Tanel Kerikmäe, Aivi Remmelg, Sandra Särav
Political and institutional developments
The Education Act of Republic of Estonia provides that the state and the local government must guarantee everyone in Estonia the opportunity to fulfil the obligation to attend school from pre-school level to higher education, the Constitution of Republic of Estonia requires children of a certain age to study to the extent set by law and guarantees free of charge education in state and local government general education schools. The results of PISA 2012 survey are certainly a good sign of a relatively successful educational system, which indicate that the level of basic schools in Estonia is among the best in the world and in the absolute top in Europe and that the results have improved in comparison to previous years (2006 and 2009).
Such results can last if the teachers are motivated. The government raised the minimum wage of teachers after the teachers’ strike, which is 800 euros a month as of this year. The actual statistics on this does vary, however, and once again the issue of guaranteeing an actual pay rise for the teachers has arisen, as has the question of standing up for their rights striking, if necessary However, in addition to teachers the regular schools must deal with students with special needs who need social pedagogues, psychologists, etc in order to manage with their studies. The wage issues of the support staff are left for the local governments to solve, which restricts the rights of students with special needs, as well as their coping with studies.
The plan to organise the schools’ network creates tension in schools, local governments and parents, as well as suspense about the future. The audit by the National Audit Office discloses that the Ministry of Education and Research lacks a clear understanding about where the educational institutions ought to be located, neither is it completely clear how creation of state upper secondary schools is decided and how many of them there should be. Tarmo Olgo explains: “if the number of students has reduced by about a third in the decade, the number of schools has only been reduced by a sixth. An excessive number of schools causes extra expenses in the field of education. The extra schools must also be fitted with teachers and the rest of the necessary staff. The Ministry of Education and Research predicted in the beginning of the millennium that there will be a little over 9000 teachers’ positions in Estonia by 2008. The reality shows that this figure almost reaches 12,000, or a quarter more than predicted.“ Indecisiveness in creating a network of schools damages the state and everybody involved, as well as brings uncertainty about the future, as the decisions should have been made before the restructuring of the schools’ network, as the statistics for this has been available. A lot of debate was also raised by the new one point threshold of state examinations, which will be applied as of 2014. This gives the opportunity to see a change in the general exam results table.
Closing of basic schools in rural areas due to the small number of students results in a longer school commute and a longer day at school. According to the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act it should not take the basic school students more than 60 minutes to get to school, but even that extends the students’ day nearly two hours in a situation where other options are not present. Therefore, especially the children in rural areas face inequality in comparison to students living in, for example, Tallinn or Tartu. On the other hand, regional changes towards regional centres have increased the population in certain areas, as well as a strong need for kindergarten and school places. The states party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Estonia also is, have agreed upon a principle, according to which education must be the basis for the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential and the development of values. These principles are also supported by the Child Protection Act, also stating the child’s right to periods of relaxation and rest. However, whether these principles are also supported in the current schools’ network plan, according to which several small schools will be closed down and children’s journey to school is longer, and that is why recreational activities will be unattainable for them, is unclear.
The purpose of the education reform initiated in academic year of 2013 is considered to be increasing the quality of higher education, reduction of unreasonable duplication and enlivening of cooperation between universities. The reform increases state funding for universities, which is the prerequisite for implementation of higher education. At the same time it is understandable that the term “free higher education” is not directly applicable to all young people with ambitions of higher education. The funding reform was created in order to guarantee the quality of higher education, the concept of state-commissioned education was given up and switched over to a system of activity support. Certain criteria are applied for entrance and staying in school, such as cumulative full-time study. Only full-time students can apply for education allowances and study loans. Performance is assessed by more extensive measurements than the number of students graduating. It is too early to draw conclusions on this matter as the results in educational system will occur in a few years.
In the opinion of the students the Study Allowances Act continues to disregard the actual income, although a great change initiated with the amendment to the draft act that passed in Riigikogu 19 December 2013 did fix unfairness in the system of allowances. According to the calculations of the Ministry of Education and Research this would add at least a thousand studance who are eligible for the study allowance and that is remarkable progress in the words of vice chairman of the Federation of Estonian Student Unions Johann Peetre. The position during creation of the need-based study allowance was that it must be simple and fast, be based on data from the income tax return of the previous year, however, the act does not apply to all equally, the allowance is given based on aged data or without considering all the relevant evidence.
