becoming education minister once more was rather a last minute outcome.

Desire to move to the education ministry was strongest for Social Democrat Party (SDE) chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski as he had spent a year there in Taavi Rõivas' government. Reps could have gotten the interior or foreign portfolio instead. However, once the government's deck had been split into five equal parts, the Center Party was left with the education and research portfolio, and by that time it made sense to hand it to Reps.

Reps managed to send an important signal to ministry staff in her very first week and a half by making it to the Tartu headquarters on her second day and promising to work from there at least once a week. She has also spent several days in Brussels getting to know her colleagues and discussing European-level education matters. Tomorrow she will have the opportunity to present the achievements of Estonian education in international competition – results of the PISA test. Hints suggest the latter will once again not disappoint.

„If we take pride in our PISA results today, we need to look back at decisions made ten or even 15 years ago as that is how long education cycles are – 10-15 years. We must have done something right, even though it is possible we were critical of changes at the time,“ Reps admitted.

„Education is a circle where you must constantly change as you constantly get new students. While everyone is tired of education reform, the field requires constant changes. One typical example is digital education where past efforts have given us world-class university specialists; however, our schools are no longer producing children with modern IT education, which means we might soon run out of university specialists as well.“

The ink was not yet dry on the coalition agreement when ERR's Russian portal published a news story titled „Tallinn and Ida-Viru high schools could return to Russian studies in full“. The hint that something will change came as a long-awaited message for Russian schools, despite a decade of Russian schools' transition to largely Estonian education. Why are you looking to demotivate Russian schools?

The idea was something else entirely.

What was it?

The idea was that the real problem is the level of Estonian in basic school. We have talked at length about high school; however, the problem starts on the basic school level. The B1 proficiency level required in basic school does not satisfy anyone. Looking at grades, passing 30 percent of the B1 examination means a person does not speak Estonian at all.

Only 30 percent of students pass the B1 exam?

No, people score 30 points our of 100. That is good enough for a national language examination grade of C-minus. The A-level is being able to introduce yourself, while B should be enough for basic communication.

How to ask for bread at the shop?

Perhaps a little more than that. Ability to describe the kind of bread you want. An examination grade of C-minus means that the graduate does not have basic language proficiency.

It has been the conviction for around ten years that if you prescribe a lot of conditions, have inspectors check schools and fine them, that it is enough. It came as a surprise that IRL was prepared to seriously discuss the issue.

It hardly surprises me as people sporting very different political backgrounds, including ministers, have been talking about the need to tackle Estonian language studies more seriously in basic school in recent years. The reason it began on the high school level back in the day was that Russian schools, children, and parents were emotionally not ready for more thorough language studies in lower education levels. They feared children would be turned into Estonian-speakers from the start.

Whatever the case, I feel percentages (60 percent of subjects in Estonian, 40 percent in Russian – ed.) make for an absurd pedagogical requirement. How can you measure whether English class is being taught in Estonian or Russian? Whereas languages make up almost a third of the high school curriculum. Science schools fill another third with mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Schools create more cacophony to meet the 60 percent requirement.

That is not...

... what we really want. I understand it is a political topic; however, if we go to the heart of it, we want them to speak Estonian. I've spent years trying to prove that number of subjects does not equal proficiency. Teach only two subjects; however, use perfect Estonian and zealous motivation to do it. Take if only the European school; while it is a different institution, they only teach one or two subjects in a foreign language.

Usually they have social education or another subject where the class discusses broader social matters for one. The other subject taught in a foreign language is a bit more specific, like biology for example. This shows that the number of subjects does not reflect effectiveness where there is a solid language foundation. I would not concentrate on percentage points; and we are not alleviating language requirements; on the contrary.

So, what is your idea? What do you want to change and for whom?

We want to raise the proficiency requirement to B2 in basic school and C1 by the end of high school. However, we will not do it immediately or in all schools. We will test the idea on a few schools that are ready for it. Deputy Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart (Center Party – ed.) admitted he only dares suggest three or four schools that would be prepared to go along with a system that hikes the language requirement but does not seek credit point percentages. We would launch pilot projects in some schools in 7, 8, 9 grade and aim for the B2 level, while the same students would continue deeper language studies on the high school level to graduate with C1 proficiency.

That would be a six-year pilot project?

It does not rule out some schools suggesting their students take the C1 examination much sooner. Some would have to take the B2 exam, while others would manage the C1 level by the end of high school. It requires methods, study aids. Then we could quietly expand to other schools. While it sounds bad testing things on children, projects were initially tried and resources made available to a few schools also during Soviet times.

Kõlvart has promised that tangible results in a few years' time mean the city would make additional financing available to nearby schools. The state has proposed considerable sums – a quarter of a million euros per school annually. The schools will not be given that money; instead it will be used for study aids etc.

Perhaps we'll redirect the money to the neighboring school in two years and launch the pilot there. The idea is to reach a higher level of proficiency through recognition of best practices.

What would constitute a positive result? Would half the students' ability to pass the C1 examination be enough?

