Policy Description

Educational Policies: Estonia (2014)


Historically, the beginning of formal education in Estonia dates back to the 13th-14th centuries when the first monastic and cathedral schools were founded. In 1583 the first upper secondary school, or gymnasium, was opened, and in 1632 a university was established in Tartu. At the end of the 17th century the government decided to establish a school in every parish, but progress towards this goal was rather slow. It is estimated that in the early 19th century only 45%-50% of Estonians were able to read. But by the first census in 1881, the literacy rate had markedly increased, with 94% of the population aged 14+ being able to read, and 48% being able to read and write (Katus, Puur, Sakkeus 2000). Like elsewhere in Europe, the spread of post-primary education in Estonia was limited until the 20th century.

Following the establishment of the Republic of Estonia in 1918, a comprehensive and up-to-date national system of public education was developed (Põld 1926). The system included general, compulsory, and free primary education, with a much longer period of study and a more wide-ranging curriculum than before. In a break with the past, Estonian became the main language of instruction at all levels of education. In 1940, Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union and the country’s system of education was reorganised to make it compatible with the Soviet model (Krull, Trasberg 2006). The curricula during the Soviet period were strongly ideological and placed a high priority on Russian language instruction. Nonetheless, in Estonia the schools were permitted to retain instruction in the local language and some limited autonomy in the development of curricula. At the same time, a parallel system of schools with Russian as the language of instruction was established in the country to provide education for a rapidly increasing migrant population who moved to Estonia between the 1940s and late 1980s, mainly from the Russian Federation.

Estonia began to move towards greater autonomy in the late 1980s in response to Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms (Krull, Trasberg 2006). In the field of education, a new curriculum for general education was developed. The new programmes, which were free from previous ideological constraints, were adopted in Estonian schools in 1989. The final obstacles to comprehensive reforms were removed when the country regained its independence in 1991. Since then, major changes have taken place at all levels of education in Estonia, including reforms of the structure and the content of curricula, the system of educational institutions, and the principles of financing. Like in many other formerly socialist countries, the transition to a market economy led to a considerable expansion of tertiary education, with enrolment more than doubling after 1990. 

The fundamental legal principles regarding the provision of education are set out in the constitution of Estonia, the Child Protection Act, and the Education Act. Other key regulations include the Basic Schools (põhikool) and Upper Secondary Schools (gümnaasium) Act, the Universities Act, the Vocational Educational Institutions (kutseõppeasustus) Act, the Institutions of Professional Higher Education Act, and the Private Schools (erakool) Act of 1998. In the 2000s, educational policy has been influenced by Estonia’s membership in the European Union (National Report, Estonia 2001). In terms of the language of instruction, the choice of language is made by the school owner in basic schools, while the language of instruction is generally Estonian in upper secondary schools. However, the school owner may obtain permission to provide instruction in another language by making an application that must be approved by the authorities (Eurypedia). Between 1990 and 2013, the proportion of students in Estonian language schools increased from 63% to 83% (Statistics Estonia).

Organisation of the educational system

The educational system in Estonia is divided into general, vocational, higher, and continuing forms of education. The four major levels are pre-school, basic, secondary, and higher education. There are also four main educational institution types: state, municipal, public, and private. To ensure that the population have access to education, the state and local governments are obliged to maintain the requisite number of educational institutions. Private schools may be established and maintained pursuant to law, but the role of private education is relatively limited in Estonia. The Ministry of Education and Research is responsible for providing education at all levels and in all types of schools, and for developing national curricula for general education. Individual school owners are responsible for administering each school, but the state provides support for educational institutions (including private schools) using a range of financial instruments.

General education is compulsory for school-age children to the extent specified by law (currently the duration of compulsory basic education is nine years), and is free of charge in state and local government general education schools. Children can attend basic education classes at a basic school (põhikool) or at an upper secondary school (gümnaasium) which offers basic school classes. The number of private schools providing general education is small in Estonia. To fulfil the basic education requirements, students must show that they have successfully completed the curriculum and passed three final examinations (European Commission, Organisation of the education system in Estonia 2009/2010). 

Completion of the basic education requirements qualifies students to either continue their education in a general upper secondary school (gümnaasium) or a vocational school (kutseõppeasutus), or enter the labour market (European Commission, Organisation of the education system in Estonia 2009/2010). The majority of young people choose to attend an upper secondary school. Since the 1970s, there has also been a gradual increase in the number of vocational schools with study programmes which allow students to combine vocational training with upper secondary education. A relatively large proportion of Estonian young people—including those who attend vocational schools—therefore receive an upper secondary education (84% of the population aged 20–64, 2011 census), and are thus qualified to pursue post-secondary education. In practice, however, the share of young people who enrol in post-secondary education remains rather limited. Currently about two-thirds of vocational school students are admitted to training programmes after graduating from basic school, and one-third are admitted after completing upper secondary education. The majority of vocational schools in Estonia are state-run and free of charge.

Academic higher education in Estonia is divided into three levels: bachelor’s studies, master’s studies, and doctoral studies. In some fields of study (e.g., medicine), the bachelor’s and master’s programmes are integrated. The majority of students in academic programmes are enrolled in public universities. Around one-third of students in higher education pursue applied (non-academic) studies. Reflecting the expansion of tertiary education since 1990, 36% of the population ages 20-64 currently have a tertiary education degree (2011 census). While the number of private institutions providing higher education surged in the 1990s, half of these institutions have closed since the early 2000s. After the transition to the market economy, about 50% of students enrolled in free higher education programmes, while another 50% were accepted as fee-paying students. A recent reform of higher education made all full-time studies in public universities tuition-free, and introduced a system of means-tested support to facilitate access to tertiary education.

