Collapse of the Soviet educational system and the birth of the new system

Besides quantitative indicators that were, at least up to higher education, on ‘a world level’, the content of education should also be considered. The Soviet curricula were characterised by the following:

  1. undisguised ideology in all subjects, focusing on indoctrination in the class struggle, the leading role of the communist party, imperialism and communism. History and social sciences suffered most;
  2. weakness, if not total absence of political and economic sciences;
  3. isolation from intellectual development of the rest of the world; access to Western philosophy, art and (social) sciences only through the filter of criticism that afforded an ideologically shifted interpretation of the ‘bourgeois’ mentality and society;
  4. the deepening of intellectual isolation due to poor knowledge of foreign languages, caused by the insignificant share of teaching foreign languages at secondary and vocational schools, and also at institutions of higher education;
  5. the disproportionately large share of Russian language, literature and history at Estonian-language schools, compared with the few lessons of Estonian language and cultural history in Russian schools, and often more or less neglected; considerable rift between the education obtained in Estonian and Russian languages;
  6. a strong preference for encyclopaedic knowledge, primarily regarding factual material in natural sciences, over solving problems, learning how to make decisions and bring about changes;
  7. primitive attempts — periodically tested, and largely failing — to bring academic education, at basic, secondary and higher levels, closer to production and life.

The 1980s started with a grim foreboding for education. After the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and a rapid succession of various Communist Party first secretaries, power was seized by Konstantin Tchernenko who tried to reform education. In 1984 he proposed a change of the entire school structure, and an extension of the 10 years of Russian-language schooling to 11 years, as was already the case in Estonian schools. The price of this planned increase in the length of a school career was to have children starting at school at the age of six rather than seven.

Because for Estonia and other Baltic countries, this idea amounted to cutting off one year at secondary level and adding a year at the beginning, the plan constituted a threat of forced cuts in the programme of national literature, history and geography. As a result of intensive opposition, half legal and half illegal of the Estonian education and science community, national secondary schools in the Baltic countries were able to add one year, thereby making the period of compulsory education last for 12 years.

Ironically, in the newly independent Baltic countries where the restructuring of the economy initially brought about a sharp decline in the economy, extending the length of education by a year would have been considerably more difficult.

The 1987 Estonian Teachers’ Congress was a breakthrough event for Estonian education. Teachers criticised the existing secondary school system and demanded the independence of Estonian education. The heart of the discussion concerned the establishment of a curriculum for Estonian secondary education. An open competition was announced for a project of the new curriculum. In June 1987 the projects were discussed and evaluated, this time with the participation of people from all walks of life. Scientists, philosophers, writers, university lecturers, teachers, schoolchildren and heads of school weighed various projects and decided by voting. Between 1987 and 1988 the subject committees worked with the new programmes and in 1989 the schools adopted the new curriculum.

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