Education in Estonia
Education system in Estonia is regulated by a number of documents, including the Republic of Estonia Education Act and the National Curricula for the preschool, basic and upper secondary education institutions. The national curricula describe the aims, values and principles of each stage of education and serve as the compulsory basis for the curriculum of a particular education institution.
Formal education system consists of the levels of preschool, basic, secondary and higher education. A part of the education system is the system of vocational education.
Preschool education is meant for children from 18 months to 7 years of age. Preschool education is not compulsory: it can be received both in preschool education institutions and at home and parents can decide at what age the child will start preschool or whether the child will attend it at all. The aim of this level of education is to prepare the child for school and daily life.
Basic education begins when the child is 7 years old and constitutes the compulsory part of each child’s education (the law also permits acquiring it at home but homeschooling is not widespread). The length of studies is 9 years (grades 1–9); usually, students are 15 or 16 years old when they graduate. This level of studies ends with a set of exams: three graduation exams (Estonian, mathematics and an exam of one’s choice) and the presentation of a creative assignment. In order to graduate, one has to acquire the curriculum at the satisfactory, or a higher, level and pass the exams.
General secondary education is provided at upper secondary schools. The length of studies is 3 years (grades 10–12); usually, students begin them at 15 or 16 and graduate at 18 or 19. This level consists of courses in compulsory subjects and subjects of one’s choice (one course is 35 hours of a particular subject) and ends with a set of exams: state exams in Estonian, mathematics and a foreign language, a school exam in the subject of one’s choice and the presentation of a research project. In order to graduate, one has to complete at least 96 courses at the satisfactory, or a higher, level and pass the exams.
Vocational education in Estonia is offered on several levels: for some programmes, no completed basic education is required; others have basic education or secondary education as a prerequisite. There is also the option of secondary vocational education that combines the acquisition of a vocation with the acquisition of secondary education.
Higher education in Estonia follows the three-level model of Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral programmes. Vocational higher education exists in the form of professional higher education programmes that together with the Bachelor’s programmes belong to the first level of higher education. Some specialities where a free-standing Bachelor’s programme would be insufficient (for example, medicine, veterinary and civil engineering) have integrated Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes.
The Education Act guarantees, among others, two rights: to be able to study in public education institutions in Estonian at all levels of education and to be able to acquire secondary education in public institutions free of tuition charges. Beginning in 2012/2013 one also has the possibility to acquire higher education free of tuition charges as long as one is studying full-time and in Estonian.
Public ownership (state or municipal) of education institutions predominates in Estonia: in 2013, out of 540 general education schools only 47 were private (in case of vocational education, 8 out of 47 institutions were private; in case of higher education, 9 out of 25). The situation with the language of instruction is more complex: although in 2013 only 13 out of 540 general education schools used another language of instruction exclusively, another 80 used the combination of Estonian/other language. The most common alternative language of instruction is Russian, reflecting the presence of a considerable Russian minority in Estonia. For students graduating from a basic or a secondary school with an alternative language of instruction the compulsory final exam in Estonian takes the form of the Estonian as the second language exam. In case of vocational education, Estonian is the most common language of instruction, although there are some programmes in Russian. Estonian is also the main language of instruction in higher education, although the number of courses and degree programmes in English has been growing, reflecting the process of internationalisation of higher education in Estonia.
The national educational strategy Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020 sets out the most important directions for the development of education in Estonia. It extends the understanding of learning and education beyond the formal education system, making the latter a part of wider lifelong process.