Opinion on minority education reforms (conclusions and excerpts on specific laws), 2020

II. Preliminary remarks

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C. Recent amendments to the legislation on education in minority languages

1. March 2018 amendments to the Education Law and the General Education Law

36. On 22 March 2018, the Saeima adopted amendments to the Education Law and the General Education Law, which foresee a gradual transition to instruction in Latvian in both state and private schools of upper secondary education (grades 10 to 12) and an increase of the proportion of the Latvian language applied in minority education programmes implemented in state schools at the level of pre-school and basic education (grades 1 to 9).

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41. Pursuant to Sections 9 and 41 of the Education Law and Section 43 of the General Education Law, as amended in March 2018, the mandatory proportions in the Latvian language will be as follows:

Grades 1-6: instruction will be offered in accordance with 3 models of education included in the guidelines for the state pre-school education or state basic education standard (see below § 55). In the minority education programme the minimum share of Latvian will be 50% of the total number of lessons in a school year.

Grades 7-9: in the minority education programme the minimum share of Latvian will be 80% (previously 60%) of the total number of lessons in a school year.

Grades 10-12: instruction will be offered exclusively in Latvian (previously 60%), with the exception that a school may include in the programme learning content linked to the minority native language and minority identity.

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43. Prior to the March 2018 amendments, education in the state language was mandatory only in state schools. With the Law of 22 March 2018 amending the Education Law, the mandatory proportions regarding the use of Latvian are also applied to private schools of basic and secondary education.

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2. June 2018 amendments to the Law on Higher Education Institutions

48. On 21 June 2018, the Saeima adopted amendments to the Law on Higher Education Institutions, which impose on private higher education institutions and colleges an obligation to implement their study programme in Latvian. This obligation was previously applied only to statefounded higher education institutions. Nevertheless, Section 56 para. 3 of the Law on Higher Education Institutions – as well as Section 9 para. 3 1 of the Education Law – provides for exceptions to this general rule:

“[…] The use of foreign languages in the implementation of study programmes shall be possible only in the following cases:

1) study programmes which are acquired by foreign students in Latvia, and study programmes, which are implemented within the scope of co-operation provided for in European Union programmes and international agreements may be implemented in the official languages of the European Union. For foreign students the acquisition of the official language shall be included in the study course compulsory amount if studies in Latvia are expected to be longer than six months or exceed 20 credit points;

2) not more than one-fifth of the credit point amount of a study programme may be implemented in the official languages of the European Union, taking into account that in this part final and State examinations may not be included, as well as the writing of qualification, bachelor and master’s thesis;

3) study programmes the implementation of which in foreign languages is necessary for the achievement of the aims of the study programme in conformity with the educational classification of the Republic of Latvia for such educational programme groups: language and cultural studies and language programmes. The licensing commission shall decide on the conformity of the study programme with the educational programme group;

4) joint study programmes may be implemented in the official languages of the European Union.” (emphasis added)

49. In accordance with these provisions, in state and private higher education institutions, instruction is possible only in Latvian and other EU official languages. Other languages which are not official languages of the EU such as Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Yiddish can be the instruction language only in language and culture studies.

50. Pursuant to para. 49 of the Transitional Provisions of the Law on Higher Education Institutions, these amendments entered into force on 1 January 2019. Nonetheless, the higher education institutions and colleges, the language of implementation of study programmes of which fails to comply with Section 56 para. 3, have the right to continue the implementation of study programmes in the relevant language until 31 December 2022. After 1 January 2019, admission of students into study programmes which fail to comply with this provision is not allowed. However, the Latvian authorities informed the Venice Commission that by a judgment of 11 June 2020 the Constitutional Court of Latvia declared unconstitutional the June 2018 amendments to the Law on Higher Education Institutions.

3. November 2018 amendments – Regulations Nos 716 and 747 of the Cabinet of Ministers

51. On 21 November 2018, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted Regulation No. 716 on Guidelines for State Pre-School Education and Model Pre-School Education Programmes. Annex 2 to this Regulation presents a model programme for minority pre-school educational institutions. Annex 2 states, in its para. 9, that “[l]earning of the Latvian language is promoted throughout the entire pre-school education period by using a bilingual approach, which, depending on the child’s development, is implemented in collaboration between teachers, specialists and other staff of the educational institution, as well as using the Latvian language in everyday communication. For children aged five and above, Latvian is the main means of communication in play-based lessons, except specially organised activities with the aim of learning the national minority’s language and ethnic culture” (emphasis added). Pursuant to para. 8 of annex 2, the mandatory education content shall be planned and organized regardless of the child’s age ensuring that education content of the Latvian language is taught on a daily basis.

