«Optimum» elusive for schools network

10 July 2014

Local governments say they won’t close down undersized schools before the money runs out or numbers of kids drop to critical limit. They say: education ministry, eager to cut schools network, fails to grasp local conditions.

In Kose Commune, Harju County, six schools are currently running. Thought the small town does have a gymnasium, Kosejõe basic school operates three kilometres from Kose, teaching 52 children with special needs. Nine kilometres to the other side of Kose, Harmi basic school operates with 28 students, less than five in each class. In addition to that, the commune features Oru basic school, Kose-Uuemõisa nursery-primary school, and Ardu school.

According to Kose Commune assistant mayor Ott Valdma, the numbers of pupils may be low but they are not about to close any of the school in upcoming four years. In the locals, the desire to maintain a school near home is fiery, and till the money is there the schools will continue.

«Figuratively speaking, Kose Gymnasium and Oru basic school are subsidizing all the rest of the schools with their small classes. Thanks to that, the money is enough,» admits Mr Valdma.

Praxis, the think-tank recently publishing its school network forecast, has concluded that by 2020 number of basic schools in Estonia should come down by 132, and that of gymnasiums by at least 136. At that, Kose Commune is among the «sinners» who, if willing, could immediately close down three schools.

Should they do that, the remaining schools would be large enough to guarantee quality and filled with pupils to 70 percent at least. The closest basic school would be within five kilometres for every student, and the gymnasium no farther than 40 kilometres.

Kose local government isn’t the only problem; there are at least a hundred like that. While in Saaremaa, Tartu County and Valga County, the optimal school network is in sight, Viljandi Lääne-Viru and Lääne Counties, for instance, still have 40 percent schools too many.

According to Praxis, the main problem is that keeping schools with a couple of dozen students takes stupid amounts of money while not allowing upgrades in quality of study. While Finland pays over half of general education costs for teachers’ salaries, Estonia only pays 36 percent. For the rest, we are heating half empty schoolhouses and maintain extra sets of staff.

Praxis actually advised school network changes as early as 2005, but the local governments have paid no heed. At the moment, the acutest problem is 12 grade schools in rural areas of average density of population. There, analysts say, 20 gymnasiums would do – but 60 currently remain.

«Full cycle gymnasiums have their own status, in rural areas. Local governments are hanging on to that, while not knowing what to do with them,» said an author of the study Triin Lauri, a lecturer at Tallinn University.

As offered by Praxis and education/research ministry, gymnasium stages might be handed over to regional hubs or merged into state gymnasiums. The remaining basic schools network should be reviewed, and local governments could share burdens of some of the basic schools which lack students. At the moment, there are no such cases to show.

A rare local leader to agree with Praxis is Tõnu Aavasalu, mayor to Suure-Jaani Commune, Viljandi County. In his county, Praxis is advising closure of the gymnasium and three basic schools by 2020 as, by then, only 459 students will be living in the commune.

Indeed, this fall Suure-Jaani Commune will centralise four schools under joint leadership. For the time being, the places of study will remain, however; in most of these, one to six class nursery-primary schools will operate. The gymnasium will be waived, in favour of Viljandi.

«We felt the need ourselves. The teachers saw no future any longer, for the cause, and majority of the population agreed,» said Mr Aavasalu. «The toughest were grades 7th to 9th as these require subject teachers and classrooms. It is not expedient to keep that up in four locations, it is expensive and they also need to produce the [academic] level [expected].»

Viljandi Commune mayor Ene Saare, however, is angered by calculations by Praxis. According to analysts, the circular commune ought to have seven of its eight schools shut down as, in five years, the commune will only have 315 students. «We are on 650 square kilometres around the city of Viljandi. Should we want to start going to school in Viljandi, one large school should be built there; but that’s not reasonable for our people,» said Ms Saar.

Therefore, Viljandi Commune will only close down one of the eight schools, the rest remaining on «standby». The closures will only come if a school falls under 50 students, or if state financing decreases.

According to Audru Commune (Pärnu County) mayor Siim Suursild, shutting small schools is getting on people’s nerves, nothing more. «For local governments, closing down a school has no effect as, in these areas, kindergartens will have to remain anyhow if we have children. And – we do have them,» said he.

Pärnu mayor Toomas Kivimägi vows that while the city’s basic schools manage to maintain three parallel classes, there will be no closures: «Whatever Praxis proposes is not realistic. Within five years, there will be one basic school less in Pärnu, but surely not five.»

None of the local government leaders believe that the optimal Praxis schools network would be reached by 2020. At best, we’ll be halfway.

Ms Lauri says it is the gymnasiums network that is first in line for changes, the local governments just not having enough money to keep it going. «The ministry actually has the levers to impact the reform, such as via general education support,» she suggested.

Source: «Optimum» elusive for schools network, PM