System of education



The history of the Estonian educational system begins with cathedral and monastery schools, first opened in the 13th - 14th centuries. The first high school was established by Jesuits in 1583. The university was founded by the Swedish King Gustav II Adolphus in 1632. The Lutheran church has had a substantial impact on Estonian culture and education since the 16th century (1525 - the first printed book in Estonian, 1575 - the first primer in Estonian). The first peasants' schools were opened in the 17th century. In the second half of the 17th century, B.G. Forselius opened a two-year college to train native teachers for peasants' schools. By the end of the 18th century about 2/3 of all peasants in Estonia could read. According to the 1881 Population Census, about 90% of Estonians were literate. When Estonia won its independence in 1918, a national educational system, including universities, began to develop, with Estonian as the primary language of instruction.

1. Educational Policy and Goals of the Educational System

Over the last 50 years, possibilities were limited for developing independent educational policy in Estonia. Despite the pressure to adopt the over-politicised Soviet educational structure and curricula, the Estonian educational system managed to maintain instruction in the Estonian language and keep a level of differentiation amongst the schools.

Political renaissance began at the end of 1980s. Depoliticised, child-centered humanistic education regained its status in Estonia. By 1993 more precise viewpoints regarding education had been developed and articulated by social democrats and liberals.

The Estonian Education Act, passed in 1992, states that the main goals of education include the development of the Estonian language and culture, the propagation of general humanistic values, as well as encouraging the development of national minorities.

2. Formal Structure of Education

Two essential innovations have been introduced that distinguish the educational system of today from the system that existed until the end of the 1980s. First, the nine-year compulsory basic school has replaced compulsory secondary education. Second, four-year applied higher education institutions have been introduced at a tertiary level, as an alternative to the academic stream of universities. Private educational institutions now serve as an alternative to the existing public schools.

The formal structure of Estonian education is illustrated in Fig.1. The Estonian educational system consists of pre-school, primary, secondary, vocational, university/higher level, and adult education. The instructional language is either Estonian or Russian in all types of schools. In universities there are academic groups in which the instructional language is Russian. The share of students in 1994/95 trained in Estonian, is 66% in basic schools, 72% in secondary schools, 67.6% in vocational schools, and 82% in tertiary educational institutions. (Many of the Russian-speaking students continue their studies in the higher education institutions of the former Soviet Union.)

2.1 Primary, Secondary, and Higher Education

Compulsory schooling begins at the age of seven. Primary education lasts for four years.

Secondary education, following primary, is divided into two parts - basic education (Grades 5-9) and upper secondary education (Grades 10-12). Primary and basic education (Grades 1-9) is compulsory for all children in Estonia. Students are obliged to stay at school either until obtaining a basic education or until the age of 17. The basic school certificate allows a student to continue his/her education at the next level.

There are two main options after basic school - upper secondary school (Grades 10-12) or vocational school. Some vocational schools provide secondary education in addition to vocational education. The secondary school certificate gives a student the right to continue his/her education either in universities or in other institutions of higher education.

In the 1994/95 academic year, there were 741 comprehensive schools, 234 of which provided secondary education. The number of schools has increased during the last 10 years (in 1980/81 there were 537 schools). The number of pupils has also increased but the growth has not been so dramatic. The average number of pupils per secondary school is 658. The average number of students per grade is 23 (16 in rural schools). The number of children starting their studies in the first grade is about 21 000 - 22 000 per year. The drop-out rate of students in the compulsory basic school is about 1-2% (excluding students in vocational schools). So, for example, in 1994, 17 555 students graduated from basic schools. The drop-out rate, however, is increasing.

Most graduates from basic school continue their studies either in secondary school (68.8% in 1994/1995) or in various vocational schools (29%). About 2-3% do not continue their education, and the number of such students is increasing.

39.9% of the graduates from secondary school continue their studies in institutions of higher education. 26.7% attend vocational schools.

The Basic and Upper-Secondary Schools Act, passed in September 1993, now establishes upper secondary schools as the main structural units of upper secondary education, replacing secondary schools. Some three-year upper secondary schools for post-compulsory level students (grades 10-12) have already been established. This type of school did not exist during the past 50 years. According to this Act, by the year 2000 the instruction in state and municipal upper secondary schools will be conducted in Estonian. Basic schools will continue instruction in either Estonian or Russian. Graduates of the Russian-language basic schools are expected to have gained sufficient knowledge of Estonian to continue their studies in upper secondary schools.

However, the Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities Act, also passed in autumn 1993, allows national minorities the option of establishing private upper secondary schools with an instructional language other than Estonian.

There were 13 public and 8 private higher educational institutions in Estonia in 1994. The number of private institutions is rapidly increasing. Beginning in the academic year 1991/92, tertiary education has been divided into two branches - universities and other institutions of applied higher education.

