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EACEA National Policies Platform


6. Education and Training

6.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023
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  1. Main trends in young people's participation in education and training
  2. Organisation of the education and training system
  3. Main concepts

Main trends in young people's participation in education and training

Participation in formal education

Estonia’s demographic trends are having a deep impact on education. The number of children in pre-school education was on the rise until 2015 and is falling in the following years as children born in the years with the highest birth rates are reaching school age. The last time the number of first-grade students exceeded 15,000 was in 2000. At the same time, the number of gymnasium students (general upper secondary) fell and that of basic school students (lower secondary) grew.

In the academic year 2019/20, just over 153,000 children and young people were studying in general education schools. Initial estimates suggest that this is about two thousand more than the last academic year. The increase in the number of students concerns primarily larger towns and the suburbs of Tallinn. In most of the remaining local government units, the number of children continues to decrease or is stabilizing.

The decreasing number of schoolchildren in the past 15 years has also affected higher education institutions – the number of university students continues to fall. While the number of vocational students remains stable, the average age of learners is increasing, i.e. vocational schools attract an increasing number of people who have completed their education and wish to improve their professional skills or retrain. Tertiary educational attainment is one of the highest in the EU. The employment rate of recent graduates has recovered after the economic crisis. The number of adult learners is increasing. For example, 20.1% of the Estonian population aged between 25 and 64 participated in formal education or in non-formal training in 2019 (17.6% in 2016).

Achievers and underachievers in formal education

Estonia continues to have a well-performing education system combining a low proportion of underachievers with a low impact of socioeconomic status on education outcomes. Estonia ranks very high among the EU countries participating in PISA. The proportion of low achievers in reading, maths, and science is small and the impact of socioeconomic background on results is low. However, there are performance differences between Russian-speaking and Estonian-speaking students, and between rural and urban schools. The average performance of Russian-speaking students is lower, although the skills gap has decreased.

Early in 2016 OECD published a report on low-performing students and the reasons for poor performance, based on PISA 2012. In Estonia, the share of low-performing students (below the baseline level) aged 15 is the smallest in both Europe and the world. The proof of the uniform strength of Estonian schools lies in the fact that the difference in the shares of low-performing lower secondary students in rural and city schools is the smallest compared with other PISA countries

Early school leaving and drop-out rates

Reducing early school leaving remains a challenge in the context of the increasing demand for high-skilled workers. In 2015, the share of early school leavers was 11.2% and around the EU average, but above the strategy "Estonia 2020" (Konkurentsivõime kava "Eesti 2020") target, which is 9.5%. According to the Estonian Education Information System (EHIS), about 20% of young people fail to complete secondary education within 7 years of finishing basic school and Estonia is the only OECD country where the share of secondary education graduates is decreasing in younger age groups.

The drop-out rates from mainstream basic schools are brought out in the Lifelong Learning Strategy (Elukestva õppe strateegia) and the rates have stabilized (in 2008–2012 the dropout rates were 0.9%–0.6%–0.5%–0.5%–0.6% respectively). This indicates that support measures (establishment of counseling centers, implementation of the principles of inclusive education, including support measures implemented under the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, teacher training, etc.) have served their purpose. Drop-out rates from the 1st years of upper secondary schools have stabilized at around 1%: in 2008–2012, the drop-out rates were 0.9%–1%–1.1%–1.4%–1.1% respectively).

Students’ dropout rates from VET and higher education are still very high. Drop-outs are particularly a problem in the first year of upper secondary vocational educational training (VET) (22.4 % in 2016), but it is on a decreasing trend. In secondary VET, the dropout rate (during the first year of studies) has decreased from 26.2 in 2012 to 24.7 in 2015. However, it is far below the 2020 target (less than 20%).


According to the Eurydice report „Mobility Scoreboard: Higher Education Background report“ 8% of Estonian students took in 2012/13 a degree in a different education system.  The share of tertiary students enrolled abroad in 2012/13 was 5.3%. The share of students participating in the Erasmus program based on total enrolments in 2013/14 was 1.7%. According to the 2019 report of the Ministry of Education and Research, in 2017 almost 4,000 students were studying abroad.

The attractiveness of Estonia as a target country has increased among foreign students. The number of foreign students has more than doubled over the past five years (from 1,573 in the academic year 2011/12 to 3,476 in 2015/16). In 2019, the ratio of foreign students in Estonia was around 12.2%.

Organisation of the education and training system

In Estonia, the obligation to attend school applies to children who have attained 7 years of age by 1 October of the current year. Children up to 7 years may attend preschool childcare institutions. The obligation to attend schools lasts until basic education is acquired or until a student attains 17 years of age.

The Estonian education system is decentralized. The division of responsibility between the state, local government and school is clearly defined. The organization of education:

  • preschool education (ISCED level 0) is for children aged from 1.5 to 7 years of
  • basic education (ISCED levels 1 and 2) is the minimum compulsory general education. The basic school includes grades 1–9
  • upper secondary education (ISCED level 3) is based on basic education and is divided into general secondary education, which is acquired in upper-secondary schools and vocational upper-secondary education, which is acquired in vocational schools. The length of general upper-secondary education is 3 years (grades 10–12).
  • vocational education is
    • vocational upper-secondary education (ISCED level 3), which can be entered after basic school and where the study volume is 180 credit points (the volume of vocational education curricula is calculated in VET credit points- EKAP);
    • post-secondary non-tertiary education (ISCED 4), which may be acquired after graduation from upper secondary school. The study volume of VET after secondary education is 120–150 credit points.
    • vocational education for people with unfinished basic education, who can enter VET studies, the study volume is 15–120 credit points (ISCED 2).
  • higher education (ISCED levels 6, 7 and 8) may be acquired as professional higher education in a vocational school, institution of professional higher education or in academic higher education. The general structure of academic study has three levels or cycles: Bachelor's study, Master's study, Doctoral study. 
  • adult education is divided into formal education and continuing education. Formal education acquired within the adult education system allows adults to acquire general lower and upper secondary education at adult upper secondary schools. In addition to formal education, VET and higher education institutions provide continuing education and retraining courses. 

For further information, please consult the Overview of the Estonian education system in Eurydice

Main concepts

The main concepts of education and training are defined in the Strategy of Lifelong Learning.

Lifelong learning combines formal education (kindergarten, basic education, secondary education, vocal education, higher education) and education offered outside that - re- and further training, non-formal and informal learning. The new knowledge and skills can be obtained from work, free education, hobby education, youth work, participation in civil society activities, or even virtual spaces.

Non-formal learning is defined as learning that takes place outside the school lessons, is undertaken consciously, has a purpose to develop yourself. Non-formal education can happen in different environments, where learning and teaching might not be the only nor main function. Non-formal education is targeted like formal education but is voluntary. 

Informal learning is non-targeted learning from the learners' point of view that happens in daily life situations (e.g. family, work, free time, etc.). The results of informal learning might not be seen straight away.

Formal education takes place in the school environment and is organized based on curriculums. Formal education is targeted and it is carried out by teachers with special preparation and qualification.