Q&A: School success in Estonia

When Estonia joined the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2006 and performed fifth globally in the Science domain, and then third overall in Science for PISA 2015, the world turned its attention to the small European country to find out what it has been doing to achieve this success. In today's Q&A, we hear from Gunda Tire, Estonia's National Project Manager for PISA, who shares more about the features of the Estonian school system, and what teachers have been doing to support students to reach their educational potential.

In PISA 2015, Estonia's Science performance was the best in Europe and third globally. What has Estonia been doing to achieve these results?

Estonia first joined PISA in 2006 when the main domain of assessment was Science. The mean score for Estonia was 531 points and it ranked fifth globally, which took Estonians by surprise. Nine years later (PISA 2015) when the Science domain rotated again in the focus of the assessment, Estonian students scored 534 points (OECD mean 493 points). This shows that the performance of Estonian students has been stable over time, there have been no drastic changes in performance and the third spot in rankings in PISA 2015 has turned the global attention to Estonia and its school system.

There is no specific initiative that we can point out as the main contributor to the success. It consists of many components, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece is important and contributes to the overall picture that was reflected by PISA.

Estonia is a small country on the Baltic Sea with 1.3 million inhabitants. It has a long history with many rulers coming and going over the centuries over its territory. To survive, Estonians have been adaptive, have always valued education and looked at things in a peaceful, down to earth manner. Estonia broke off from the Soviet Union and re-established its independence in 1990. Shortly before that educators in Estonia announced that the Soviet style education must be reformed, and the first step was to create a new national curriculum. That was done quickly and effectively.

The legal framework for education comes from different laws adopted in 1990s. That was also the time when Estonians were very eager to learn from the best practices in other countries, and Finland – being only 80 kilometres away on the other side of the Finnish Gulf – was a good place to learn from. The learning was supported with the fact that many Estonians speak Finnish, since both languages belong to the Finno-Ugric language family.

Many Estonians learned Finnish by watching Finnish TV in the Soviet times and kept themselves informed about events behind the Iron Curtain. So, yes, Estonians learned from their Finnish colleagues, but did not copy the system as is frequently asked by visitors from abroad. Estonia had a different cultural and historical background and it is simply impossible to copy one country's system to a different geographical location and make it work. The national curriculum, adopted in 1996 provided not only the topics for the subjects to be taught at the lessons, but also pointed out the need to focus on cross curricular competencies and skills.

Also, the national external evaluation system was introduced the mid-90s. The argument was that since education is financed by the state, taxpayers and the state have the right to get feedback about what is going on in schools and if students have mastered the objectives set in the national curriculum. The main components of the external evaluation are sample tests for Grades 3 and 6 and final examinations for all students at Grades 9 and 12. PISA-age students are in Grade 9 and they are about to finish their compulsory education.

In Estonia, teachers must have a master's degree and Science subjects are taught separately for PISA-age students. They study Biology, Physics, Chemistry by subject teachers in separate lessons.

For all PISA domains, Science is the one Estonian students do the best in and always have. Already in TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) 2003 – which was the first international assessment Estonia participated in – Science was the domain where Estonians excelled.

What has contributed to the success? The history, attitudes towards education in society, the education landscape set by the state and the school. All of that is accompanied by demanding and well-educated teachers and students who do what they are asked to. From the PISA national centre side, we only tell the students about the PISA test and ask them to take it seriously. We tell them, ‘you are special, you are chosen to participate in PISA!'

What are some features of the Estonian school system?

The Estonian school system has a strong pre-school tradition. Around 94 per cent of children attend Kindergartens that follow the national curriculum as a guideline for their activities. Children start school at the age of seven. Although this is a late start in comparison to other countries, children have most likely already learned their ABCs in Kindergarten.

Compulsory education lasts from Grades 1 to 9, which Estonians call the ‘basic school'. It is a comprehensive system; similar systems are found in Finland and some other European countries.

Most schools belong to the local municipalities. They receive money from the state for educational expenses like teacher salaries, textbooks etcetera. There is a comparatively small share of privately owned schools in Estonia (11 per cent).