There are 6 universities - University of Tartu, founded in 1632 (the number of students in 1994/95 was 7692, incl. part-time students); Tallinn Technical University, 1918 (6106); Tallinn Art University, 1938 (511); Tallinn Music Academy, 1919 (502); Estonian Agricultural University, 1951 (2431), and Tallinn Pedagogical University, 1952 (2919). The total number of university students in 1992/1993 was 25 483. Approximately 2290 students attended other state institutions, while 3031 students attended private higher institutions. The majority of students (84%) come from the general secondary schools. Undergraduate academic studies in universities last 4-6 years. Institutions of applied higher education are based mainly on the former post-secondary vocational schools.

2.2 Preschool Education

There were 656 pre-schools in 1994/95, attended by 63 867 children. There were 125 children per kindergarten in towns, and 42 in rural areas. Pre-school education is taught in Estonian (71.3%), in Russian (22.2%) or in both languages (6.5%). Despite the wide-spread network of pre-schools, state support and the attendance rate have been substantially decreasing since the late 1980s.

2.3 Special Education

Special services are available only in larger centers for infants with moderate and severe physical and/or intellectual disabilities. Children aged three to seven who need special speech, visual, aural, orthopaedic or intellectual education and training can attend special kindergarten groups. The number of these children (3-4% of the age group) has been slightly decreasing since the late 1980s.

In 1994 there were 50 special schools for children with physical, intellectual or emotional disorders. 6% of the population (about 11 000 pupils) in Grades 1-9 has been provided with special educational services. Half of these children were enrolled in special schools and classes, while the other half was provided with part-time remedial education and speech therapy. 4981 students are enrolled in special schools and classes. An average teacher-student ratio is 1:2 in pre-schools/foundling hospitals, 1:4 in boarding schools, and 1:8-10 in special day schools. Since the late 1980s, integration of special education into traditional schools has begun. Varying flexible solutions have been introduced to educate children with learning disabilities in regular classes. However, the prospects for allowing people with mental disabilities and emotional disorders to lead an independent lifestyle have deteriorated since the early 1990s. In order to combine early diagnosis and rehabilitation out-patient services have been introduced to assist both parents and their disabled children.

2.4 Vocational, Technical, and Business Education

Until the beginning of the 1990s, vocational education in Estonia had to follow Soviet policy and regulations. There were artificial boundaries between the tertiary and vocational educational systems. As a rule, compulsory secondary education was accompanied by vocational training which lacked flexibility.

Today, there are different curricula depending on the educational level attained by a student. In 1994/1995 there were 82 different vocational training institutions with 26 445 students. These schools offered more than one hundred fields of study. Since the early 1990s, 7 vocational educational institutions exist at the tertiary level. New programs to meet the needs of a national market economy have been introduced (business management, navigation, aviation, tourism, police and military, etc.). Administrative responsibility for non-tertiary level vocational education institutions is delegated to the local municipalities. A number of secondary schools also offer some vocational training.

2.5 Adult and Non-Formal Education

For the first time, limited financial support is planned for adult education in the 1996 state budget. Although an adult education system has not yet fully developed, there are already a number of adult education centers in the larger towns. Opportunities for adults to receive a standard education are also improving - there are already five evening schools where adults are able to obtain a secondary school diploma in a number of subjects.

Further education courses are available in over half of the vocational education institutions, and also in most of the universities. Foreign partners are assisting in the development of pilot professional training centers, which aim to utilize modern teaching methods.

During recent years, over 40 state-supported adult education institutions have been established. Opportunities for various fields of study have increased since there are also various private initiatives. A voluntary umbrella organisation "Andras" coordinates non-formal adult education activities, and other associations such as the Adult Education League, the Adult Educators' Association, Open Education Association and Study Circles Association have been established.

3. Administrative and Supervisory Structure

The administration of Estonian education has been divided between different public institutions. Supervisory systems exist in each institution.

The Parliament establishes the principles and general structure of the educational system. The Government guarantees the implementation of state programs for education and regulates the establishment of universities and other institutions of higher education. The Ministry of Culture and Education is responsible for the development and implementation of state educational programs and standards. It also grants licenses to private educational institutions.

Local municipalities are responsible for the development and administration of local educational systems. They establish and finance local municipal educational institutions. Local governments form the structural units responsible for the administration of pre-school, primary, secondary and vocational educational institutions.

4. Educational Finance

The state covers the costs of formal public education. Private education is privately financed.

Official figures detailing education expenditures from the state budget during the previous years are as follows: 16% in 1992, 16.5% in 1993, 14.9% in 1994, 16.5% in 1995. The state covers all the costs of maintenance and teachers' salaries at institutions of higher education, vocational education institutions and state schools (incl. special schools, sanatorium and boarding schools). Municipal schools have their teachers' salaries and textbooks paid by the state, but the maintenance costs are covered by the local government. There are no tuition fees in public schools or state institutions of higher education.

For tertiary students, the state provides loans. The system of tertiary student loans was begun in 1992.

The state pays for on-going teacher training, some reconstruction and building costs, nationwide student fairs, hobby schools, and adult education. Local governments pay for the salaries of pre-school teachers.

