Estonian municipalities guarantee a spot in public preschool for all children between ages 4 and 7, when compulsory school begins. Enrollment is voluntary, but nearly all children—94 percent of ages 4 to 7—are enrolled. Almost all of these children attend public preschools, in which fees are capped at 20 percent of the national minimum wage. Additional financial support to attend public preschools varies by municipality.
Preschool is based on a national curriculum and is designed to support the physical, mental, social, and emotional development of the child. The National Curriculum for Preschool Child Care Institutions outlines the skills that children should develop by age 7 in five broad areas: general skills; play skills; cognitive and learning skills; social skills; and self-management skills. It also sets developmentally appropriate educational goals for progress in areas like language and speech, mathematics, art, music, and movement. In collaboration with parents and teachers, preschools are responsible for developing their own school curricula within the guidelines set at the national level to help children develop these skills. The National Curriculum also includes guidance for serving children with special educational needs, including gifted children, as well as Estonian-language learners.
Access to services from speech therapists and special education teachers is guaranteed for preschool students who need them. Estonia also has a comprehensive transition plan for children as they move from preschool to primary school. Preschool teachers develop and administer school-readiness assessments to each child, then communicate the child’s developmental progress to primary schools so that those teachers can prepare to meet the child’s needs.
Primary and Secondary Education
Compulsory education in Estonia starts at age 7 and is required until students reach age 17. Basic school, which includes both primary and lower secondary education in Estonia, covers grades 1 through 9. Upper secondary school, for which students choose either an academic or a vocational program, covers grades 10 through 12.
Estonia’s Basic and Upper Secondary Schools Act allows students to enroll in a public school in their own residential school district or in another district. Almost all families choose public schools; private schools also receive government funding, but they can charge additional fees and make up less than 10 percent of schools in Estonia. The system for allocating enrollment in basic school varies across municipalities. Typically, in rural areas, students are placed in the school of their choice in the order in which they request to enroll, as there are limited options available. In urban areas, students rank their preferred schools in their residential district, and places are allocated based on factors like sibling enrollment and proximity to the school. A very small set of elite public basic schools have additional admission criteria, which can include entrance exams.
Students earn their basic school certificate by completing the curriculum and passing a set of graduation exams at the end of grade 9. They then have the option to continue to academic upper secondary education or vocational education. At the upper secondary level, each academic or vocational school sets its own admission criteria, which may include students’ grades during basic education, scores on the basic school graduation exams or school-designed entrance exams, or interviews. Competitiveness of admission varies by school and geographic region, with academic upper secondary schools located in cities among the most competitive. The proportion of upper secondary students enrolling in vocational programs has fallen since 2013, and in 2017, only 25 percent of upper secondary school students were enrolled in vocational programs, well below the OECD average of 38 percent. Estonia is making efforts to change this, as discussed below. The remaining students were enrolled in academic programs.
Standards and Curriculum
In a bid to shed Soviet-era ideology and prepare students for the future economy, Estonia’s Ministry of Education and Research developed a new national curriculum in the 1990s emphasizing problem-solving, critical thinking, and information technology. Basic and academic upper secondary schools adopted the curriculum in 1996 and implemented it during the following school year. In addition to providing detailed content and learning objectives for traditional academic subjects, the curriculum incorporated student competencies by grade span (grades 1 to 3, 4 to 6, 7 to 9, 10 to 12) and introduced a set of cross-curricular topics to be embedded and taught across subject areas.
The first major revision of the national curriculum, in 2002, cut back on required content to leave more time for development of competencies. The next major revision, in 2011, divided the curriculum into two parts—one for basic education (grades 1-9) and one for upper secondary education (grades 10-12)—and introduced new graduation requirements: a cross-disciplinary creative project for graduation from basic school and a research project for graduation from upper secondary school. The 2011 revision was rolled out over a three-year period. It remains in place today but has been amended several times, most notably in 2014. The 2014 revisions updated the competencies and specified that they should be taught across as well as within subjects, through out-of-school learning experiences such as those offered by museums or cultural institutions, and through extracurricular activities. Estonia embarked in 2022 on a new update of the curriculum, which is scheduled to start implementation in schools in 2024. Its goals follow the Estonia 2035 strategy, to increase learner-centeredness and to better align curriculum with changes in society and the economy.
