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Cablegate: Estonian School Reform in Action


DE RUEHTL #0738/01 3181258
R 141258Z NOV 07




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF A)05 TALLINN 1152 B)06 TALLINN 418

1. (U) SUMMARY: On September 1, 2007, all 58 public
Russian language high schools in Estonia began teaching
Estonian Literature in the Estonian language. This
program, which affects approximately 8,500 Russian-
speaking students, is the first step of a gradual
transition to reach the point where 60 percent of
classroom instruction in Russian high schools is taught
in the Estonian language by 2011. While some members of
the Russian-speaking community had previously criticized
the GOE's plan (ref A and B), early assessments indicate
that implementation is proceeding smoothly. At the same
time, the Government of Estonia (GOE) has acknowledged --
and is working to address -- several areas of concern,
such as teacher shortages and lack of resources. END


2. (U) Convincing Russian speakers in Estonia to speak
Estonian is a major political issue and has been for some
time (Ref A). Part of the GOE's efforts includes a
policy of 'transitioning' schools; i.e., persuading
schools where subjects are taught in the main in Russian
to accept a program that is predominantly taught in the
Estonian language. The Estonian national education
curriculum has mandated instruction in Estonian language
courses in primary schools where the language of
instruction is not Estonian, since 1999. In addition,
since 2000, 30 Russian language middle schools (out of a
total of 58), and 24 Russian language kindergartens (out
of 70), have joined a voluntary language immersion
program in which students receive instruction and
specialized materials on a wide range of subjects in both
Estonian and Russian. Currently, half of all non-Estonian
middle schools apply language immersion methods and
approximately 3,400 Russian speaking students (out of a
total student population of 33,308), study in special
language immersion schools and kindergartens.

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3. (U) Estonia's Parliament adopted the current
transition program, a component of the 'Basic School and
Upper Secondary School Act', in 1997 (ref A). The Act
envisioned a ten-year preparation period prior to
implementation of the program. The National Action Plan
(NAP), adopted by parliament in March 2006, mapped out
funding provisions for the transition and a preliminary
proposal outlining the order in which subsequent subjects
to be taught in Estonian would be introduced (ref B).
The NAP only affects instruction at the high school or
gymnasium level, which is not compulsory in Estonia.
Students at this level may also choose to attend
vocational or trade schools, which are not affected by
the transition program.

4. (U) This fall, the MOE updated the instructions
outlined in the NAP in order to better guide the future
stages of the transition program. At the start of the
school year in September, all 58 public Russian-language
high schools introduced Estonian literature classes in
Estonian. According to the NAP, in the 2008-2009
academic year, schools must implement a second subject in
Estonian, either music or civics. The following year,
schools must introduce a third course in Estonian (the
subject they did not choose the previous year.) In the
fourth and fifth years of the program, schools will
introduce Estonian history and world geography in
Estonian respectively.

Creating a sphere of equality

5. (U) According to the MOE and the non-Estonians'
Integration Foundation, the primary goal of the education
transition program is to guarantee equal study and
working opportunities for all graduates of Estonian
public schools. All public Estonian universities employ
Estonian as the language of instruction, and the majority
of public sector jobs in Estonia require fluency in
Estonian as a primary qualification. A basic level
competency in Estonian is also required in order to
obtain Estonian citizenship. Prior to graduating from
public secondary schools, all non-native Estonian-
speaking students are required to take an Estonian
language proficiency exam. These exams have been
integrated with the national language proficiency exams.
Upon graduation, students receive an intermediate level
proficiency certificate which can be used when applying
for citizenship.

The Russian perspective

6. (U) An October 2007 poll by Saar, the largest
marketing research firm in Estonia, showed that two-
thirds of Russian speakers in Estonia are very concerned
about introducing Estonian languages classes in high
schools. They fear that the overall quality of education
for Russian speakers will decline and command of the
Russian language will deteriorate. Over the course of
the past year, several articles have appeared in the
Russian-speaking press criticizing the transition. Some
reports suggested that the transition is an attempt to
'assimilate' rather than 'integrate' Russians. One
article said the transition program could create a
situation in which Russian students graduate with
inferior skills and are not able to compete with their
Estonian counterparts in the labor market. The articles
quoted parents who fear that if their children do choose
to attend secondary school, they will lose their
familiarity with both the Russian language and cultural
identity. At the same time, they fear their children
will also receive lower scores than Estonian students in
subjects taught in Estonian, thereby decreasing their
competitive edge at the university level (ref A).
However, despite the rhetoric, there were no reported
incidents of protest occurring on the first day of
classes in September.

