Parties careful when talking about school reform

Vilja Kiisler
, toimetaja
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Photo: Elmo Riig

While most parties are talking about a common Estonian school while gearing up for elections, they all have their messages for the voter. Pro Patria stands apart from the rest, talking about a unified Estonian education system instead of a common school.

One of the leaders of Estonia 200 Kristina Kallas has repeatedly said that preparedness for switching to a common school has grown in Estonia. Her words are backed up by a social integration monitoring from 2017 which found that only a tenth of parents of Russian-speaking children prefer a purely Russian basic school.

Kallas does not share some people’s concern over whether there would be enough teachers; more so as she believes the reform should happen step by step, starting by having first-graders attend common school in 2019 for example.

“For instance: Tapa, that has two schools, decides that first grades will be opened only in the Estonian school in 2019. Grade 1b could either be taught in Russian or function as a language immersion class but would not be opened in a different school,” Kallas says.

The Russian basic school would continue teaching existing grades but would no longer open first grades. “This would require no extra teachers at first as the teacher who would have gotten the first grade at the Russian school would simply go work at the Estonian basic school,” Kallas adds. She does admit that teachers would need additional training.

Representative of the Social Democrat Party (SDE) Toomas Jürgenstein says that a vision of the future of Estonian and Russian education means moving toward a common school. This would see Estonian, Russian and other children learning together in a single building, attending the same classes and events.

At the same time, Russian students would have access to Russian language and culture studies in their native tongue. Jürgenstein adds that this kind of a school model will take years to implement and that regional peculiarities will have to be kept in mind.

Head of the Reform Party Kaja Kallas says that the party’s goal in Estonia is a common kindergarten and school system where subjects are taught primarily in Estonian and where Estonian and Russian children study together.

“During the transition, interests and ability of students coming from a different school system will have to be considered. It is also necessary to organize retraining for teachers from the Russian school system,” she adds.

The program of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) prescribes a gradual switch to the Estonian language in kindergarten that will continue in school.

“This would ensure a switch to fully Estonian education in approximately ten years,” says deputy chairman Martin Helme. “We will start with the youngest who will learn to communicate in Estonian in kindergarten. They will move into the next grade already speaking Estonian. And when they graduate from preschool, they will simply attend Estonian school as Estonian-speakers,” Helme explains.

The Center Party’s plan as explained by Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps is as follows: kindergartens must teach in Estonian or in Estonian and Russian so that at least one teacher only speaks Estonian. This means requiring children to speak Estonian and teaching them to speak the language.

Reps believes it is best if parents can choose between kindergartens. “For example, there is a great rush to get into the Narva state high school,” Reps says. “Perhaps we should create special opportunities in difficult regions? Such measures would work faster than simply amending legislation or hiking fines and penalties.”

Representative of Pro Patria Priit Sibul says that his party imagines a universal Estonian-language education system. The long-term goal is a switch to fully Estonian education, Sibul says.

“It is the position of Pro Patria that the state budget should only be used to fund schools that teach in the official language – Estonian,” he emphasizes.

Head of the Estonian Greens Züleyxa Izmailova finds that switching to teaching in Estonian by amending the law is neither possible, practicable nor needed.

“We need to offer much better opportunities for learning Estonian already in kindergarten and elementary school,” Izmailova says. While she believes the concept proposed by Estonia 200 is the right one, Izmailova is very skeptical in terms of whether it can be realized.

Head of the Free Party Andres Herkel says that everything starts with Estonian kindergarten. Once that exists, the question of whether separate schools for Estonians and Russians can exist is no longer relevant.