ECRI 5th report on Estonia (excerpts on education), 2015



With regard to integration, Russian-speaking citizens and people of undetermined citizenship have not been sufficiently consulted on the implementation of the Language Act, in particular concerning the acquisition of citizenship. This legislation could result in indirect discrimination with regard to access to employment for persons whose mother tongue is not Estonian. The move to a system where upper secondary schools are obliged to teach 60% of subjects in Estonian reveals further shortcomings. The performance of students in Russian-language schools is poorer than in Estonian-language schools. However, this gap has decreased over recent years. [..]



I. Common topics


4. Integration policies


– The results of these policies


60. However, a more detailed analysis is necessary, as the issues surrounding integration, in ECRI’s view, go far beyond the substance of successive Estonian integration strategies. Such an analysis could draw on the detailed recommendations which ECRI made in the 4th cycle, in particular with regard to: [..] support for teachers and schools in the transition to having 60% of subjects taught in Estonian for the higher secondary education cycle; conditions for being granted citizenship; equal treatment and reduction of inequalities in the employment field; the situation of the Roma; and the lack of data on equality.


65. Lastly, ECRI notes a worrying aspect of the Language Act. This Act provides that those who have had their education in Estonian are exempt from the language tests, which nonetheless remain compulsory for those who have had their education in other languages.33 The same exemption is made for those who have completed their vocational education in Estonian and work in the occupational area stipulated on their leaving certificate.34 The Language Act describes the language competency levels by reference to the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR).35 The fact is that the various linguistic levels set out by the CEFR, and particularly the higher levels (B2, C1 and C2), lay down requirements going far beyond purely language skills. For example, the ability to give a presentation, debate or argue a case convincingly does not require merely language skills, but also involves conceptual, logical and cognitive abilities which are independent of the language in which the speaker expresses himself or herself. Yet the Language Act very clearly indicates that the requirements for proficiency in and use of Estonian are defined in relation to the level required for fulfilling the tasks inherent in the job in question. ECRI considers that this approach could reveal a case of indirect discrimination36 in terms of access to employment vis-à-vis those whose language of education was not Estonian.37

33 Citizenship Act, Article 8.5 and Language Act, Articles 26.3 and 26.4.

34 Language Act, Article 26.5.

35 Language Act, Article 23.3.

36 CERD 2014: § 10.a.

37 A major study showed that Russian-speakers believe that the Language Act represents a form of indirect discrimination against them, on the ground that this Act lays down language requirements which certain occupational groups could not satisfy. According to this study, the Russian-speakers feel that the Estonian language policy places undue emphasis on strictly language skills, to the detriment of vocational skills. See Kallas et al., Equal treatment in Estonia: awareness and promotion, research report, 2013, p.42.

66. ECRI recommends that the authorities carry out a linguistic and legal expert analysis to verify that the Language Act does not entail indirect discrimination in access to employment against those for whom Estonian was not the language of education.


68. Concerning the transition to having 60% of subjects taught in Estonian for the higher secondary education cycle, ECRI notes that civil society representatives have expressed regret that despite the seminars and training courses organised by the Ministry of Education to this end,38 the authorities have not provided support for this transition by offering schools appropriate assistance. They criticise the fact that certain teachers do not have an adequate level of proficiency in Estonian, that course material is unsuitable and that there is a general problem of the quality of teaching in the schools concerned.39 ECRI notes, however, that PISA tests carried out by the OECD in 2006, 2009 and 2012 show that the performance of students in Russian-language schools is poorer than that of students in Estonian-language schools. However, according to the latest PISA tests this gap has decreased.40 Furthermore, a major study41 has shown that the gap between the performance in PISA tests of those taught in Estonian and those taught in Russian could not be explained by the quality of the teaching, nor by the social and family context of the children, but rather by a different approach to teaching methods and by the socio-economic context of the schools.

38 ACFC 2014: p. 34.

39 ENAR 2013: 21 et seq.

40 Ministry of Education and Research 2013.

41 Lindeman 2011.

69. In 2014, the Estonian authorities tasked a multidisciplinary group with analysing the efficiency of studies in Russian-medium schools affected by the transition to 60% of subjects to be taught in Estonian, 42 in particular by means of a critical appraisal of the various studies already carried out on this subject and by collecting information and data in the field. This study showed that the transition had taken place successfully if one looked at the formal indicators designated when this reform was adopted (a rate of 93% was recorded). However, this indicator may not adequately reflect the actual situation. The study also showed that this transition had not improved language skills in general as it had been excessively focused on acquisition of knowledge relating to the subjects taught in Estonian and not on the ability to integrate into society. Contrary to the data from the PISA study referred to above (see § 68), the study also showed that general quality of teaching in the subjects concerned had suffered as a result of the reform. It also indicated that teachers and headteachers had a more positive vision than the pupils, a large number of whom said that they viewed this reform as discrimination and the way it had been implemented as a humiliation. ECRI understands that the Ministry of Education and Research has already worked out an extensive intervention plan for raising the quality of teaching and learning in these schools.

42 Report about the efficiency of studies in Russian-medium upper secondary schools upon transition to upper secondary schools studies in Estonian (at least 60% of compulsory courses) 2015.

70. ECRI recommends that the authorities step up their efforts to bring rapidly up to the required standard the linguistic level in Estonian of the teachers employed in the schools affected by the transition to 60% of subjects to be taught in Estonian.


II. Questions relating specifically to Estonia

1. Interim follow-up recommendations of the 4th cycle
– With regard to the quality of education for Russian-speakers

83. In its 4th report, ECRI recommended that the Estonian authorities take all possible measures to ensure the quality of education while strengthening Estonian language instruction to Russian-speaking children and respecting their identity. ECRI added that this should include monitoring the achievement levels of children and strengthening the training of Russian-language school teachers to teach in Estonian in accordance with the reforms set out in the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, by, amongst other things, investing the necessary human and financial resources to that end.

84. These points have been analysed in the section on integration policies (see §§68 and 69) and ECRI refers to the recommendations made in that section (see §70).


– With regard to the placement of Roma children in special schools

87. In its 4th report, ECRI urged the Estonian authorities to remove Roma children who were not disabled from special schools and reintegrate them into mainstream schools; in addition, all necessary steps should be taken to avoid such unjustified placements in the future.

88. In its conclusions on the implementation of the recommendations in respect of Estonia subject to interim follow-up, ECRI noted that no new cases had been reported, but that it had not received any information on the five cases specified during the 4th cycle. According to the Estonian authorities, only one Roma child was today in a special school, further to a medical diagnosis. In addition, the authorities have indicated that the Ministry of Education and Research initiated in autumn 2014 a two-year project of educational counselling for teachers aiming to keep Roma children who have a medical diagnosis of “mild intelligence challenge” in mainstream schools.

89. ECRI once again recommends that the authorities take measures to ensure that Roma children who are not disabled are no longer placed in special schools.

Document data: CRI(201 5)36 Adopted 16.06.2015, public 13.10.2015. Link: Also available in French and Estonian

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