Switching to free higher education meant changing of allowances paid to students. Students who started their studies in academic year of 2013 are eligible to need-based study allowance of 75-220 euro depending on the income of their families, which ties the students to their families until they are 24 years of age. On the other hand, the definition of a family is very narrow. For example the new partner of a parent, nor his/her children, are considered a family member of the student, not even if the address in the population register matches.
According to the ministry’s prognosis roughly 37% of full-time students will be eligible for a need-based study allowance, yet after the first round of application just 2264 students were given the allowance. In 2013 there were 14,000 students who were eligible for the need-based study allowance. Application was submitted by 3857 students, the allowance was awarded 2264 students, which means 1583 applications did not meet the conditions.
The Act Amending § 22 of the Study Allowances and Study Loans Act should also be mentioned. According to this writing off of a study loan now also applies (in addition to persons with permanent incapacity for work) to persons who are unemployed, but caring for a child with a severe disability, even if rural or city municipality government supports caring for the child. The Vocational Education Institutions Act was adopted to replace the outdated act, which had come into force in 1998. The amendments include definitions of new types of vocational training and a changeover from former types of vocational training to types of training within the new qualification framework. Reorganisation, based on which the students can graduate from vocational institutions also in cases if they have filled only a part of the curriculum, and the vocational schools have the right to decrease the volume of curricula, is worth noting. Specialists with practical skills of entrepreneurship also have the opportunity to teach at vocational schools without having gone through teacher training.
Principle of inclusive education
Estonian “Development plan for the general educational system, 2007-2013” has set the priority that the child/student has to be at the centre of an educational institution. The same development plan confirms that one of the foundations of a functioning educational system is the principle of inclusive education, according to which teaching children with educational special needs ought to preferably take place in a pre-school or a school near his or her home, with other children, and if possible, refrain from sending the child to a special children’s institution: “in order to guarantee equal opportunities for students with special needs and to implement the inclusive educational policy there are opportunities created by law to implement various support services (help from speech therapists, correctional study, individual curricula, classes for children with behavioural problems, long day groups, home schooling, etc).”
The publication of the Statistical Office “Child Wellbeing“ says that nearly three quarters of all children between the ages 1.5 and 3 attend child day care centres and nearly all children between the ages 4 and 6 go to pre-schools. The day care options for children up to 3 years old have been decreasing since 2008. The main reason is that the local governments cannot provide day care places for all who request them. The problem area of Estonian educational system are the children who do not fulfil the compulsory school attendance, drop out of schools before acquiring basic education or after graduating from basic schools, but do not acquire vocational education. Generally the reason for not attending school is not merely the child’s laziness or insufficient capability, but it infers to complicated problems in relation to the child and the relevant systems, including the educational system.
Unlike regular pre-schools, the special pre-schools staff only special pedagogues and speech therapists as support specialists, there are no psychologists of social pedagogues there. In comparison to the situation five years ago the number of support specialists at special pre-schools has decreased. The fact that their number has increased in regular pre-schools confirms that principles of inclusive education are followed in Estonian pre-school education.
“The development plan for general education system, 2007-2013” emphasizes that the further implementation of principles of inclusive education along with making counselling and the services of support specialists available to students with educational special needs and guaranteeing of a suitable study environment are extremely important. The schools have cooperated with the local governments in hiring a staff with the necessary special preparation in order to increase the availability of assistance from supporting specialists. Their numbers in Estonia’s schools has increased somewhat during the past five years. Those children, whose school is not located close to their home can stay at the school’s boarding facilities upon the application of their parents, provided there are places available. There were boarding facilities at 28 state schools, 6 private schools and at 46 local government schools in Estonia during the previous academic year. There were places for roughly 2500 children and boarding school facilities. Most places were with basic schools belonging to the state. The opportunity to study at boarding schools on basic school level is firstly offered to children with special needs and those with socio-economic problems and for children from families with difficulties in coping, whose school attendance would otherwise be at risk. There are roughly 700 places at basic schools governed by local governments, and that hasn’t changed much in the last five years. The creation of boarding school facilities is mainly restricted by the financial capacity of the local governments. There are currently nearly 300 places at boarding facilities of state upper secondary schools that are being created with the ongoing educational reform.
