Center on International Education Benchmarking

Learning Systems

System Design

Formal education in Estonia includes pre-primary (for pupils up to 7 years old; more than 8 in 10 children between the ages of 3 and 7 participate in pre-primary education), basic (grades 1-9; ages 7 to 16), secondary (general and vocational; grades 10-12 in general education, 3-4 years in vocational education; usually ages 16-18/19), and tertiary. Basic education has three stages: grades 1-3 and grades 4-6, 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.


As part of the national strategy to rebuild the Estonian education system after independence, the Ministry of Education and Research undertook the task of developing a new national curriculum to meet the needs of a new economy. The new national curriculum,  introduced in the 1997-1998 school year, focused on
traditional academic subjects, as well as more innovative skills such as self-management, learning to learn, entrepreneurship, and communications. A key objective was instilling in students the ability to motivate, reflect on and manage their own learning. A revised version was introduced in 2002.

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.

A computer programming curriculum was included for all secondary school students in the late ‘90s (Tiger Leap) as part of Estonia’s strategy to transform itself into an information society.  This was extended to primary school in 2012 and is now a subject at all grade levels.


Estonian classrooms are characterized by small teacher to student 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.

Teachers try to develop problems and questions that don’t just rely upon rote memorization and recipe based learning. They prefer for students to think creatively and develop a deep understanding of concepts through diagrams and models. Since there is limited tracking or streaming, teachers rely on more advanced pupils to help their classmates. Estonian teachers often make use of group work where high-performing students are paired with those who are struggling, in order to provide peer-to-peer support and guidance.


Prior to Grade 1, there is a short entrance examination consisting of mental calculation, dictation, and general school readiness. More selective schools with specialized programs, such as the Tallinn Secondary Science School, have two sets of entrance examinations. Entrance exams in Estonian, Math, English, and Physics are also required prior to grade 10. But 80 percent of schools in Estonia do not give admissions exams.

Upper secondary school examinations are required by anyone who seeks to continue their education at university. Starting from the academic year 2013/2014, a pupil has to take the following state examinations in order to finish high school:

  • Estonian language or Estonian-as-a-second-language examination,
  • Mathematics examination, and
  • Foreign language examination.

For most universities, scores on these state universities form the basis of the applications process. Some might require additional subject area exams depending on the program.


Student performance is assessed by national exams, sample-based national tests, and regular classroom assessments. The sample-based tests are administered after grade 3 and grade 6 in Estonian, mathematics, and one additional subject, which is not announced in advance. The tests are expected to be administered to 10 percent of the population, but many teachers give the test to all students.

National Examinations are administered after Grade 9, at the end of comprehensive school. They include required sections in Estonian and Math (students can choose higher-level math or normal). A third section is also left to the students’ discretion; they choose between 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.

The National School Leaving Exam is administered after Grade 12 and includes sections on Estonian, Math, and Foreign Language. This examination process also includes an exam administered by the student’s school and the completion of a research project

The Structure of Estonia’s Education System





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