Policy Description

Educational Policies: Latvia (2015)


The historical development of the Latvian educational system and policies can be divided into four periods, which also reflect the most important periods of Latvian state development:

Before 1919
Historically, the first education institutions in territory of Latvia were established in the 13th century by German missionaries. The first schools were established in Riga for the children of German feudal lords and the language of instruction was Latin. The first temporal school was established in 1353 for the children of Riga’s property owners. From the 13th to the 16th century, German was almost exclusively the language of instruction. The first Latvian schools were created after the Reformation, under the auspices of the Lutheran church, in the 16-17th century. With Russian Tsar Alexander I’s school reform of 1802, the owners of manors had to build schools for peasants. However, due to weak central administration the spread of schools in the periphery was limited, and the most important and common way for Latvian peasant children to learn how to read was through home education. The entire school system was closely linked to the church. Throughout Latvia the Russification policy was pursued, especially in second part of 19th century, when in all schools Russian language classes were mandatory. 

With establishment of Latvian state in 1918, along with other spheres, contemporary education system was built and the guaranteed right to obtain all forms of education in the Latvian language was established. In 1919, laws were passed “On Latvian education institutions” and “On Latvian minority school format”, which established compulsory primary education free of charge for children aged eight to 14 (and preschool from age seven), but due to a lack of funding and teachers it could not be fully realised. In the 1921/22 academic year, only 33 % of all school-age children attended school. 

In the inter-war period (1918–1940), a modern, unified three-level system of education developed in Latvia, consisting of a (1) six-year primary education, (2) four-year secondary education, specialist secondary education, or vocational education, and (3) higher education. In general terms, this structure of education is still retained today.

Compulsory education was available in all minority languages, establishing equal and democratic principles with respect to all nationalities living in Latvia. Latvian national minorities had autonomy rights in establishing schools; in a short period of time German, Russian, Belorussian, Jewish, Lithuanian, and Estonian schools were established. The teaching of the Russian language was a controversial topic during 1920s. Latvian schools were reluctant to teach Russian, while minority schools had Russian as the first language; hence there were concerns that Latvian school pupils were less competitive. All types of schools were maintained by municipal or state authorities, and there were private teaching institutions as well.

After WWII, the education system in Latvia, as a Soviet republic, was standardised to the Soviet system. It consisted of schools offering general education programmes on the primary and secondary school level, and a wide network of vocational school offering secondary and professional education. During Soviet times, tertiary education was offered in ten higher education institutions. Although the law on education envisaged that children should obtain education in their mother tongue, two parallel school systems developed – schools with Latvian as the language of instruction and schools with Russian as the language of instruction. In Latvian-language schools it was mandatory to learn Russian from the first grade and because of that the total time of secondary schooling (11 years) was one year longer than in the Russian-language schools. Although it was required to teach Latvian language in Russian schools, it was provided in fewer hours of instructions and in poor quality.  Due to the intensive development of industry and the placement of additional labourers from the other Soviet republics, the number of Russian schools increased in Latvia. 

1991- now
After regaining independence, the new Education Law was passed. It permitted the establishment of private schools, stipulated that preschools are obliged to prepare children for schooling, and stipulated that the task of school is to prepare students with independent skills for learning and obtaining a future profession, rather than only preparing them for entry to higher education institutions. It also stipulated that compulsory education meet the basic level of education. In 1999, it was replaced by a more contemporary Education Law (which, as of 2015, is still in force) that reformed the education system to comply with European standards and introduced important content changes (incl. English as the first foreign language, economics, social sciences). 

The fundamental legal principles regarding the provision of education are set out in the Constitution of Latvia. Clause 112 establishes that “Everyone has right to education. State ensures access to free primary and secondary education. Primary education is compulsory”. The umbrella law regulating education in Latvia is the Education Law (Izglītības likums, 1999). The General Education Law (Vispārējās izglītības likums), Professional Education Law (Profesionālās izglītības likums), and Law on Institutions of Higher Education (Augstkolu likums) regulate the respective levels of the education system. Currently all legislation and policies are aimed at coordinating with the respective EU standards, ensuring that education certificates on all levels are recognised in other EU countries. 

Organization of the educational system

Currently the educational system in Latvia is organised in four levels: preschool, basic (primary), secondary, and tertiary education. Every subsequent education level is accessible with the certificate or diploma of the respective previous level. Figure 1 represents the current education system in Latvia. In terms of content and orientation, education can be general, professional, or academic. It is possible to acquire education in four forms: full time, extramural (incl. distance education), self-education, and home schooling. Education institutions implement full-time and extramural education. There are state, municipal, and private education institutions at all education levels.  

General education is implemented at three levels: preschool, basic, and secondary. Preschool, which prepares children for schooling, is compulsory for all children from five to seven years of age and lasts for up to two years. Basic education is compulsory from seven to 18 years of age. Basic education programmes are implemented in nine years. Basic education is free of charge in state and local government schools. General secondary education takes three years and the content of the programme can be (1) general, (2) humanitarian and social, (3) mathematics, natural sciences, and technologies, and (4) professional (of a specific direction). Special education programmes are provided for children with special needs (for students with serious mental or physical developmental disabilities) or children from disadvantaged families, as well as juvenile offenders. General education is financed from the state and municipal budgets. There are a number of private (with fees) preschool education institutions, concentrated in Riga, whereas private basic and secondary education is available but the number of institutions is small. 

