Estonia has long been committed to equity in education, particularly since 2008, after PISA results showed wide gaps in performance between Estonian-language schools and Russian-language schools. (Russian speakers make up about 20 percent of the country.) Estonia has a common curriculum for all students until about age 15 or 16, at which time students can choose between a vocational or academic track. And instruction is relatively uniform across the country: a 2015 study by William Schmidt of Michigan State University found that variations in educational opportunities in Estonia explained a much smaller proportion of the variance in mathematics performance than in most other countries on PISA—16 percent, compared with an OECD average of 33 percent. That is, the vast majority of students in Estonia were receiving the same level of instruction in mathematics.
As a result of these policies, 48 percent of low-income students performed at the highest levels on PISA, the highest rate in Europe and 6th in the world.
The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act (BSUSS) was passed in 1993 and assigned responsibility for general education to local governments. The ownership of the vast majority of schools was transferred to municipalities. The act also provided for municipality schools with budgets funded by both municipal and state revenues.
The present formula of per-capita funding was first implemented in 1998, and was amended to create the current formula in 2008. The new funding formula splits the education grant into two categories:
Block Grant: Allocation for the basic minimum costs of teaching and other resources that the state grant is meant to support. Basic costs depend upon regulations, which include number of weekly subject lessons that students must receive, teacher basic salaries, and maximum class size.
Equalization Grant: An additional allocation, which is to be spent on education at the discretion of the local government. Included in the per-student amount for each grade range, it is not a separate allocation for the municipality. This grant takes into account the population aged 7-18 as well as the expenditures of the original grant.
The country also provides additional resources to ensure that all students, regardless of income level, have access to basic services. These include hot school lunches, study books, and learning materials, which have been provided for free to students in basic education since 2006.
According to OECD indicators in 2012, Estonia’s per-student expenditure at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary non-tertiary levels amounted to $6,149, well below the OECD average of $8,617. However, Estonia increased its total education expenditure by 47 percent between 2000 and 2009, despite lower levels of enrollment. As a result, expenditure per student more than doubled, demonstrating that education in Estonia remains a priority for policymakers.
Student Support Systems
Under Estonian policy, schools must conduct a yearly development interview for each student and must implement appropriate measures for students with unsatisfactory year-end grades. In addition, all schools in Estonia must have coordinators who provide services to students with special needs. Services include curriculum materials for use at home, separate classrooms, different language of communication, alternative communications (sign language) when warranted, specially trained teachers, and support staff.
Children with disabilities or children who need special care have the right to study in the nearest school that complies with requirements if the school of their residence does not have the possibilities and conditions for accommodating children with special needs.
A directive adopted in 2007 also mandates additional personalized support to prevent students from dropping out of school. Such support includes special-needs education, speech therapy, psychological assistance, and social pedagogical counselling. These services are also provided through study counseling centers, which have been in place since 2008. Rural schools use such services more often than urban schools, reducing inequality related to place of residence.
PISA 2015: Variation in Science Performance Explained by Socioeconomic Background
Annual Expenditure by Educational Institutions per Student for All Services
(2013, in equivalent USD converted using PPPs for GDP, by level of education for public institutions only) Source: OECD