Estonian schools are quite equal, the between-school difference according to PISA is 16.8 per cent. Estonian students spend on average 24.5 hours per week studying at school, which is less than in most OECD countries. Most schools do not close their doors once the lessons are over. They offer their students the so-called ‘long day' option, when students can do homework or participate in afterschool or extra-curricular activities, like sports, art, theatre or subject-related clubs. Many of those are free of charge and that is a good option for children from more disadvantaged families to enjoy their hobbies. Almost all schools have school choirs and folk dance groups as music and singing takes an important place in the curriculum and in society in general.

Since Estonia is one of the most digitalised societies in the world with many digital solutions offered to its citizens, the education system cannot ignore that and should care for digitally literate future citizens. In some schools, subjects like Coding and Robotics are included in the curriculum for younger students. The tendency to incorporate digital solutions in the teaching and learning process is on the rise – schools have just been offered digital textbooks, etcetera. Use of students' mobile phones during the lesson, when instructed properly, can be an effective tool when learning foreign languages and many other subjects. The state is supporting schools with training and courses provided for teachers free of charge to help them master the teaching methodologies and technology, as students often are more proficient in the use of the devices than their teachers.

To teach practical skills needed for life, there are lessons in the curriculum where students learn how to cook, knit, sew, carve woodwork and so on. Schools have special kitchens and other labs for those activities and those lessons are compulsory for everybody. The Estonian education strategy for the future provides guidelines to move towards child-centred education, more formal assessment and digital solutions in the learning process.

I know that Estonia had among the lowest percentages of students with very low achievement results in PISA 2015. However, I'm still interested in hearing more about some of the ways in which Estonia supports low-performing students to ensure equity and inclusiveness.

Indeed, PISA shows that in Estonia there is a small share of low performing students in all domains of assessment. In PISA 2015 91.2 per cent of students reached the baseline knowledge in Science (OECD mean is 78.8 per cent). The share of low-performing students is smaller only in Vietnam and Macao (China).

The Estonian comprehensive school system is based on equity and inclusiveness. All students have equal access to education and schools must provide the best learning environment for everyone regardless of student background. All children get a free school lunch, free textbooks, free school transport and many extracurricular activities. The system is supposed to take care of children who need additional support. For example, many schools provide also breakfast for students who come to school hungry.

Many schools have support centres [to help students who] have difficulties in studying or disciplinary problems. If the school is too small to hire a full-time psychologist or speech therapist, the state provides the service through state funded support centres. In each of the Estonian counties there is a support centre where schools can turn for help. Professional psychologists, speech therapists or social pedagogues go to schools and work with the children who need help. The professionals from these centres also assist schools when more serious cases emerge on a larger scale.

Students who find it difficult to follow the regular curriculum can often be assigned an individual study programme. Grade repetition is not often practiced. If a student needs to repeat a grade, that means that he or she has been struggling already for some time. Such students should be noticed when the problem occurs and get help [at the time] instead of repeating the grade. Schools do not receive additional funding just because they have more students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. In fact, this is not an issue at schools – schools pay attention to student achievement and not their background.

Could you tell me more about the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in Estonia, and their performance in PISA 2015?

PISA shows that poverty is not destiny. If a child is born in a poor family but there is a supporting school system, he or she can achieve good results. The Estonian case shows that students who come from the bottom quarter of socioeconomic status families achieve 504 points in Science, which is above the OECD average (493 points). As much as 48 per cent of students are the so-called ‘resilient students', which is the sixth highest result among participating countries. Resilient students come from the bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) and perform among the top quarter of students among all countries after accounting for socioeconomic status. Of course, it is undeniable that the socioeconomic background plays its role even in the most equitable systems. For example, Estonian students from the top quarter of ESCS score 573 points.

I understand that school principals in Estonia are granted considerable autonomy, including the authority to hire and fire staff, and define learning outcomes. Can you tell me more about this?

Estonian schools are autonomous, and the school principal is the bridge maker between the educational policy and its implementation. It is determined by the legislature that schools have the freedom to decide on the arrangement of the learning process, their personnel, budget and school development. They can decide how they shape the culture of the school, they are the ones to provide the best environment and learning opportunities for each child.

Schools follow the framework of the national curriculum, however, based on that they must provide their own school curriculum. The national curriculum leaves room for the school to introduce more lessons in certain subjects, if they want to. For example, there are schools that specialise in foreign languages, and in those schools there are more language lessons than elsewhere.