7. (SBU) During a recent meeting, Vadim Vaisiliev, a
diplomat from the Russian Embassy, told Polecoff that
some Russian parents have told him they are afraid their
children will choose to go to vocational school instead
of secondary school in order to avoid the Estonian
language requirement. Vaisiliev noted that during Soviet
times people could choose their language of school
instruction, whether it was Russian or Estonian. He
commented that Russian speakers will learn Estonia if
they want to, but he did not see the specific need to
force instruction in Estonian. Vaisiliev also commented
that he thinks the intent of the program is to decrease
the influence of Russian as opposed to strengthening

8. (U) In contrast, the MOE views the transition program
as a means of providing Russian-speaking students with
equal access to Estonia's employment and education
markets. The NAP currently calls for only one hour of
instruction a week in Estonian, and has put in place
measures at the middle school level to ensure students
possess adequate Estonian language skills prior to
reaching high school. At the university level, the GOE
will pay for one year of Estonian language training for
students with insufficient knowledge of Estonian. The MOE
has also publicly recognized the importance of Russian
language and literature studies and has said that
instruction in these subject areas will not be reduced.

Addressing deficiencies

9. (U) According to a 2006 study conducted by the MOE,
the availability of high quality study materials
(textbooks and supplemental texts) used by Russian
schools is a priority concern. Under the NAP, the MOE is
supposed to provide high school students affected by the
transition program with free textbooks with companion CDs
and dictionaries. The MOE has also formed a council of
master teachers which is in charge of preparing all
transition teaching materials. The NAP also allocates
funds dedicated to updating teaching materials for native
Russian speakers (ref B).

10. (U) Officials at the MOE and in the Ministry of
Population Affairs remain concerned, however, about the
use of 'unofficial' instructional materials by teachers
in the Russian schools ' including Russian Federation-
produced textbooks and news reports. There are many
reports that teachers use these materials to supplement,
replace and/or contradict official texts. However, as
one official told us, the MOE does not have the resources
to 'monitor what is going on in every classroom in
Estonia,' and so must 'trust their instructors to use the
proper texts.'

11. (U) Both the MOE and the non-Estonian Integration
Foundation are concerned that there will not be enough
qualified teachers to teach the additional Estonian-
language classes each year. Extremely low salaries and a
lack of prestige associated with the teaching profession
are both major factors contributing to the problem.
Currently, the average teacher's salary in Estonia is
8,260 eek a month. MOE has proposed several initiatives
intended to attract teachers to critical shortage areas
(including Narva where 98 percent of the population
speaks Russian and it is very difficult to find teachers
who speak Estonian). Teachers willing to work in 'high
needs' schools outside of Tartu and Tallinn and who
pledge a five-year commitment will receive an additional
200,000 eek (just over USD 19,000). Teachers who resign
before the contract expires will be required to pay back
a percentage of the money. In July 2007, the Vice
Chancellor of the MOE announced that Russian language
schools will also received an additional 70,000 eek
(6,500 USD) for each subject they offer in Estonian
beyond what is required by the NAP. Individual school
principals will have discretion concerning how to
distribute the money, but it is expected that it will be
used primarily to increase the salaries of Russian- and
Estonian-language teachers. (A representative from the
MOE was quick to point out to polecoff that the MOE
realizes the importance of supporting Russian-language
teachers during this transition as well).

12. (SBU) COMMENT: Despite earlier criticism from the
Russian-speaking community and press outlets during the
planning stages of the language transition project, it is
striking how little controversy has surrounded the actual
implementation. This may in fact mean that schools were
well prepared and students and parents were more
accepting of the transition once they had an opportunity
to observe it in practice. Officials from the MOE state
that it is too early to measure the success of the
transition program. However, there are plans to initiate
a counseling process with individual schools and prepare
a questionnaire for 10th graders concerning attitudes
towards the transition and quality of materials provided.
Teachers, parents and principals will also participate in
the discussion. Post will continue to follow and report
on developments in this area. End Comment.


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