How a small Baltic state became a world education powerhouse and leads the way in comparative assessment and testing outcomes.
Children start school at 3 years old and finish at 19. After independence they wanted to overhaul the curriculum and they developed a new national strategy for curriculum and assessment. There are 3 stages of compulsory education which begins at the age of 3 and involves mainly play until the age of 7. This stage isn’t compulsory and before students start school there is a school ready test which is designed to show whether the child will need additional support when they start school.
From the age of 7-16 compulsory school begins with the focus being on:
Traditional academic skills
Learning to learn
The intent is to instil the students with the ability to manage their own learning. The biggest difference between other similar countries is the investment in Computer Science in all grade levels. This forms part of Tiger Leap which is the national strategy to transform into an information society. Maths for example is often taught through computer science and physics. As this was the birth place of Skype, it is clear, this is a strategy that is working.
At the age of 17 students can go directly into the workforce or they can carryon into General Secondary School or they can choose to go into Vocational Secondary School (30% compared to 47% EU average)
The Curriculum and Assessment
The National Curriculum has been set for all schools and included is a philosophy for teaching which is based on evidence of how children at different ages learn best. The schools are then free to adapt the learning to meet the needs of the students. After their school readiness testing at 7 they have no more formal exams until the age of 16. Students can graduate from Basic school by completing the following exams:
Estonian or Estonian as a second language
A subject of the student’s choice
A creative assignment
Upper secondary schools are designed to help students become creative, multi-talented, socially mature and reliable citizens who have discovered a field of endeavour that is best suited to their individual interests and capacities for continuing their future educational path. The study programme at upper secondary school is arranged into mandatory and voluntary courses. These also have exams at the age of 19.
So what are they doing which looks like it is working?
Firstly, the emphasis on play from a young age. This is all about making sure children are physically and emotionally ready to learn. Kindergarten teachers are specialists in learning through play and this is one of the reasons that the gap between rich and poor students is much smaller that in other European countries. There are no formal assessments just a readiness card which outline their skills and areas which they need support with. In comparison in the UK, by the time they have reached the same age they would have sat a phonics screening test in year 1 and SATs in year 2. If anyone has experienced these as a parent they will be more than aware of the pressure that competitive parents put on their children to do well, at a time when they should be discovering that learning is something to be cherished.
Secondly, students are taught in mixed ability for every subject. We all know that learning is not linear and children learn in a variety of different ways. In Estonia the teachers are expected to plan for different ability levels in their classrooms. In the UK children are divided as young as 4 and put onto ability tables where they very clearly understand their place in the class pecking order. Some schools in the UK will stream in maths from as young as 7.
Thirdly, resources are free to all students from books to school lunches to transport. This evens up the gap between the richest and poorest students as they all have access to the same resources to learn. Some schools have even gone as far as offering free boarding to those from the most deprived households so that students can focus on their education. This has on the other hand meant that there has been some debate around the pressure that students put on themselves to study and do they work too much outside of school. However, this culture of academic excellence is one that many European schools strive for. Being studious is almost seen as a national value akin to freedom in the USA.
Finally, one of the most important differences is the freedom that is given to teachers to teach. It does not spend as much money per student as other countries do, but what it spends wisely, with money for teacher salaries, creating learning materials and developing networks between schools. Teachers are highly qualified (holding masters degrees) and treated as autonomous professionals. Teachers are strict, work hard and their profession is of high worth and status, as seems to be the case in the Baltic and Scandinavian states; they insist on students learning with effective parental support that puts the education over the entertainment of their children. We all understand the comparison of exams, Ofsted and competition between schools but a more collaborative and supportive system seems to be paying dividends.