5. Supplying Personnel for the Educational System

The number of comprehensive and secondary school teachers exceeds 18 000, constituting 2% of the total labour-aged population. The teacher-student ratio at different school levels is the following: 1:10 - in pre-schools, 1:18 - in primary school, 1:12 - in secondary school, 1:9 - in institutions of higher education.

The educational level required of an instructor depends on the institution in which he/she is employed. In pre-schools, most teachers have 2-3 years of tertiary education. One-sixth of all pre-school teachers have a university education. 57% of primary and 83% of secondary school teachers have a university education. As a rule, the educational level of urban teachers is higher. Female teachers are in the majority (83%) at primary and secondary school levels. At the vocational school level, 30% of teachers are men. Among the nation's teachers 22% are under the age of 30, while 16% are over 55. The teaching profession has not been popular among young people since a teacher's salary has been for a long time among the lowest (in 1994, the average educational wage was 948 kroons versus the average Estonian wage of 1723 kroons).

The perennial shortage of teachers, especially in some isolated rural areas, has made staffing difficult at many schools.

Educational personnel are trained at three universities and five educational colleges.

Tallinn Pedagogical University trains pre-school teachers, primary school teachers, and subject-teachers for basic and secondary school level. There are in-service training programs for teachers and school administrators. Since the beginning of the 1990s, school counsellors are being trained.

University of Tartu offers certification as a subject-teacher for basic and secondary school levels. Prospective teachers must study for one additional year after completing academic studies in the main subject.

In 1968, the Department of Special Education was established at the University of Tartu, specialising in training teachers for special and remedial educational services. In-service teacher training programs have also been developed.

Teachers for music education are trained at the Tallinn Music Academy.

6. Curriculum Development and Teaching Methodology

Curricula developed from 1940 to 1987 had to reflect the general principles of the Soviet school ideology. Despite the strict demand to unify the curricula, Estonia was able to maintain some of its educational traditions. For example, instruction was carried out in the native language, a number of textbooks were written by Estonian authors, there was an extra year of school, music education was provided up to the end of secondary school, etc.

The Congress of Estonian Teachers, held in 1987, was the catalyst which began the restructuring and substantial changes of the curriculum which have occurred since 1989/1990. The curriculum was depoliticised, many syllabi modernised, less emphasis was placed on rote learning, the time given to optional subjects and foreign languages was increased, and new subjects were introduced.

Students must study at least two foreign languages of their own choice. Instruction in the first foreign language begins in Grade 3. The second foreign language is introduced in Grade 6. The most popular languages are English, German, Russian, Finnish and French. A third foreign language is not obligatory, but can be taken at the upper secondary level.

Russian language schools in Estonia that have followed the Soviet curricula began to modernise their curricula one year later. Currently, the curricula of Estonian and Russian basic schools are identical.

The curriculum has been developed on the basis of de-centralisation. It fixes the core subjects and enables choice for the school and the student. According to the time-table for the academic year 1994/95, the number of classroom hours per week is the following: Grade 1 - 20 hrs, Grades 3-5 - 25 hrs, Grades 6-7 - 29 hrs (+ 2 hrs for optional), Grade 8-9 - 32 hrs (+ 3 hrs for optional). At the secondary school level - 24 hrs per week from the core + 8 hrs (depending on the school) + 4 hrs for optional subjects. The total load at the secondary school level is 36 hrs per week. At this level the curricula of Estonian-language and Russian-language schools differ slightly.

7. Examination, Promotion, and Certification

The evaluation of students' achievement, the transfer of students from grade to grade and graduation from school are regulated by the State Board of Education of the Ministry of Culture and Education. The students' knowledge is numerically measured on a five-point-scale. The reports given at the end of each Grade at basic and secondary school levels certify the student's advancement. Exams, either oral or written, begin from Grade 6. National achievement tests are not used. The first formal certificate is received at the end of basic school (Grade 9). The next certificate is received at the end of secondary school. Gold or silver medals are awarded to the best students. The secondary education certificate does not necessarily allow a student to enter an institution of higher education or an university. Applicants must pass entrance exams.

8. Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research

The Estonian educational system is being re-structured. Several changes have already been instituted regarding the structure of the schools as well as in the curriculum content. The results of the current changes will become evident in several years time.

Current evaluation of educational efficiency is based on the results of written papers in different subject areas and final grading through examinations.

9. Major Problems Foreseen for the Year 2000

The landscape of Estonian education in the 1990s reflects the breakdown of the occupying Soviet system and the regaining of independence and sovereignty. Nearly every aspect and level of education has been discussed, revised and re-structured. Among the most pressing issues that needed to be addressed were the following: the ideology and paradigms of education, the structure of education, the relation between different levels of education, the quality of education, the relation between education and the economy, the relation between education and culture, the relation between education, human rights and freedom, territorial location and availability of educational institutions, legislation and administration of education, the number of state versus private institutions, the availability of personnel, finances, etc.

The major problem for the year 2000 is how to develop the stabilised educational system so that it provides effective feedback for future development.