Higher education is accessible with a secondary education certificate and is the most diversified in terms of levels, forms of studies, disciplines, and orientations. Higher education is divided in four levels – colleges (higher non-tertiary education), bachelor, master, and doctoral studies, in line with the Bologna Process. The legislation makes a distinction between academic and professional HE, however in practice the division is not very strict – the same institutions can implement both types of programmes, and for students to transition from one to the other is rather easy. There are more than 1,200 higher education programmes (LR IZM, 2014) and out of 60 HE institutions (in 2014) 26 are private, and 60 % of students in higher education pay a tuition fee (IZM, 2014). Between 1993 and 2006, the higher education system experienced a boom and the number of students increased three-fold (from 37,000 to 130,000), following the opening of HE system to market forces (introduction of private education), and the demand for new skills and competencies in the new market economy. However, due to demographic decline and the exhaustion of demand for re-education, the HE system is experiencing contraction and the number of students decreased to 90,000 in 2014. Higher education in Latvia is also experiencing increased international competition, since it is increasingly affordable for Latvian students to study abroad and the HE system (in certain disciplines) suffers from quality issues. 

Since 1999, when the principle structure of the educational system was established, the major reforms in the education sector concern content and quality as well as institutional changes in response to demographic developments.

Source: Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Latvia

Compulsory education

During Soviet times, the duration of compulsory schooling gradually increased. Until the 1960s compulsory schooling was comprised of seven years of basic education for children from seven to 14 years of age. Education could be extended by five years, but from 1950 this was changed to four years of secondary school. In 1959, an eight-year basic education was set as compulsory. In 1964, secondary schooling was ten years, but beginning in 1965 this became 11 years for schools that taught in Latvian and ten years for the schools that taught in Russian. Up from 1970 secondary education become de facto compulsory and remained so until the collapse of the Soviet Union – the completion of secondary education (general or vocational) was demanded in all jobs provided by the state, which essentially meant that there was no labour market for people with primary education only.

After regaining independence, the new Education Law of 1991 stipulated that compulsory education was the basic level of education of nine years or up to 15 years of age. The new law on education was passed in 1999 and it extended the compulsory age of schooling until 18 years of age. In 2002, it was decided that preschools should offer compulsory preparatory education prior to a child’s entry into the first grade. Thus, currently education is compulsory for all children permanently residing in Latvia between the ages of five and 18 and consists of two levels – preschool and basic education. 

Preschool education (ISCED-2011 level 0) is available from the age of one-and-a-half years but is compulsory from five to seven years of age (since 2002). The aim of preschool programmes is to develop the psychological and physical condition of children and to prepare them for basic education via developing state language, basic reading, and mathematics skills. It is the responsibility of each municipality to ensure preschool education for all children aged five to seven in the respective municipality. Municipalities also have to ensure equal access to preschool for children from age one-and-a-half, however this does not mean that all children have a place in public kindergarten before age five. The increased concentration of population in the capital Riga and the surrounding municipalities has created excess demand for childcare in Riga, which is not met by municipality preschools. Hence, Riga is famous for ‘kindergarten queues’. The private sector, co-financed by the municipality and the state (at least until mid-2016), fulfils the demand, but the current regulations foresee that co-financing for a particular child will be withdrawn if he or she has a place in a municipality preschool, which is available to all children aged five to seven. Hence, children often change preschools at least once, which is not desirable. 

Generally children start basic education (ISCED 2011 level 1 and 2) in the year in which they turn seven, but this can be one year earlier or later depending on special circumstances, and they are obliged by law to attend school until age 16. Basic education lasts for nine years. In some special cases (e.g. a student must repeat a grade) the acquisition of basic education may last until the age of 18. 

Children are assigned to the nearest school to their permanent place of residence. No entrance examinations are allowed for grades 1 to 6 and are only in special cases allowed for grades 7-9. It is not uncommon that in Riga, to get their children assigned to better schools, parents purposefully declare their children’s place of residence in the area that is close to their desired school. The basic school day is comprised of five lessons in grades 1-3 and up to eight lessons in grade 9. Each lesson lasts 45 minutes. The school year is 34 weeks long in 1st grade, 35 weeks from the 2nd to 8th grade, and 37 weeks in grade 9. The school year starts on 1 September and lasts until June, with a one-week break in autumn, two weeks at Christmas, and one week in spring. Compulsory curriculum includes four subject areas: languages, basics of technology and science, man and society, and arts. The National Basic Education Standard determines the objectives and tasks, compulsory curriculum, and the principles and procedures for the assessment of basic education. The aim of basic education is to provide opportunities for acquiring the basic knowledge and skills required for community and personal life, to lay the foundation for continuing education, to promote the learner’s harmonious development, and to foster a responsible attitude toward one’s self, family, society, the environment, and the state. The curriculum for comprehensive education is defined by 20 subject standards. After finishing basic education, most children continue their education in general secondary school, while about a quarter attend technical and further education schools. Basic (and secondary) education is free in public schools; private schools can charge fees, but their number is very small. 

Due to demographic decline and internal migration to cities, the education system is under pressure to close schools in areas where there are not enough children. The regions affected are in the countryside. From academic year 2015/16, the government has set the minimum number of pupils in a grade 10 class at ten. Currently there is no restricted minimum number of children in basic education; however, this may have to be set. More than 100 schools were already closed between 2010 and 2015. 

Currently (2015) political debate emphasises the need to establish secondary education as compulsory, arguing that it is a trend in advanced economies. 


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Zane Cunska
Stockholm School of Economics in Riga

Indra Dedze
University of Latvia

Data collected in the framework of the Population Europe Research Finder and Archive (PERFAR) in 2015.

Please cite as:
SPLASH-db.eu (2015): Policy: "Educational Policies: Latvia" (Information provided by Zane Cunska & Indra Dedze). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].