National Audit Office: in a quarter of Estonian schools and a third of kindergartens, children do not receive educational support services

11/30/2020 | 11:00 AM

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TALLINN, 30 NOVEMBER, 2020 - Children receive most educational support services they need - support from special education teachers, speech therapists and other specialists - in two-thirds of municipal kindergartens and in three-quarters of basic schools, the NAO reported in its audit report “Availability of educational support services”. In almost a third of kindergartens and a quarter of basic schools, children and adolescents in need of support, a total of more than 8,400, have to get by with much less support than they need, get it elsewhere or remain without any assistance.

In Estonia, in the 2019/2020 academic year, approximately 200,000 children were enrolled in primary and basic education. At least one-fifth of them need educational support services, i.e. mostly assistance from special education teachers, social pedagogues, speech therapists and psychologists, and by law, these services should be available in the educational establishments of their place of residence. During the audit, the NAO established that educational support services are actually available in 64% of municipal kindergartens and 74% of basic schools.

"For many children, timely availability of support services can determine their development and educational success, as well as how they will cope in the society," Auditor General Janar Holm commented on the audit findings. "Unfortunately, these figures show that it is all up to luck and coincidence, as children in need of support may end up in a school or kindergarten where they are not provided with the assistance they need. What is subject to law should not depend on luck. "

The audit revealed that the Ministry of Education and Research has taken important steps in recent years to improve the availability of services by special education teachers, social pedagogues, speech therapists and psychologists in schools. However, majority of the problems cannot be resolved when continuing the same practice.

Many children are left without necessary aid because there are not enough support professionals and teachers alone are not able to provide all the support needed. The survey conducted in kindergartens and schools during the audit showed that there is a lack of support professionals in both rural areas and larger cities. There is a need for additional 1,000 full-time equivalent support professionals. The number of admissions of support professionals at universities has increased recently, but it still does not cover the needs of educational establishments. The number of graduates has long been lower than necessary, and support professionals with similar training are also needed in social and health care institutions.

"We have to admit that we do not and will not have the required number of support professionals. The number of admissions of special educators and speech therapists increased by 46 in 2019/2020, thus, in the previous academic year, 124 specialists started their studies in these specialties. Considering that not all of them will graduate, or start working or keep working in their field, and we will soon see a wave of retiring employees in different fields, the number of professionals entering the labor market is not enough to fill the gap,” commented Auditor General Janar Holm. "The reality is that there is a competition for people in all fields."

At the same time, cities and municipalities can alleviate the shortage of specialists through better organization of support services. For that purpose, some municipalities have created educational support service centres that serve both schools and kindergartens. Such centres allow for a more even distribution of the workload of support professionals between different educational establishments, for professionals to work together and thus to improve the availability of support services. At the time of the audit, there were eight educational support service centres operating in Estonia.

"If we look at the actual number of support professionals apart from what is written in the law, it is quite clear that they are not enough. We need to find smart solutions to make the necessary help available to as many children as possible. The standards for the provision of support services must be adjusted and support services must be provided at least to a minimum level for all those in need, not only those who have been lucky to attend a school with support professionals, ”said Auditor General Janar Holm. A possible solution for older school levels is introducing the age-appropriate e-solutions to a wider extent, such as the e-psychologist or e-speech therapist. This enables to solve situations where a child in need of support is located at one end of Estonia while a specialist who is currently available at the other.

Over the years, teachers have been offered a variety of in-service training in teaching and supporting children with different needs, but teachers still estimate their skills and knowledge for teaching such children as not sufficient. According to the surveyed kindergartens, only 5% of their teachers feel confident in teaching children that need additional support. 25% of schools gave the same evaluation. In order to support teachers in organizing appropriate learning for children and providing support services, it is necessary to ensure effective cooperation between teachers and support professionals.

The NAO is of the opinion that it needs to be decided who will be responsible for the comprehensive coordination of the case of a child in need of support and his or her family. Currently, support services are provided by various municipal and state educational and social services institutions, and the coordinating role is placed with a parent, for whom it is difficult and burdensome to navigate between institutions in different fields.

When amending the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act in 2018, the goal was set to look at the needs of the child and his or her family as a whole and to organize support based on their needs. The Ministry of Education and Research and the Ministry of Social Affairs have started a pilot project of integrated services with municipalities to ensure that a child with special needs could receive necessary services quickly and conveniently. The first results of the pilot project, together with proposals, were scheduled to be submitted to the government in February 2020, but had not yet been submitted at the time of the audit report.