The set of elective courses introduced for the upper secondary schools in the middle of the year also emphasised on inclusion of students and making the school life more interesting, offering new interesting subjects in the curriculum. These interdisciplinary materials were created in addition to the traditional topics, with the purpose of promoting the knowledge of students of natural sciences by applying the methods of information technology. The materials of the subject are mostly available in the Moodle environment that is well-known in universities.
An important factor in inclusion of students is their motivation and initiative.
A good example of this is the youth association Open Republic, which, as one of its goals, has the goal to improve the quality of education and the study environment, as well as raising the motivation to study. The association has more than 1500 members between the ages 16 and 26, more than half of them Russian-speaking.
Dialogue between institutions of various levels of education is increasingly important. The open Estonia Fund declared the initiative “Back to school” worthy of the 2013 award for agreement, which has turned into a year-round citizen educational initiative. “Back to school” expands the limits of traditional learning and brings school and society closer via immediate experience Another way to make such discussion work is the Tallinn University of Technology law institute project initiated in 2013 and funded by the European Commission, which aims to increase the knowledge of the European Union on upper secondary school level, using the university’s academic resources to achieve this aim.
Estonian Human Development Report 2013/2014 emphasises the philosophy of life-long study stemming from aging of the population, or in other words, participating in education from cradle to the grave, which is seen as from gaining pre-school education to participation in education for adults. Although the proportion of women among the persons with higher education is larger than men’s, the situation is the opposite when observing high-paying jobs.
The accordance of education to the needs of the economy negates the opinion widely spread in public discussions that young people are studying the wrong disciplines. The European Commission points out the fact that people are working below the level of their skills and knowledge, the rate of people working not in accordance with their qualifications is one of the highest in the EU, extending significantly higher than the average level (which is 20%). The studies indicate that despite the excellent results of our students in international comparison, the significant drawback is the extremely high dependency on funding of education from state funds, and the low level of vocational education and its weak connection to the labour market, as well as the low pay of the teachers.
Estonian Institute of Human Rights is carrying out the project “Human rights in educational system”. The purpose of the project is to contribute to systematic positive change in teaching human rights in Estonia in formal as well as informal educational sector, to develop a network of human rights friendly schools and to offer the NGOs in the field training along with the schools, as well as new up-to-date study materials. Twelve schools in Estonia will become members of a network of human rights friendly schools, where human rights are promoted considering a diverse reality. Council of Europe handbook “Compass” will also be translated and used to teach young people human rights.
Right to education means, in addition to access to education, also the right to good education, which corresponds to the requirements of the labour market. Also the options of studying to standard, refresher courses and retraining must be observed here. Undoubtedly, those with higher levels of education are better off in the labour market, but a need for good skilled workers requires the state to contribute to significantly improving the vocational education.
The education provided in Estonian schools is competitive on the international level, in terms of the knowledge of the children. Good results in international comparative studies confirm this. According to the PIAAC survey initiated by the OECD and published in October the skills of Estonians are above average – Estonians between the ages 16 and 65 came 7th among 24 countries in functional literacy, 11th in mathematical literacy and 16th in computer use and problem solving. The 2012 PISA surveypublished in December rates the level of our 15 year old basic school students as one of the best in the world and at the absolute top in Europe. Estonia shares the 1st and 2nd spot with Finland in natural sciences in Europe. In comparison with the 65 states in the test Estonian youths placed 4th-7th in natural sciences with Finland, Japan and Korea. Estonia was placed 11th in reading and mathematics in the world, which means 3rd-6th in Europe.
However, from the point of view of the children, things aren’t that carefree. It appears from surveys of the National Institute for Health and Development that many children who go to school are stressed and overworked and prone to recreational drug use. A serious problem among Estonian school students is bullying and violence stemming from hierarchical, layered and discriminating school environment. However, one must be cautious making conclusions about Estonia’s schools based on international surveys as they often involve a rather narrow age group and do not represent the opinions of all the students. Boys and students of worse socio-economic backgrounds are treated differently in Estonia’s schools than girls and students with better socio-economic backgrounds. This also indicates that teachers in Estonia do not just measure the knowledge of the child but their behaviour, views and habits according to the teacher.
