Support for Pre-Primary Children and Families
Municipalities are obligated to guarantee a childcare or preschool slot for all children between the ages of 1.5 (when paid maternity or paternity leave ends) and 7. For both child care and pre-school, parents pay an attendance fee which may not exceed 20 percent of the minimum wage rate established by the government. More than 80 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 6 participate in pre-primary education. Efforts are made to allow children from the same families to attend the same pre-schools.
The Preschool Child Care Institutions Act organizes preschool institutions in Estonia into three types: crèches, serving children ages three and younger; preschools, serving children up to 7 years old; and preschools for children with special needs, also serving children up to 7 years old. There is an emphasis on providing access to inclusive environments for special needs students, and some preschools offer inclusion classes of students with and without disabilities. Maximum class size is lower for groups of children with special needs and varies based on type of disability. Preschool instruction is organized around state curriculum, and children who complete this curriculum receive a certificate of readiness describing their development that parents submit to the school where children enroll for compulsory education.
Supports for Disadvantaged Populations
Estonia has long been committed to equity in education, particularly since 2009, after PISA results showed wide gaps in performance between Estonian-language schools and Russian-language schools. Russian speakers are the major minority population in Estonia and make up about 20 percent of the population. 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.
This finding can be partly explained by the uniformity of the schooling experience for all students. There is an emphasis on making sure that everyone gets a very similar educational experience and keeping students from getting off track. Teachers stay with the same students in grades 1 to 3—or sometimes even up to 6th grade – allowing deep relationships to form. Everyone gets free lunch and textbooks. And schools are often economically integrated as part of the school assignment system, which pulls students from different neighborhoods, so economically diverse students are frequently in the same classroom.
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 sixth in the world in 2015. Furthermore, Estonia had among the highest rates of resilient students on PISA among OECD countries in that year, and even their lowest performers (those in the lowest decile of performance) perform at the same level as the average student among all industrialized countries.
Supports for Struggling Students
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.
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.
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 for those who cannot be taught in a mainstream classroom, different language of communication, alternative communications (sign language) when warranted, specially trained teachers and support staff.
In addition, 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.
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