Vocational upper secondary programs are available to students after grade 9. About one-third of students select vocational upper secondary. The participation rate of upper secondary students in vocational education and training is low in Estonia compared to the EU average of 47.3 percent (in 2015).
Vocational education has been a key area of focus for the country. In 1999, Estonia created a national skill qualification system, and developed national standards for vocational education. Vocational education standards are developed by professional councils, which include representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Employers´ Confederation, the Confederation of Trade Unions, members of the non-profit sector and representatives from the teacher and trainer workforces. There are 16 professional councils in the following sectors: Transport and Logistics, Commercial Service, Construction, Real Estate, Energy, Mining and Chemical Industry, Information Technology and Telecommunication, Forestry and Wood Industry, Engineering, Metal and Machine Industry, Folk Art and Handicraft, Health Care and Social Work, Light Industry, Justice and Internal Security, Food Industry and Agriculture, and Culture and Services. Vocational education standards are competency-based; schools measure learning outcomes against them, and use them as the basis for the school curricula in vocational education. Estonia does not have a national curriculum for vocational education. VET institutions develop curriculum in compliance with the relevant professional standards. All VET programs include a work-based component. The new vocational education system led to the development of regional centers of vocational training across the country. There are now more than 40 VET institutions in Estonia.
In addition, there are eight applied higher education institutions, which also provide vocational education. Graduates of upper secondary vocational education can move on to an advanced degree at one of the higher education institutions. They can also apply to university, although this usually requires a year of additional academic study after vocational education.
Each vocational education institution has a subject council and a teaching council, which evaluate the student results and work to improve student learning in each subject. There is also a county-level council for vocational education, which analyzes and decides on the education and training areas to promote in the region and implements changes and reforms in the schools in order to align training with the demands of the local economy.
Students who complete vocational programs receive a certificate of vocational secondary education.
In August 2015, the Estonian government publicly recognized the importance of apprenticeship opportunities to developing a skilled workforce and nimble economy. Education Minister Jürgen Ligi enacted a new initiative with goals for expanding apprenticeship programs. The goal of the Ministry of Education and Research is to raise the number of paid apprenticeship opportunities for VET students to 8,000 apprenticeship positions by 2020. In 2016, there were about 1,500 apprenticeships.
Estonia is also aiming to increase the proportion of students in vocational education, with a goal of 40 percent participation of upper secondary school students by 2020. To make this route more attractive, officials have focused on better aligning curricula with labor market needs, integrating academic and vocational learning, and strengthening work-based learning options. They have also taken steps to support low-income youth in VET programs, including providing study allowances for students in post-secondary vocational education along with lunch and transportation allowances.