The 2006 and 2009 PISA results, in addition to drawing attention to different treatment of boys and girls in Estonia’s school and the resulting gender gap already on basic education, draw attention to differences in school life and perception of students in Estonian and Russian-speaking schools and in town and rural schools. The child’s right to education and the child’s wellbeing in school do not just mean a right to a place in the classroom. It is possible to provide it only if the basic rights of the child are guaranteed at the same time, the child’s human dignity is respected, the differences in students are tolerated, etc.
The court judgments indicate continuing problems with funding of Tallinn’s private schools. “At a time when private schools must litigate against the Tallinn city government about the funding that they are legally entitled to, Tallinn gave 30,000 euros to a foundation, about whose intended activity there is no clarity whatsoever,” said county governor Ülle Rajasalu,explaining the background for initiating an official review of funding for the Russian Lyceum, which is operating without an education license.
The private schools are forced to turn to court in order to receive their grants. For example, the Rocca al Mare School sued the city of Tallinn for 35,259 euros for operational expenditure for November of 2012. The complaint was rejected with court injunction because the city provided the required sum. The same tendency concerned getting a pre-school place, where proceedings were terminated because the problem found a solution. According to Ülenurme rural municipality government the providing of a pre-school place did not have to do with the plaintiff turning to court.
A court judgment regarding the quality of education was made about the institution of higher education Euroacademy where the Assessment Council of Estonian Higher Education Quality Agency submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Education and Research not to give the private institution of higher education the right to teach and provide academic degrees and diplomas in the study programme of environmental protection, as the quality requirements based on the higher education standard had not been met. The court remained of the opinion that the decision of the Ministry about ending the program was legal and founded.
The universities may set various admittance criteria to guarantee equal access to higher education. For example, there is an European Court of Human Rights judgment on setting limitations for entrance exams. The applicants were not admitted to study on the account of the list based on merit, because the Italian universities apply the principle of numerus clausus. The applicants found that the organisation of admittance to universities does not guarantee their right to education. The limitation was considered to be legitimate and proportional and no breaches were found in its application. It was also found that the principle of numerus clausus was in proportion to the public interest in guaranteeing employment of the graduates. Increasing the number of graduates would bring about pressure on the social measures for providing sustenance for unemployed graduates. There was one dissenting judge who did not consider the judgment proportionate – the principle of numerus clausus is disproportionate limitation to access to university education as the entire labour market is open to citizens of EU Member States. Therefore, it isn’t justified to rely only on the needs of the Italian labour market.”
Setting limitations to free and paid study places at institutes of higher education is also a current problem in Estonia. Creating a limited number of state-funded places for students in a dialogue between the study institution and the Ministry of Education and Research is understandable. Setting limitations to paid places and in study programmes taught in foreign languages, in an environment where Estonia values internationalisation of higher education – the basis for those restrictions remains unclear.
- Create clarity about criteria for muneration of teachers and support staff of schools.
- Include parents and interest groups in creation process of network of schools and draw limits for local governments and the state on discretion for making decisions.
- Analyse the problems of study allowances and study loans more extensively.
- Follow clear rules in fulfilling curricula at vocational education institutions.
- Perfect the mechanism for guaranteeing the interests of children with special needs.
- Prioritise the principle of inclusive education in making decisions in education policies.
 Government regulation. Põhikooli ja gümnaasiumi õpetaja töötasu alammäär [Minimum wage rates for basic school and upper secondary school teachers]. State Gazette I, 27.12.2013, 19.
 Voltri, R. „Õpetajad streigist: välistada ei saa midagi“ [Nothing can be precluded at the teachers’ strike]. Postimees. 12.02.2014. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/2694692/opetajad-streigist-valistada-ei-saa-midagi. 13.02.2014.
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 Olgo. T. „Jah, härra (haridus)minister! Ülehomme on tõesti juba hilja!“ [“Yes, mister Minister (of Education and Research)! The day after tomorrow is too late!”]. Maaleht. 18.10. 2013.
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 The Act Amending the Study Allowances and Study Loans Act. State Gazette I, 10.01.2014, 4.