The goal is for everyone to reach that level. There might be some students with special needs who cannot reach that level. B1 in basic school, C1 in high school. Again: we will see the results in 15 years. Having these young people pursue careers in public service without remembering whether they went to an Estonian or Russian school means we've been successful.

I can read from the coalition agreement that small rural area high schools – Leisi, Kullamaa for example – will be given the chance to continue.

There are two aspects here. Firstly that municipal high schools will be retained next to state high schools in 2022-2023. Here there are two reasons: firstly I am not convinced only having state high schools will pay off.

It was already decided not all high schools have to be state high schools.

No, 2022-2023 was to mark the disappearance of all municipal high schools (the direction was towards a national high school education, which does not mean all high schools outside county centers would be closed – A. A.). What to tell Värska, Räpina, Kilingi-Nõmme, or Märjamaa? That they are no longer allowed to exist?

They are doing very well. While they might not have more than one or two sets of classes, their results are good, the community satisfied. I would not like to close them by force. We agreed we would review the situation first. The other matter is financing, that municipal schools lost a third of it.

Do you want to give it back?

Not absolutely. A school with just three or four students per grade cannot be taken seriously. However, looking if only at the lower half of Viljandi County. There is no question regarding the Viljandi state high school – it is functional and powerful; however, I believe that does not mean we should say that people cannot teach children in Mustla or somewhere else come 2023.

There is one thing I personally dislike about this reform: we have likened high school education to  going to university. Failure to send young people from basic school to high schools, no longer near people's homes, creates obstacles on the road towards the next level of education. Financial concerns, shortage of student home places, distances. People need strong motivation to go to high school in that kind of a situation. Weaker students will not get there. Neither the vocational education system nor society in general are ready for the challenge.

Vocational education could be a dead-end road, some will fall off along the way. The fact that 20 percent of our 18-24-year-olds do not have secondary education is too much. That is the consequence. If we had mandatory secondary education in Soviet times, that admittedly had its drawbacks, today we are losing too many people too soon in the school system.

I gather that you rather side with private schools, and that the coalition agreement prescribes covering their expenses?

There are two things here: yes, they receive their local government's average financing and will continue to receive it in 2019. We need to change the law to make it so. I also say that private schools are welcome as part of the network of schools. However, we must also address the shortcomings.

The law will not be a one-sided affair of more money and no questions. We need to rule out schemes were local governments open private schools to secure state financing. All manner of peculiar financial schemes.

The other thing, that I strongly support: we must not abolish our comprehensive school. We cannot have the quality of schools people's children attend depend on their wallet. We cannot afford a situation where we will have good private schools and bad municipal schools at one point. There can be no preferential financing.

I am very grateful to private schools: they all agree that carpet financing is not needed. We will discuss signs of danger and phrase them. It is possible not all will want to charge tuition.

For example the Tartu Catholic School has said they would not charge tuition were it possible to secure financing for their building. They have taken a bank loan and purchased a building from the University of Life Sciences to ensure a good learning environment. They only charge enough tuition to service that loan.

Municipal schools get their building from the local governments that also pay for their upkeep, while private schools must cover costs themselves. Perhaps we will get a Scandinavian-style agreement: private schools are not allowed to charge tuition if local governments pay for their upkeep.

You've said that the state will once again make resources available for the hiring of psychologists, special pedagogues, speech therapists.

We need six million euros to restore the situation before support specialists were separated from teachers and the state no longer paid for them. It came as a shock how small that sum really is.

While local governments might say they need a hundred million, I believe we will be able to reach an agreement. Perhaps something can be organized better.

I would not make it a requirement for every school to have a special pedagogue. Senior pedagogues with experience with special needs, trainings under their belt, they could have the necessary skills to handle difficult children. It is a different story regarding speech therapists.

Will teachers' salary hike, or the 120 percent of the national average included in the agreement, become reality in a few years?

The figures have been entered into the spreadsheet. Next year will be more difficult as that budget is more or less set. We managed to raise salaries by 1-2 percent there. Those few percentage points stand for tens of millions of euros. It is a pittance for every individual teacher; however, the total sum is considerable. If we were to channel the same kind of money into salaries for police officers, results would be more visible. There are a lot of teachers.

However, sums meant for the coming years are impressive, and I hope that the 2018-2022 state budgets will realistically reflect them.

To reach 120 percent of average?

That's the idea. It is clearly a faster hike compared to other areas, and it is causing public debate; however, that is the course we've plotted. I'm very grateful that teachers' salaries did not remain a single party's issue during coalition talks.

It has been my dream all long to finally take a sector, raise salaries within, and cease endless discussions concerning 1-2 percent hikes. Salary advance should come to a little less than 6 percent next year, while we'd like to take that to at least 10 percent annually from there. Wages will grow slightly more than inflation in 2017; however, barring unexpected developments, teachers' salaries should grow twice as fast as the national average from there. It should catch up and overtake the latter.

Why do I remain cautious? I was a minister involved in coalition talks also in 2005-2007. We also agreed on figures back then, while no one could foresee the average salary climbing 30 percent. We regarded a 20 percent hike as colossal, and when the average climbed even faster, teachers' salaries no longer seemed a priority.