The audit looked into a case of a child, now 10 years old, who needed support services. This child was determined a disability in 2014 and by 2020 the child has passed a total of at least 10 different assessments in the education, social and health care systems in order to receive support services. Several of these assessments were duplicative. "If the assessments were carried out jointly and the services were provided in a coordinated way, more support professionals would become available and more children could be provided with support services. In addition, it is important not to require the parent to run between different institutions and that services are provided in the place where children spend most of their day - usually in kindergarten or school,” Janar Holm added.

In the course of the audit, the NAO found that there are several obstacles to collecting information on the child's needs and the support measures implemented.  Information is not always communicated in a timely manner between educational establishments and parents. This prevents the child from being provided with timely support. Therefore, when a child changes the educational establishment, it is often necessary to start identifying the need for his or her support again or do it without prior data. This prolongs the time until the service can be provided. Inadequate documentation of child development, the lack of a digital child development monitoring information system and the incomplete implementation of the Estonian Education Information System (EHIS) hinder the dissemination of information in kindergartens. In the case of kindergartens, significantly less information can be entered into EHIS compared to schools. The differences in the functionality of EHIS are due to the underdevelopment of the system, as it requires appropriate legal basis. However, the preparation of a new draft law on pre-primary education has been delayed. 

According to kindergartens and schools, the negative attitudes of parents of both, children who need support and those who do not is one of the main reasons that prevent the provision of information about children who need support. Interviews with representatives of educational establishments and the Ministry of Education and Research, both in previous studies and during the audit, confirmed that there are still people in society more generally, as well as in kindergartens and schools, who do not always have a positive attitude towards children in need of support. According to the interviewees, negative attitudes may lead to the labelling of a child and the educational institution or parent being put under pressure (especially by other parents) to separate the child in need of support or to refer them to another educational institution. Therefore, in certain cases, parents of children in need of support prefer not to share information about the child's needs with the educational institution.

At the same time, the audit revealed that the obstacle to sharing or transmitting information is not always parents’ unwillingness, but rather their lack of awareness of how to support their child and navigate between services and different institutions. Though, the parent ultimately decides on the sharing of information about the child, his or her decision should not endanger the child's well-being. Educational institutions, including the head of an educational institution, also play an important role in shaping attitudes and raising awareness.

The provision of support services for kindergartens has received less attention. In 2018, clearer requirements were introduced to support pupils in need of support in basic school, and the government also increased state budget support to organise the teaching of these pupils and provide them with support services. However, several planned amendments to the law on kindergartens have been delayed.

As a result, municipalities have often created better opportunities to support schoolchildren than kindergarteners, and support services are not provided in kindergartens or schools in an integral manner. The NAO emphasizes that the obligation of municipalities to ensure support services to kindergartens has not decreased compared to the past. The lack of relevant support in the kindergarten that meets the needs of a child may lead to a greater need for support and higher costs at school.

Background

Inclusive education has been one of the principles in developing the organization of education in Estonia for at least ten years. The local government as a school administrator has a key role to play in ensuring pre-primary and basic education. According to the Education Act, the Ministry of Education and Research has the obligation to instruct and coordinate municipalities. At the same time, the ministry is responsible, through supervision, for ensuring compliance with the state education standard and the availability of high-quality education

The audit revealed that the number of children attending special schools or classes has not decreased over the years and their distribution has remained virtually unchanged (see figure), although more emphasis has been placed on promoting inclusive education in recent years.

Figure. Basic school pupils with special educational needs and their distribution based on the organization of studies in 2015–2019

During the audit, the National Audit Office assessed whether

  • information about the need of a child for support is exchanged smoothly between the parties offering help, and the child receives support from one place;
  • the Ministry of Education and Research has created conditions for educational establishments to have support professionals and teachers with the required training teach and support children at educational establishments;
  • the Ministry of Education and Research has organised the funding of the provision of support services so that a child can be provided aid both in kindergarten and at basic school; 
  • the Ministry of Education and Research assesses the efficiency of the organisation of support services.

 

Priit Simson
Head of Communications of the National Audit Office of Estonia
+37256150280
+3726400101
priit.simson@riigikontroll.ee
press@riigikontroll.ee

  • Posted: 11/30/2020 11:00 AM
  • Last Update: 11/30/2020 1:06 PM
  • Last Review: 11/30/2020 1:06 PM

During the audit, the NAO established that educational support services are actually available in 64% of municipal kindergartens and 74% of basic schools.

Järva Teataja/Scanpix

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