Estonian language training and Estonian-language education in schools with Russian as the language of instruction requires more fastidiousness

6/8/2023 | 10:00 AM

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TALLINN, 8 June 2023 – Although students in schools with Russian as the language of instruction complete at least 1,050 Estonian language lessons during the nine years of basic school, one-third fail to achieve the target level of language proficiency, B1, which would allow them to successfully continue their studies at the next level of education. The National Audit Office finds that improving the level of Estonian language training and transitioning to an Estonian-language subject teaching requires more teachers proficient in Estonian and greater fastidiousness from the state and local governments.

Although according to the national goal set many years ago, 90% of graduates of Russian-language basic school should have attained B1 level by 2020, only 63% actually attained it during the period 2005–2020. This shortcoming affects the future education of students because few students that have not attained the B1 level by the end of basic school reach Estonian-language higher education. According to experts, the current number of Estonian language lessons in basic school prescribed in the national curriculum is sufficient to attain the required language proficiency, it is sufficient even to attain the higher, B2 level.

In its report published today, the National Audit Office finds that the Ministry of Education and Research should be much more active and systematic in ensuring the level of Estonian language training. “Problems with language proficiency have been known for a long time, but they remain unresolved,” Auditor General Janar Holm found. For many years, the ministry has been aware of the poor language level of graduates of Russian-language basic schools but does not consider direct intervention and direct imposition of sanctions to be its task, viewing language proficiency as just one learning outcome among others that graduates of basic school must master. Improving Estonian language training and solving problems related to the transition to Estonian-language education cannot be left solely to local governments and heads of school. The gap between the current and the target level is too large, and the solutions proposed to date are not commensurate with the magnitude of the task.

The National Audit Office points out that teachers and heads of school who do not meet the language requirements have been able to continue in their positions for a long time. Heads of school as employers have had great difficulties in finding Estonian language teachers and teachers teaching in Estonian. Support from local governments as school administrators to find missing teachers has been mostly occasional.

“In order for students to know the Estonian language well, it is first necessary for the teachers to know the Estonian language,” Auditor General Janar Holm said. According to the Ministry of Education and Research, the language proficiency of 1,300 teachers of Russian-language basic school does not meet the required level. Teachers teaching subjects in Russian are required to have a B2 language level, while the mandatory level for teachers teaching Estonian or in Estonian is C1. By 2030 at the latest, all teachers will be required to have a language level C1, which means that the number of teachers who need additional language training will increase even more.

In order to manage the transition to Estonian-language education, a continuous overview of the teacher’s actual language proficiency is required. The transition is possible only if teachers are actually proficient in Estonian. The audit showed that the data on teachers’ language proficiency available in registers does not reflect the actual language proficiency of teachers. While data is being collected, it is neither organised nor reliable and cannot be relied upon to make high-quality educational policy decisions. One of the prerequisites for a successful transition is the organisation of the data in the register, which makes it possible to get an operational overview of the language proficiency of teachers.

The National Audit Office established that local governments do not obligate school staff to improve their language proficiency, there is neither an effective “carrot” nor “stick”. The audited local governments have mostly not implemented measures that would motivate school staff to improve their language proficiency, such as additional funding, training and cooperation projects. At the same time, there is also no closer control that would pressure school staff to decisively improve their proficiency in Estonian and bring it up to meet the requirements. Even if the poor language skills of school staff are identified, the problem remains unresolved. To improve language proficiency, it is necessary to find a solution to combine language training and work.

According to the National Audit Office, the potential of effective language training methods, such as content and language integrated learning, including early language immersion, has not been taken advantage of enough. The majority of students in a language immersion class attain the required B1 language level. However, only approximately one-fifth of graduates of basic school have studied in language immersion classes.

According to the National Audit Office, the Ministry of Education and Research should develop clear criteria for which problems, to what extent and with which methods the ministry should intervene in the management of schools in order to help schools in a weaker position along in transitioning to Estonian-language education. From the next academic year, the transition to Estonian-language education will begin in the 1st and 4th grades, and the need for teachers proficient in Estonian will gradually increase. Given that, for many years, it has not been possible to achieve the language proficiency goals set for graduates of basic school and Russian-language schools have been unable to achieve a breakthrough in improving the Estonian language proficiency of teachers, the transition to Estonian-language education in the proposed schedule is a task that requires an exceptionally big effort.

The Ministry of Education and Research must find fundamentally new tools to achieve the goal – it is not possible to achieve the result by doing more of the same. The need for a different approach is revealed by the fact that the effectiveness of language training is not improving, instead it sometimes worsens. This is shown by the results of the standard-determining test in Estonian as the second language: while in 2015, 78% of students who completed the 6th grade standard-determining test attained A2 level, only 43% of 7th grade students attained A2 level in 2022.


In the audit, the National Audit Office looked at schools were students can acquire basic education in Russian and/or in a language immersion class. Private schools and schools for children with special educational needs were excluded from the audit. The audit covered the period from 2005 to 2020, i.e. academic years 2005/2006 to 2019/2020. A total of 90 schools with 6,658 school staff and 41,591 basic school graduates were surveyed.

By the end of basic school, a student should have acquired proficiency in Estonian at the B1 level (independent language user). A B1 level language user can talk on a familiar topic, such as work, school, leisure, and describe experiences, events, dreams and goals, and give a brief explanation and description of their views and plans. In addition, the language user is able to convey the contents of a story, book and film and describe his or her impressions. In addition, such a language user is able to write a simple text on a familiar or interesting topic as well as to write a personal letter, describing his or her experiences and impressions.

The main goal of the transition to Estonian-language education is to provide all Estonian children, regardless of their mother tongue, with the opportunity to acquire high-quality Estonian-language education. The transition to Estonian-language education will begin in 2024, and the reform is scheduled to be completed in 2030.

Priit Simson

Head of Communications of the National Audit Office of Estonia

+372 640 0102
+372 5615 0280
[email protected]
[email protected]

  • Posted: 6/8/2023 10:00 AM
  • Last Update: 6/8/2023 10:19 AM
  • Last Review: 6/8/2023 10:19 AM

While in 2015, 78% of students who completed the 6th grade standard-determining test attained A2 level, only 43% of 7th grade students attained A2 level in 2022.

Arno Mikkor / EPL / Scanpix Baltics

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