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58. Several international organisations have expressed concerns over the recent amendments to the legislation on education due to the risk of causing undue restrictions on access to education in minority languages.21

21 See ACFC, Third Opinion on Latvia, 23 February 2018, §§ 23 and 151; UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding observations on the combined sixth to twelfth periodic reports of Latvia, CERD/C/LVA/CO/6- 12, 30 August 2018, §§ 16-17; Letter of 29 August 2019 of the Chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; Joint letters of 26 January 2018 and 24 September 2019 of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Human rights comment of 29 October 2019 of the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights: Language policies should accommodate diversity, protect minority rights and defuse tensions; Letter of 1 March 2019 of the Chair of the Committee on Culture and Education of the European Parliament to the Prime Minister of Latvia.

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IV. Conclusion

115. The Venice Commission examined the recent amendments to the Latvian legislation on education in minority languages, which are presented by the authorities as part of a long-standing reform of the education system, comprising gradual changes in the use of the state language and minority languages – especially Russian − in favour of the state language.

116. The Commission is aware of the specific historical developments that Latvia has gone through over the past decades and centuries and the impact on the linguistic situation in the country that these developments have had, resulting in a state of asymmetric bilingualism. The statistical data and other information provided by the education authorities of Latvia suggest that there might be a need in Latvia to foster mastering of the state language in particular amongst pupils attending minority education programmes. The Commission stresses that increasing the proportion of the use of the Latvian language in minority education programmes in order to improve proficiency of pupils attending such programmes is a legitimate aim.

117. Even though the Venice Commission is not in a position to determine the weight of the various reasons behind the lack of proficiency of pupils enrolled in minority education programmes, increasing the proportions of the use of Latvian in those programmes does not appear to be inappropriate to achieve the legitimate aim, i.e. to raise proficiency in Latvian amongst pupils concerned by the reform. That said, the reform can reach its objective only if it is coupled with additional measures necessary to provide schools implementing minority education programmes with appropriate teaching methodologies, educational materials as well as teachers who are proficient in Latvian.

118. While increasing the mandatory proportion of the Latvian language, the new legislation leaves ample room for instruction in minority languages at the level of basic education, and some room for such instruction in secondary education. This is to be welcomed. The answer to the question of whether the minority education system as redesigned by the recent amendments will or will not enable persons enrolled on these programmes to attain a high level of proficiency in their mother tongue depends on several factors, especially the availability and quality of teachers and teaching materials, etc.

119. However, the system introduced by the recent legislation for pre-school education needs to be reconsidered in order to ensure that persons belonging to national minorities will continue to enjoy the possibility of acquiring proficiency in their language, which is essential for the protection and promotion of the identity of minorities as well as for the preservation of the linguistic diversity within the Latvian society. In the opinion of the Commission, as long as Latvia ensures this possibility for all national minorities, it would be acceptable to privilege the teaching in some languages – i.e. EU official languages – which are at the same time languages of some national minorities. Furthermore, private schools should be allowed to provide education in minority languages. The Commission recalls that securing the right of persons belonging to minorities to preserve and develop their language and their ethnic and cultural identity is an obligation for Latvia stemming from its international commitments.

120. Even though the overall direction of the recent amendments subject to the present opinion is not a reason for concern, some of the changes are, nevertheless, open to criticism as they do not strike a fair balance between the protection of the rights of minorities and their languages and the promotion of the state language. In order to ensure such a balance, the Venice Commission recommends to:

  • amend Cabinet Regulation No. 716 in order to return to the previous “bilingual approach” in play-based lessons applied to the whole period of pre-school education;
  • take the necessary legislative and other measures to ensure that state schools offer a minority education programme whenever there is sufficient demand for it;
  • exempt private schools from the mandatory proportions of the use of the Latvian language applied to state schools implementing minority education programmes;
  • consider enlarging the possibilities for persons belonging to national minorities to have access to higher education in their minority language, either in their own higher education institutions, or at least in state higher education institutions;
  • constantly monitor the quality of education received by pupils attending minority education programmes in order to ensure that the changes introduced into the education system do not undermine the quality of education and disproportionately reduce the opportunity for pupils to have good command of their minority language. The education authorities should also provide schools implementing minority education programmes with the necessary teaching materials and the teachers of these schools with adequate opportunities to continue to improve their Latvian and minority language skills in order to ensure their ability to implement the study process in Latvian, minority language and bilingually.

121. The Venice Commission remains at the disposal of the Latvian authorities and the Parliamentary Assembly for further assistance in this matter.


Document data: 18.06.2020. CDL-AD(2020)012; Opinion No. 975/2020. Link: https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2020)012-e Also available in French.

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