Formal education in Estonia includes pre-primary (for pupils 3-6 years old; more than eight in 10 children between the ages of 3 and 6 participate in pre-primary education), basic (grades 1-9; ages 7 to 16), secondary (general and vocational; grades 10-12 in general education, grades 10-12/13 in vocational education; usually ages 16-18/19), and tertiary. Basic education has three stages: grades 1-6, which comprise primary education, and grades 7-9, which is lower secondary education. Attendance at school is compulsory until the completion of basic education or until the student is 17 years old. After that, students can go straight into the workforce or continue on to either academic or vocational upper secondary education. About two-thirds of students opt for the academic upper secondary option and 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).
Standards and Curriculum
As part of the national strategy to rebuild the Estonian education system after independence, the Ministry of Education and Research developed a new national curriculum to meet the needs of a new economy. The new national curriculum is common for all primary and lower secondary schools and was introduced in the 1997-98 school year. It focused on traditional academic subjects, as well as less traditional skills such as self-management, learning to learn, entrepreneurship, and communications. A key objective of the curriculum was instilling in students the ability to motivate, reflect on, and manage their own learning. A revised version was introduced in 2014 for all basic and upper secondary schools. Notably different from other countries, the Estonian curriculum includes a substantial computer science component at all grade levels. Tiger Leap, Estonia’s national strategy to transform itself into an information society, included implementation of a computer programming curriculum for all secondary school students in the late ‘90s. This was extended to primary school in 2012 and is now a subject at all grade levels.
The curriculum sets a national framework for instruction but gives local schools autonomy in implementing their own lesson plans. Each school writes their own curriculum based on the national curriculum framework. Innove, a nonprofit organization established by the government in 2003 to coordinate and support educational services, is in charge of approving curriculum plans drawn up by individual schools.
Estonian classrooms are characterized by small student-to-teacher ratios. Lower secondary schools have the smallest class sizes of all OECD countries, with an average of 16 pupils. The pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools, at 7:1, is also one of the lowest in the OECD.
Assessment and Qualifications
Student performance is assessed by national exams, sample-based national tests, and regular classroom assessments. Prior to Grade 1, there is a short readiness examination consisting of mental calculation, dictation, and general school readiness. This is used to identify students who need additional support in primary school. The sample-based tests are administered after grade 3 and grade 6 in Estonian, mathematics, and one additional subject. The tests are administered to 10 percent of the population in order to assess school performance, but many teachers give the test to all students in order to see how students are doing.
National examinations are administered after the end of comprehensive school, which is at the end of Grade 9. There are three exams: Estonian, Math (students can choose higher-level math or normal), and a third exam left to the students’ discretion. For this exam, students can choose among a foreign language, science, or a social science field. In order to graduate from basic school, students must reach a satisfactory level in all subjects and present creative work. Passing this exam allows students to move on to secondary school. A small set of specialized upper secondary schools (such as specialized science focused schools) require an additional entrance exam.
Students who opt for the academic upper secondary school take the National School Leaving Exam after Grade 12. This exam has required sections on Estonian, Math, and Foreign Language. Twelfth graders also must pass a school-administered exam and complete a research project in order to graduate. For most universities, scores on these exams form the basis of the applications process although some require additional subject area exams for specific programs of study.
The Structure of Estonia’s Education System