Classification of Education on Basis of Objectives: 
§ 11.  General education
General education is defined as a system of knowledge, skills, experience, values, and behavioural norms which enables an individual to evolve into a continuously developing personality who is capable of living with dignity; of showing respect for himself or herself, his or her family, other people, and nature; of choosing and acquiring a suitable profession; of acting creatively; and of being a responsible citizen.
§ 12.  Vocational education
Vocational education is defined as a system of knowledge, skills, experience, values, and behavioural norms which are needed for working in certain areas of specialisation, and which enables an individual to obtain certain qualifications and to apply for and retain a certain position. The acquisition and improvement of vocational education thus provides the student with the prerequisites for successful professional activity.
§ 13.  Continuing education
Continuing education is a system of knowledge, skills, experience, values, and behavioural norms which an individual acquires through systematic guided voluntary practice during his or her free time in the adult education system or through vocational training and work, and which provides the student with opportunities for the comprehensive development of his or her personality.
 Education Act:  [RT I 2007, 4, 19 in force from 01.09.2007]

Compulsory education

In 1920, compulsory six-year primary education was introduced in Estonia. The compulsory school ages were eight to 16, or until the completion of primary education. From 1934 to 1940, the age limit for compulsory school attendance was 14. In 1940, the age limit was extended to 15. In the period 1941-1944 (the years of German occupation), Estonia had its own school system. After World War II, Estonia adopted the Soviet school system. In 1944, the age at which children were required to start attending school was lowered from eight to seven. In 1944, evening schools were established to allow young people who were working the opportunity participate in secondary education (Kera, 1996). In 1958, the transition to an eight-year period of compulsory education began. The compulsory school ages were seven to 16, or until the completion of eight years of lower secondary education.  In the second half of the 1960s, the government announced the goal of universal participation in secondary education. While the transition to a system of compulsory secondary education was officially completed by 1980 (Saar, 2008), the goal of universal participation was not fully achieved. About 85% of the people who were of school ages in the latter decades of state socialism attained an upper secondary education. In 1984 the eight-grade basic education system was expanded to include nine grades. Starting in 1986, Estonian children who completed upper secondary education spent a total of 12 years in school, and began attending school at age six (Kera, 1996). The Education Act of 1986 stated that children were required to attend school until they graduated from an educational institution granting an upper secondary education, or until they reached the age of 18. 

 In 1992, the newly restored Republic of Estonia introduced a system of nine years of compulsory education (basic education, grades 1–9; this corresponds to ISCED97 levels 1 and 2). Children are required to start attending school when they reach the age of seven by 1 October of the current school year. The period of compulsory schooling ends at age 17, or upon completion of basic education. Individuals who have passed the upper age limit of 17 and have not yet completed compulsory basic education may do so through evening courses or distance learning, and graduate from basic school as external students (European Commission, Organisation of the education system in Estonia 2009/2010).

The duration of general upper secondary education, or gymnasium, is three years. The duration of studies in vocational schools that combine vocational training with upper secondary education is at least three years. The length of studies in vocational schools based on upper secondary education is less than three years. In higher education, the duration of studies was typically five years until the 1990s. Currently, Estonia applies the so-called 3+2 system (three years of study at the bachelor’s level and two years at the master’s level). The duration of doctoral studies is three years.

The organisation of general education in Estonia aims at uniformity. The national curriculum for basic schools is designed to ensure that all children have the opportunity to transfer smoothly from one grade to the next, and from one school to another, when minimum requirements are met. On the basis of the national curriculum, schools can create their own curricula (ENIC/NARIC, 2012). The core of the most recent national curriculum introduced in 2011 consists of seven overall competences that are to be cultivated during the study process. The simplified national curriculum for basic schools establishes the standard of basic education for students with mild learning difficulties, students with moderate learning difficulties, and students with severe and profound learning difficulties (Eurydice). In basic schools, the traditional arrangement of a weekly timetable with a separate class for each subject is generally used. In years 1-2, lessons may be on broader interdisciplinary topics. Schools may also offer lessons in specific subjects during a certain period of the academic year (period study) (European Commission, Organisation of the education system in Estonia 2009/2010). Over the past few decades, the general emphasis of the pedagogical process has gradually shifted from a teacher-centred to a student-centred approach (Ministry of Education, 2014).

The school year at a basic school usually lasts from 1 September to June of the following year. It consists of a study period, an examination period, and holidays that include one week in late autumn, two weeks at Christmas, and one week in spring. The period of study is 175 days (35 weeks) long. A study week consists of five study days, and the maximum number of lessons per week varies from 20 (grade 1) to 32 (grade 9). Each lesson lasts 45 minutes (ENIC/NARIC, 2012).


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Asta Põldma
Estonian Institute for Population Studies, Tallinn University

Allan Puur
Estonian Institute for Population Studies, Tallinn University

Data collected in the framework of the Population Europe Research Finder and Archive (PERFAR) in 2014.

Please cite as:
SPLASH-db.eu (2014): Policy: "Educational Policies: Estonia" (Information provided by Asta Põldma & Allan Puur). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].