Schools can decide what textbooks to use and teachers decide what methods to apply in teaching. They can also decide in what sequence they teach certain topics. For example, the national curriculum sets the guideline that a concept should be mastered between Grades 1 and 3, but the school can decide if they teach it in Grade 2 or 3 for themselves.

The mechanism ensuring that the autonomy is not abused is called external evaluation. The state has the right to get feedback on how well the learning outcomes set in the national curriculum have been mastered at certain stages of education. The Estonian system, according to PISA, is a moderately testing country, there are centrally set tests for Grades 3 and 6 which are sample based and low stakes for students. There are also high stakes exams for Grades 9 and 12. However, the latest suggestions from the policymakers are to abolish Grade 9 national examinations and leave it up to school to decide if a student has completed the compulsory education stage or not. The future of the school assessment is moving towards formative assessment and involvement of digital tests that would assist schools and the learning process.

I've also learned that schools are required to undertake their own self-evaluations at least once every three years. How does this work? How does this benefit student learning?

School self-evaluation is regulated by the legislature and it is the responsibility of the school management. Schools are learning organisations and their task is to provide the best learning environment for their students. Every school, as a learning organisation, needs to evaluate what is going well, what areas need improvement and the direction they are going. The vision or the future direction of the school is expressed in a strategic development plan which is a period of at least three years but often longer. The self-evaluation must be done at least once during this development plan timeframe. In other words, schools decide on a strategy for a longer period and then they evaluate if the set goals have been implemented or not.

The method of self-evaluation is up to the school's principal, however, there are certain guidelines provided by the state that should be considered in the process. Schools should look at issues such as:

  • management, also strategic management;
  • personnel management;
  • resource management;
  • cooperation with interest groups;
  • study and education processes.

Schools can always acquire assistance from the state in this process if needed. It is important to remember that self-evaluation is done with a goal to support the school's development and it should involve not only the school management but also teachers, school employees, students, parents and other interest groups.

A review by the OECD (Santiago et al., 2016) identified some policy priorities to improve the effectiveness of the Estonian school system and to make the teaching profession more attractive to high-quality candidates.

In the OECD's 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), we learned we have professional, well-educated and experienced teachers who are mostly female (84.5 per cent) and their average age is 47. Many retired teachers work at schools and there is the issue of teacher sustainability for the future. The issue was also raised by the OECD experts in the report of 2016 and we are aware of the problem.

A positive aspect is that the issue of attracting more people into the teaching profession has been set as a state priority in the Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020. This document was adopted in 2014 and many activities have been done since. Teachers can receive in-service training provided by the state, and they are encouraged to network and cooperate with each other. There is also the initiative to promote the teaching profession as a positive job and enthusiastic teachers have been encouraged to speak up and share their positive experiences publicly.

A well rooted tradition is the so-called ‘Teacher's Day' that takes place on the first weekend of October. The Friday before the weekend, schools are taken over by the final year students, they ‘take over' the teaching and school management for the whole school. In other words, older students teach younger ones, and everyone has a chance to step into their teacher's shoes. Teachers have some entertainment provided at the same time also by the students of the school. The Teacher's Day is a fun event and everyone at schools enjoys it.

To complement the Teacher's Day tradition, the state has taken the initiative to promote the importance of a teacher's role and organise a nationwide nomination and award ceremony for the best teachers in the country. Several months in, advance schools are invited to nominate their teachers in different categories, like class teacher, subject teacher, kindergarten teacher, etcetera. The award committee picks the best candidates and the award ceremony is aired on the public television during this same weekend. This is widely watched and discussed afterwards in the media.

There are several other initiatives to increase the awareness of the teaching profession. In 2006 Estonia joined the international movement ‘Teach for all', inviting people to become teachers. The selected participants receive professional training and experience teaching at a school. The programme lasts for two years and upon completion, they become qualified teachers. Many of these teachers stay in schools, others leave, but the programme is very popular and the competition to get into it is quite tough.

The monetary motivator – teacher salaries – have increased considerably over the past few years; however, they are still low in comparison with other OECD countries. Finally, what is very important – TALIS tells us that most Estonian teachers like their job and their school environment.


Santiago, P., et al. (2016), OECD Reviews of School Resources: Estonia 2016, OECD Reviews of School Resources, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264251731-en.