Estonia braced for its own school reform

  • 2005-01-19
  • By Steve Roman
TALLINN - A governmental plan to shift the main language of instruction in the nation's Russian high schools to Estonian is being viewed with uncertainty and pessimism by principals and teachers, a recent survey by the TNS Emor pollster has revealed.

The planned reform, specified in the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, would basically put Estonia on the same path as Latvia and require that 60 percent of instruction in grades 10 's 12 be held in the state language. The reform would affect both Russian-language schools and so-called "mixed" schools where ethnic Russian and Estonian pupils are taught in parallel.

Implementation of the controversial reform is set to begin in 2007, starting with students entering the 10th grade.

Though an overwhelming majority of principals and teachers at the Russian-language schools are generally in favor of some instruction in Estonian, most are skeptical about the new language ratio and how it will be carried out, the survey showed.

Of principals polled, 63 percent were concerned about the reform, 29 percent were negative or worried, and only 8 percent were optimistic and considered it necessary. Attitudes of teachers surveyed were slightly more polarized, with 35 percent pessimistic, 12 percent optimistic and the rest falling under what the report terms as the "worried" category.

"Regardless of the fact that they are predominantly aware of the need for subjects in Estonian, they are considerably more negative toward the 2007 reform," the survey concluded.

Piia Tammpuu, the TNS Emor project manager who undertook the study for Estonia's Integration Foundation, explained the main concerns.

"There's a kind of fear or uncertainty [with regard] to what extent students can understand the subject in a different language," she said, "how much time they have to spend on translation, and to what extent they are free to express their thoughts and opinions in class."

On a more practical level, the largest potential roadblock toward implementing the reform is a lack of teachers with necessary training, the report suggested.

Measures to address this problem are already underway in the form of specialized classes for teachers at Narva College, as well as a program for Estonian language training for teachers, according to Maie Soll, advisor on non-Estonian education at the Ministry of Education and Research.

A large part of the pessimism, in Tammpuu's opinion, stems from the fact that too few specifics are known about how the reform will in fact be carried out. "If you don't know exactly what's going to happen, you're uncertain and you might be more negative and more skeptical … [school faculty] definitely expect more certainty about what is going to happen and how it is going to happen, and what it means for children, for teachers and for schools," she said.

Hille Hinsberg, head of public relations for the Integration Foundation, agreed that more work needed to be done to iron out specifics and communicate them to the schools. "The solution… must lie in explaining further the details of actually implementing the transition… discussing the options and the models that [the schools] have selected and then helping them with advice on how to sort out all the technicalities," she said.

Kristjan Haller, deputy secretary general at the Education Ministry Research, acknowledged the difficulties due to the current lack of bilingual teachers, but was optimistic about the success of the planned reform. "There might of course be some problems, but it's not so serious," he said.

He cited new incentives, including higher pay, that the ministry would give bilingual teachers, as well as what he sees as an encouraging tendency among ethnic Russian parents to encourage their children to attend Estonian language schools.

He was also dismissive to the likelihood of a widespread backlash against the reform. A nearly identical measure introduced in Latvia last year sparked widespread protests in Riga, with Russian-speaking students and parents calling it an infringement of their minority rights.

"We have analyzed the experience of [our] Latvian colleagues and are planning to better establish a dialogue between the state and the community of teachers, pupils and parents. Already this year we are planning to issue information booklets, to work with focus groups and to discuss problems in the press," he said.

For those charged with undertaking the changes, the practical problem of qualified teachers is still daunting.

"Yes we will need new staff to be able to switch part of the subjects into Estonian, but Narva is not an attractive destination for young teachers. We mostly hope to solve the staffing issue with our own graduates, who would return to Narva after getting their university degree [in teaching]." said Tatyana Zarutskih, headmaster of Pahklimae High School in Narva.

Others are still worried about the wider effect that such a drastic switch in the language of instruction might have on future generations of Estonia's ethnic Russians.

Irina Ferman, a school teacher in Tallinn, is resigned to the reforms, but is concerned for children who cannot express themselves in subjects such as literature, which she considers vital to character development as well as a student's sense of cultural identity.

"In reality they will make the change because it's cheaper and simpler. But it would be better to invest the money in the development of Russian culture," she said.