Current Estonian school network doesn’t meet the need of education determined by the number of children. The network is outdated mainly because it relies on the calculations from time where birthrate was 21 thousand children per year. But during the last decade the rate has decreased rapidly – in 2013 there were only 13.5 thousand births – and the forecast shows continuous decrease, being around 10-11 thousand births per year by the year of 2040. These demographic trends are also reflected in the number of children currently studying in general education and half-empty schoolhouses.
Even though the number of schools has also decreased considerably (from 551 to 498) during the last eight years, the reduction hasn’t been as fast as the decrease in the birthrate (22% vs. 10%). And as a result there is unreasonable school network that requires resources to maintain suitable environment for teaching and studying, although these buildings are half-empty and investments in the quality of teaching (trainings, materials etc.) are needed as well. Such inefficiency in the usage of resources is most problematic for smaller local governments and therefore the restructure of school network is needed.
The analysis of Estonian network of basic schools and gymnasiums for the year 2020 is initiated by the Ministry of Education and Research to get a comprehensive overview of an actual need and adjusted number of schools. The study carried out took into account the forecast of demographic trends and directions in education system.
- In 2020, it is necessary to have 352 basic schools, 132 less than there are now. The need for optimizing varies: some counties are already on the optimal level and others need to have significant changes.
- Assuming that 60% of basic school graduates continue their studies in secondary school, the suitable number of secondary schools in 2020 would be 44 (when optimizing school system across the counties). If considering counties and bigger cities separately, the number would result in 58. In both cases it means a reduction in the number of secondary schools by 2/3, and it affects all counties but mostly city Tallinn.
- Interviews held in counties revealed that changes are already taking place in the school network, mostly in local governments with higher population density (except Harjumaa). The situation is most problematic in medium or low density areas. The main trigger of ongoing changes is the administrative reform taking place in Estonia.
- The success of optimizing the school system lies often in the combination of several factors; however, one factor is necessary to make any combination work. It is informing the community thoroughly about the proposed changes and their positive effects.
The main obstacles of restructuring the school network are related to the financial resources – local governments have no clarity about the size and distribution of the costs when the reform will be put in practice. Also, cooperation between local governments is hindered by poor transport connections. Often obstacles have also a political background: retaining local schools was an important political campaign promise that local politicians try to keep. Regarding the rural schools, their social value as a place for solving social problems as well as place for social gathering centre can’t be underestimated. Finally, more elaborated administrative decisions are necessary assumptions for effective restructuring of the school network. Rational reform ideas may often be put on hold for reasons related to history, people or buildings.