Notably ahead of other countries, by the early 2000s Estonia had provided all schools with computers and Internet access and was offering professional learning and educational resources to build teachers’ and students’ technology skills. In 2014, the national curriculum introduced a requirement that students at all grade levels develop digital literacy. Schools have flexibility to decide whether to teach digital literacy as a stand-alone subject or incorporate it into other content areas, and the ProgeTiger program, launched in 2012 by the government-supported Information Technology Foundation for Education (HITSA), provides professional learning, educational resources, and equipment to help schools implement their chosen approach. Digital literacy is not limited to programming, but includes skills such as logical and algorithmic thinking that students will need in technologically advanced workplaces. In addition, most schools in Estonia employ a full-time educational technologist, who is an experienced teacher with a second master’s degree in educational technology responsible for supporting other teachers in the integration of technology into teaching and learning.
Estonia’s national curriculum for basic education includes eight compulsory subjects: language and literature, foreign languages, mathematics, natural science, social studies, art and music, technology, and physical education. It also includes four elective subjects: religious studies, informatics, career education, and entrepreneurship. The national curriculum for basic education sets required instructional time for each compulsory subject as well as for elective subjects, which amount to about 5-10 percent of total instructional time, depending on grade level. The national curriculum for upper secondary education includes seven compulsory subjects—language and literature, foreign languages, mathematics, natural science, social studies, art and music, and physical education—as well as six elective subjects—religious studies, national defense, economic and business studies, philosophy, career education, and “bases of inquiry,” or investigative research. At the upper secondary level, about two-thirds of students’ total course load is compulsory, and the rest is elective.
Schools are required to adhere to the national curriculum as they develop their own school-based curricula. The national curriculum includes requirements for the development of school-based curricula, such as requiring involvement of a broad range of stakeholders, and for specific elements that must be included, such as school values. The Education and Youth Authority, established by the Ministry to support education policy implementation, provides optional resources and advisory services to assist individual schools as they develop their curriculum.
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 school readiness assessment. This is used to communicate children’s developmental progress to their primary school teachers and identify those who need additional support in the early grades. Sample-based tests are administered after grade 3 in Estonian and mathematics and after grade 6 in Estonian, mathematics, and one additional subject that rotates each year. The tests are administered to 10 percent of the population in order to assess school and system performance, but many teachers give the test to all students in order to check student progress. There are no consequences attached to the results for students or schools, but the results are used for national monitoring.
National exams are administered at the end of grade 9, which is the end of basic education. There are three exams: Estonian, mathematics, and a third exam students may choose from among a foreign language, science, or social science field. The exams include multiple-choice and essay questions and are graded by teachers. Passing the exams in all subjects allows students to graduate from basic school and move on to upper secondary school, although students who do not pass an exam can advance to grade 10 with a teacher’s recommendation or by passing an alternative, school-based exam. In order to graduate from basic school, all students must also complete a school-designed creative project during grades 6-9.
Students who opt for academic upper secondary school take a set of national graduation exams after grade 12. Students must take exams in Estonian, mathematics (a narrow or extensive version, depending on the student’s coursework), and foreign language (English, French, German, or Russian). Twelfth graders also must pass an exam developed by their school (but based on the national curriculum) and complete a research project in order to graduate. For students who want to continue to university, the application process varies by program of study but generally includes scores on the national graduation exams (often focusing on the subject most closely connected to the program to which a student is applying), additional university-designed subject exams, or interviews. Admission criteria for institutions of professional higher education, which award technical bachelor’s and master’s degrees, vary by school and program and may not include the national graduation exams.
The Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020 called for revising national assessments to measure key competencies and problem-solving skills.
All schools are required to conduct a yearly development interview to gauge progress and set goals for each student and implement appropriate support measures for students who are struggling academically. The development interview is structured as a conversation that, in addition to the student and teacher, can include the student’s parents, other school staff, and support specialists such as psychologists. Teachers are also required to observe student development on an ongoing basis and differentiate instruction as needed. At the basic school level, teachers stay with the same students in grades 1 to 3—or sometimes even up to grade 6—which allows deep relationships to form with the children and their families and ensures that teachers are familiar with students’ progress. For students who need short-term academic support to catch up with their peers, schools provide supplemental instruction or services from specialists like psychologists or social workers.
Under Estonian law, a student with special needs is any student who requires additional support due to a range of factors, including health status, disability, long-term absence from school, behavioral disorders, language learner status, or giftedness. There are three tiers of support: general support, which is available to all students and can include additional teacher instruction or access to specialists, enhanced support, and special support. The second two tiers include more intensive interventions, such as an individualized curriculum, and require formal identification of special needs. As of 2019-20, about 13 percent of students received general support and 6 percent of students received enhanced or special support.
Estonian policy states that students with special needs should be educated in mainstream schools and classrooms to the extent possible. About two-thirds of students formally identified as having special needs are enrolled in mainstream schools, and nearly 40 percent attend mainstream classes for the majority of instructional time. The Ministry has established 16 state-run schools for students with special needs who require more intensive supports, and municipalities and private organizations also run special schools. All schools in Estonia must have coordinators who facilitate cooperation among support specialists and teachers on behalf of students with special needs. The coordinator is responsible for making recommendations to teachers, parents, and the school leader regarding how best to support each student. Gifted students are sometimes admitted to special programs for youth coordinated by universities.
Estonia has also established a nationwide network of regional counseling centers providing out-of-school supports for school-age students. These centers, called Pathfinder Centers, were introduced as a pilot in 2008 and expanded to all counties in 2014. Pathfinder Centers provide guidance for students with special needs and other learning difficulties, including coordination of services; specialist services such as speech therapy, psychological counseling, or social work services; and career and education counseling for young people up to age 26. Pathfinder Centers also coordinate with rural schools, which may not have full-time school-based support specialists, to offer students a wider range of support services.
Digital Platforms and Resources
Estonia is recognized as a world leader in digital solutions, including in the education sector. Teachers in more than 85 percent of schools nationwide use an online platform called e-Kool (“e-School”) to streamline their daily teaching tasks, including communicating with students and families, uploading instructional resources to use or share with other teachers, and posting homework and other assignments for students. Students also use the e-School platform to submit completed assignments and create electronic portfolios of their work. While e-School is designed to support in-person classes, it enables teachers, students, and families to shift key aspects of the teaching and learning process online. Estonian schools shifted to distance learning quickly because this system was in place. Many schools had already begun scheduling “digital days” to ensure teachers and students begin to integrate online learning into their regular school days.
Estonia has also prioritized making teaching and learning resources available online. In 2016, the Ministry of Education and Research launched an online resource library called e-Koolikott (“e-Schoolbag”) with the goal of making the full range of primary and secondary education resources available in digital form by 2020. The resources in e-Schoolbag are searchable by subject, grade, and resource type, and teachers can compile, save, and share their own “learning kits” of related resources. The resources available in e-Schoolbag come from teachers, subject specialists, universities, and textbook publishers. Since 2015, Estonian law has required that all new textbooks be made available in digital form.
Two government-supported foundations—the Innove Foundation and the Information Technology Foundation for Education (HITSA)—have played key roles in curating online and distance learning resources for teachers. These include Ministry-produced resources as well as third-party apps or other technology tools produced by Estonia’s educational technology sector. For example, HITSA provides a guide to online and distance learning resources by purpose, such as online assessment tools and practice exercises. In 2020, these two foundations were folded into a new Education and Youth Authority.