Overview of Estonian education system
People’s education starts as early as at the moment of birth and continues for life, which means that learning is a lifestyle; continuous development is in. Education has been held in high regard for centuries in Estonia: the first Estonian alphabet book was published in 1575. Estonia’s largest and oldest university is the University of Tartu, established by Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden, in 1632. According to the results of the OECD international survey PISA 2018, the skills of Estonian basic school students ranked first in Europe across all three domains of assessment: mathematics, reading and sciences.
Estonian education system comprises four levels:
- Pre-school education – parents’ and kindergarten’s contribution to the child’s development and readiness for school. Attending a pre-school is an option.
- Basic education – mandatory general education for all, school years 1 through 9.
- Secondary education – based on basic education; falls into general secondary education (gymnasiums) and vocational secondary educations (vocational schools).
- Higher education – provided by a university, institution of professional higher education or vocational educational institution. It is important to make sure that completing the curriculum actually provides higher education. Detailed information can be requested from educational institutions.
Pre-school education and kindergartens
As far as the development of pre-schoolers is concerned, the parents are primarily in charge and are to consciously support the child’s learning of skills as well as to promote curiosity about learning. In addition to the parent’s efforts, kindergartens help children make their firsts steps on the path to education. Estonian municipality or city governments must provide all their residents wo have children aged 1.5–7 and have expressed the relevant request with a kindergarten place. You can choose the kindergarten you find suitable if there are vacant places. It always makes sense to apply for one as early as possible.
The task of the kindergarten is to shape children’s daily skills, for instance, by teaching social, playing and learning skills. Educational activities and learning are mainly conducted in Estonian, but the local government may decide otherwise if necessary.
If the child’s mother tongue is other than Estonian, they will start learning Estonian (as the second language) in kindergarten at the age of 3, which is financed by the state. Educational activities in kindergartens are based on the national curriculum aiming to support the development of children’s personalities and creativity, placing importance on learning through play.
NB! Childcare facilities in Estonia generally charge a fee, and the fee varies depending on the facility. The fee to be paid by the parent cannot exceed 20% of the minimum salary established by the state.
Basic education and compulsory school attendance
In Estonia, children who turn 7 by 1 October of the current year must go to school, i.e., be registered in grade 1. Compulsory school attendance ends when the child reaches the age of 17 or completes basic education (finished 9th grade). Every child can go to the school to which they are assigned depending on the place of residence without any entrance tests.
If a child who comes from another country or has been studying by a different curriculum is to attend the school, the school staff council is to decide which grade the child needs to go to. Boy the child’s age and completed level of education are taken into account for the purpose of the decision.
School students’ skills in Estonia are mostly assessed on a scale from one to five:
- 5 – very good
- 4 – good
- 3 – satisfactory
- 2 – poor
- 1 – fail
Schools are also allowed to use assessment systems which differ from this one, and only verbal assessment may be used in grades from 1 through 6. Further information about assessment is provided by every school in its curriculum and rules of procedure.
Basic education and home-schooling
Home-schooling has been gaining popularity in Estonia lately. Basic education can be completed through home-schooling on the parent’s request, which makes them responsible for the child’s academic performance. The school is to provide the child with curriculum-related materials (textbooks, workbooks, other books, etc.) and is to test the academic performance of a home-schooled child at least once in six months.
Secondary education: gateway to higher or vocational education
General secondary education is based on the national curriculum, and the school graduate who has completed secondary education is ready to be admitted to a higher or vocational education facility. Secondary education is optional. Those who do not want to go to secondary school should know that numerous vocational schools accept students who have finished basic school. Some vocational schools even provide an opportunity to learn a trade to those who have dropped out of basic school.
Secondary education is the following stage after basic education and lasts for three years. Secondary education is provided by gymnasiums, and the basic school leaving certificate is required for admission. More detailed conditions and admission procedure are determined by the school head or administration. The conditions will normally be posted on the school’s web page.
Gymnasiums for adults provide evening-time study options within Estonian education system
Those who have dropped out of secondary school for some reason or cannot attend it during the day can go to adult education institutions (gymnasiums). This is a good opportunity for any adults who would like to complete secondary education, regardless of their age. Gymnasiums for adults provide flexible options for studying, placing great importance on independent study. These days, secondary education in Estonia can even be completed through e-learning as the primary format of studies.
Finishing secondary school – State examinations
To be considered a gymnasium graduate and receive the school leaving certificate, the student must pass state examinations. The state examination certificate serves as the proof of passing the examinations.
The student will get the school leaving certificate if the following conditions are met:
- the student’s grades are at least satisfactory or “passes”;
- the student has passed the following state examinations with at least satisfactory results: Estonian Language or Estonia as the Second Language; Mathematics; Foreign Language (French, Russian, English or German);
- the student has written a research paper or performed practical work during the studies;
- the student has passed the school leaving examination held by the gymnasium with at least satisfactory results.
In Estonia, higher education can be obtained on the basis of secondary education, which is also a requirement for admission to higher education institutions (although schools may establish their own additional requirements, for example, admission examinations).
The higher education system in Estonia has three levels:
- Professional higher education and bachelor’s studies – both are the first-level forms of higher education studies. Their purpose lies in working in the selected profession or mastering the skills necessary for master’s studies. The duration is generally 3–4 years.
- Master’s studies – the second level of higher education which provides professional knowledge and skills in greater depth. This is the stage at which the skills and knowledge necessary for doctoral studies are mastered. The duration is 1–2 years.
- Doctoral studies – the third, highest level of higher education. Learning the skills necessary for creative work in research or development. Holding a master’s degree is required for admission to doctoral studies. The duration is generally 3–4 years.
Higher education facilities in Estonia can be national, public or private.
The amount of studies is measured in credits, and the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, ECTS, is also the basis of the Estonian national credit system.
In general, higher education in Estonia is held in high regard as to its quality and provides numerous flexible opportunities: session-based (distance) learning, e-learning or a combination of several types of learning. If you are eager to study, you will certainly find a suitable option.
An initial overview of Estonian education system as well as answers to your questions will be provided during the Studying module course of the Settle in Estonia programme.