 Õppetoetuste seadus ei arvesta ka edaspidi tudengi tegelikku sissetulekut [The Study Allowances Act will continue to disregard the actual income of students]. Press release of Estonian Student Unions. Available at: http://eyl.ee/?p=8057.
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 Lass, M. „Vajaduspõhise õppetoetuse määramise hindamisel ei arvestata tegeliku vajadusega“ [The real needs are not considered when allocating need-based study support]. Available at: http://arvamus.postimees.ee/2631888/maarja-lass-vajaduspohise-oppetoetuse-maaramise-hindamisel-ei-arvestata-tegeliku-vajadusega, 10.01.2014.
 The Act Amending § 22 of the Study Allowances and Study Loans Act. State Gazette I, 02.07.2013, 2.
 The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act states that a student with special educational needs means a student whose talent, specific learning difficulties, health status, disability, behavioural and emotional disorders, longer-term absence from studies or insufficient proficiency in the language of instruction of a school brings about the need to make changes or adjustments in the subject matter, process, duration, workload or environment of study. The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act. State Gazette I 2010, 41, 240. §46 (1).
 Ibid. Page 89.
 Ibid. Page 91.
 Ibid. Page 93.
 „Üldharidussüsteemi arengukava aastateks 2007–2013“. Haridus- ja Teadusministeerium.
Available at: http://www.hm.ee/index.php?03236, 30.08.2013.
 Estonian Research Council. Uued õppematerjalid gümnaasiumitele [New study materials for secondary schools]. Available at: http://www.etag.ee/teaduse-populariseerimine-2/teame-programm/uued-oppematerjalid-gumnaasiumile/.
 Üldhariduskoolide/Gümnaasiumi valikkursused [Elective courses for general education and secondary schools]. Available at: https://moodle.e-ope.ee/course/index.php?categoryid=511 .
 Tallinn University of Techology law institute project on raising the awareness and level of inclusion of European citizens: guaranteeing sustainable knowledge on the basis of secondary education.
 Estonian Human Development Report 2012/2013. Available at: http://www.kogu.ee/olemus-ja-roll/eesti-inimarengu-aruanne/eesti-inimarengu-aruanne-2013/2014.
 Project’s website (Available at: http://www.eihr.ee/haridus/inimoigused-haridussusteemis/) and Compass study materials (Available at: http://eycb.coe.int/compass/).
 Ibid. Page 27.
 Aasvee, K., Eha, M., Härm, T., Liiv, K., Oja, L., Tael, M. 2012. Eesti kooliõpilaste tervisekäitumine.
2009/2010. õppeaasta Eesti HBSC uuringu raport [Health behaviour in School-Aged Children in Estonia. 2009/2010 academic year HBSC report]. Tallinn: The National Institute for Health Development.
 Uimastite tarvitamine koolinoorte seas: 15–16-aastaste õpilaste legaalsete ja illegaalsete
narkootikumide kasutamine Eestis [Use of drugs among school-aged children: 15-16 year old students’ use of legal and illegal narcotics in Estonia]. 2012. / ed. M. Kobin, S. Vorobjov, K. Abel-Ollo, K. Vals.
Tallinn: The Institute of International and Social Studies and the National Institute for Health Development.
 Toots, A., Lauri, T. 2013. Haridus. – Eesti Inimarengu Aruanne 2012/2013 [Education – Estonian Human Development Report 2012/2013]. Estonia in the World.
Tallinn: Estonian Cooperation Assembly. Page 27–36.
 Gnadenteich, U. „Harju maavanem algatas järelevalve Vene lütseumi rahastamise üle.“ [The county governor initiated official review of funding of the Russian Lyceum]. Postimees. 11.02.2014. Available at: http://tallinncity.postimees.ee/2693492/harju-maavanem-algatas-jarelevalve-vene-lutseumi-rahastamise-ule, 11.02.2014.
 Tallinn Administrative Court’s ruling of 3.01.2013 no. 3-12-2695.
 Tartu Administrative Court’s ruling of 08.05.2013 no. 3-13-580/19.
 Tartu Administrative Court judgment of 17.05.2013 no. 3-11-3040.
 European Court of Human Rights judgment of 02.0.2013 no. 25851/09; 29284/09; 64090/09.