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Russian-language schools’ transition to partial Estonian-language instruction – What is happening and why?

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31 January 2013

Estonia is one of the few European Union member states whose education system includes publicly financed schools that provide an education in languages other than the official state language. Russian-language education is available in public and private schools at all levels – preschool, basic, and secondary – as well as in vocational schools and in some higher education institutions. About 20% of all schoolchildren in Estonia attend Russian-language basic and secondary schools between the ages of 7 and 19. Basic school education (grades 1-9) is mandatory and the language of instruction in these schools is determined by their owners, usually the municipal government.

At the secondary education level (grades 10-12, which are not mandatory) the language of instruction is defined by the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act. The act stipulates that the language of instruction is to be Estonian for at least 60% of studies in all public schools, including those that once taught only in Russian. The remaining 40% of the curriculum can be taught in another language chosen by the school.

The goal of transitioning to Estonian as a language of instruction for secondary education is to encourage all students to practise the state language in different linguistic situations, helping to ensure that they will have equal opportunities to obtain higher education, participate in society, and be successful in the labour market. It is also an important means of integration that can increase the cohesion of society.

In the 2011/12 academic year, Estonian was introduced as the main language of instruction in the first year of secondary school. The transition is expected to be complete in the spring of 2014, when the students for whom at least 60% of the entire secondary school curriculum has been taught in Estonian will graduate. All students who complete a Russian-language basic school and choose to go on to secondary school will, from that point on, receive 60% of their teaching in Estonian and 40% in Russian. This regulation does not apply to vocational or adult education.

The implementation of the transition to Estonian as a language of instruction has been flexible. The 60% of studies to be completed in Estonian must include five subjects stipulated by the government – Estonian literature, social studies, geography, music, and Estonian history. Additional subjects to be taught in Estonian may be chosen by individual schools, taking into consideration their field of study, the interests of the students, and the available resources. This flexibility has inspired schools to diversify their curricula and sometimes to engage in co-operation with higher education institutions, thereby creating better educational opportunities for their students. The students themselves are able to choose the language of their final exam and exam questions are prepared in both languages. So far, it seems that students have generally chosen to take their final exam in the language that was used to teach the class.

How the transition was carried out

The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act was approved in 1993. Transition planning began in 1997 and preparations for transition were allowed to take place gradually, over 14 years. Regrettably, since the approval of the Act in 1993, this transition has been the object of populist and undue criticism, which has somewhat drawn out the process. On a positive note, those schools that have voluntarily adopted the changes ahead of schedule can already attest to their effectiveness, providing a positive example for schools that are proceeding at their own pace.

The transition to the partial use of Estonian as a language of instruction in Russian-language secondary schools began in 2007, after ten years of preparations. Each year after that, one mandatory subject to be taught in Estonian was added to the school curriculum.

All Russian-language schools were involved in planning the transition to Estonian-language instruction. Schools have received comprehensive support and supplementary training opportunities to help them conduct lessons in Estonian, promote Estonian-language study, and buy newly developed instructional materials. Higher salaries have also been offered to teachers teaching in Estonian. A total of 2.4 million euros was allocated to supporting the transition between 2007 and 2011.

The secondary schools that were able to complete the transition before the deadline have served as a good example for others. The results of a study conducted on students graduating from these schools clearly show that the change of language has not negatively affected their ability to achieve good academic results. In Estonia, the media traditionally ranks secondary schools according to their students' average scores in national exams. The schools that have made the most significant progress in these rankings are the Russian-language schools that have already transitioned to partial Estonian instruction. Feedback from school directors and parents at schools that have implemented more Estonian-language instruction than the required minimum has also been positive.

A particularly valuable form of language instruction that was developed in Canada and has been implemented successfully in Estonia is the language immersion programme. In this method, the learners' second language is used as the principal medium of classroom instruction. Its main purpose is to foster bilingualism and in Estonia it is primarily aimed at the preschool level, with new nursery schools joining the programme on a steady basis. Schools participate voluntarily and of Russian-speaking pupils in basic schools, 13.5% are involved in a language immersion programme; the rest learn the language through traditional language learning instruction. To graduate from basic school, all students must be able to speak Estonian to at least B1 level.

Some parents among the Russian-speaking minority have expressed concern over the fate of Russian language and cultural studies if part of the curriculum is taught in Estonian. The Ministry of Education and Research has developed a communication programme to dispel such concerns. Parents are reminded that the fully Russian-language basic schools in Estonia will remain unchanged. In secondary school, 40% of subjects will still be taught in Russian and the number of Russian language and literature classes, which is currently equal to the number of Estonian language and literature classes taught in fully Estonian-language secondary schools, will not decrease. Further, since at the secondary school level schools must choose a national study plan that includes at least three fields of study, there are opportunities to provide more lessons on Russian language and culture through elective subjects.

There are more than 190 different nationalities and ethnic groups represented in Estonia. Thanks to the promotion of Russian language and culture through the public education system, the Russian-speaking minority enjoys the best opportunities of any minority group.