Changes to national curricula support the development of general competences and the integration of subjects
Changes to national curricula for basic schools and upper secondary schools aim to give the teachers more time and opportunities to apply a learner-centred approach in supporting the achievement of specific learning outcomes and focus on the development of general competences. Major changes concern physical education, art and technology subjects. Language learning will be diversified: the volume of Estonian as a second language will be increased, as well as the choice of foreign languages.
A positive attitude towards acquiring knowledge and skills as well as the ability to use them in everyday life have always been at the centre of Estonian national curricula. Learning content is reduced in several subjects. Updated subject field syllabi facilitate the effective integration of subjects and the creation of more meaningful connections between subjects. Cooperation between teachers is seen as the key to integration, ultimately enabling to reduce the workload of students and teachers and to improve the learning process.
The national curriculum is a framework, a common standard, on the basis of which the schools develop their own curricula. Although Estonian schools have had a lot of freedom and flexibility in organising education already, detailed national curricula which were no longer up to date were often perceived as limiting the innovation potential of schools. The changing curriculum empowers teachers, giving them even more freedom of choice and responsibility to design the learning process.
The planned changes support the goal set in the Education Strategy 2021‒2035 to increase learner-centredness and to better align the volume and content of education with developments in society and the future trends of the labour market. The working groups involved in updating the curricula included representatives of all subject teacher associations, university researchers, and experts of curriculum development. During the development process, the changed curricula have been tested in seven general education schools.
The changes will come into effect from the autumn of 2023. Schools must align their curricula and organisation of studies with the changes by 1 September 2024 at the latest.
Electronic final exams are being tested
Estonia is considering a transition from paper-based exams to electronic exams for students graduating from basic school and upper secondary education. E-exams are considered to enable more objective assessment, increased efficiency and security in administration, and use of learning analytics.
So far, all school leaving exams have been conducted on paper, and the electronic format has been used only with national low-stakes tests in different subjects and for different grades. With the implementation of e-exams, paper-based exams will be discontinued.
A survey is conducted to assess the technical and administrative readiness of schools, as well as to map the accommodations made for students with special educational needs so far. It is assumed that electronic exams can be more accessible to students with special needs, as they can be customised more easily than paper exams.
To assess and develop the readiness of stakeholders to organise and conduct e-exams, trial exams are conducted for students in grades 9 and 12 before the mandatory final exams this spring. The result of the trial exam does not affect the result of the actual exam. The pace of transition from paper-based exams to e-exams will depend on the feedback received. The trial exam enables to test not only the quality of the assessment tool but also the administration of electronic exams: registration to exams, notification of results, cross-use of facilities between schools within the local government, and the need for further development of the national examination information system.
For finishing basic school, students of grade 9 have to pass three final exams: in Estonian language, in mathematics, and in one more subject on the student’s choice. Upper secondary school state exams are held in in Estonian language, mathematics, and a foreign language (the latter can be replaced by an internationally recognised examination, such as CAE, DELF, or Goethe Zertifikat). Electronic exams for different subjects will be introduced in different school years.
Minimum pay rate of teachers will increase
In order to increase the attractiveness of and appreciation for the teaching profession, the minimum pay rate of teachers is going to be increased from 1,412 euros to 1,749 euros (i.e. 23.9%) in 2023. This will be supplemented by a differentiation fund of 17%, which will allow school heads to regulate the work and salaries of teachers more flexibly; for example, they can reduce the workload of novice teachers and remunerate the extra work of class teachers. The 2023 state budget includes 106.6 million euros for an increase in teachers’ salaries. The average estimated salary for teachers will rise to 2,048 euros in 2023.
Transition to Estonian-medium education in kindergartens and schools with another language of instruction
As a legacy of the Soviet era, in the academic year 2021/22, Estonia had 73 general education schools (15% of schools) where the language of instruction was either Russian or Estonian/Russian. Over 21,000 students conducted their studies in Russian (13.5% of students). The PISA test results indicate that students of Russian-medium schools are behind their Estonian peers by one academic year on average (the difference is 42 points). The results of basic school final exams and upper secondary level state exams in schools where Estonian is a second language are also worrying – a significant number of students do not achieve the required B1 or B2 level of proficiency in Estonian by the end of basic or upper secondary school. The level of proficiency in Estonian as a second language among graduates is closely linked to the proportion of teachers meeting the state language requirements at particular schools.
Despite years of state support for teaching Estonian as a second language, creating study materials, and training teachers, the volume of these activities, systemic nature and set targets have not been sufficient to ensure that graduates of Russian-medium schools would have sufficient proficiency in Estonian and equal opportunities to continue their education in general upper secondary, vocational, or higher education in Estonian.
In February 2022, Estonian-medium Education Action Plan was completed. It is based on the Education Strategy 2021–2035 and the Estonian Language Development Plan 2021–2035 and describes the necessary additional activities for ensuring high-quality education in Estonian language to all Estonian students from pre-school to higher education.
In summer 2022, the governing parties concluded a coalition agreement and agreed on accelerated transition to Estonian-medium education in ECEC and basic education. Transition to Estonian-medium education starts in kindergartens and grades 1 and 4 of basic schools in 2024 and will be completed by 2030. Transition to Estonian-medium education directly affects 31,571 pupils and 2,245 teachers who do not meet the language requirements. These numbers do not include children/pupils who participate in language immersion groups and classes or teachers who comply with the language requirements.
- According to the transition plan, the necessary amendments to the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act and other legislative acts are going to be adopted in November 2022. 41 million euros have been allocated in the 2023 state budget for the preparations for and funding of the transition.
- All educational institutions and local governments where the concerned institutions are located are offered advice and counselling to support the transition.
- To alleviate the lack of teachers who are proficient in Estonian, the volume of initial and in-service teacher training is increased and new in-service training courses are developed to increase the level of proficiency in Estonian among teachers, for teachers of Estonian as a second language, for teaching in a multilingual and multicultural classroom, and for supporting integrated teaching of school subjects and language.
- In addition, the teachers of hobby schools and youth workers of local governments are offered methodology courses to support the development of language skills of children and teenagers.
- Funding is provided to ensure the next generation of teachers and motivational packages are offered (targeted scholarships, increased beginner’s allowance, and compensation of residence expenses), contemporary study resources (including digital) and assessment tools are being developed for teaching Estonian and other languages as well as for instruction in Estonian.
- Increasing the volume of teaching various subjects in Estonian in Russian-medium schools is going to receive more funding, support for additional courses and adaptation programmes of newly arrived immigrants is extended, additional Estonian lessons are offered to support transitioning to upper secondary and vocational schools, etc.
- A lot of attention is paid to the next generation of school heads and increasing the competency and motivation of the current school heads.
- In the next four years, the required amount for supporting the transition to Estonian-medium education is approximately 300 million euros.
The language proficiency requirements of teachers were linked to qualification requirements
Until now, the requirements for the proficiency of the teaching staff in Estonian were established pursuant to the Language Act. In accordance with the updated qualification requirements regulation, Estonian language proficiency requirements are going to be a part of the qualification requirements of teachers, head teachers, school heads, and support specialists starting from 1 September 2025. By that time, people employed in these positions must have a proficiency level in Estonian that complies with the stipulated level, which can be B2 or C1, depending on the position. This means that a work contract with an unspecified term cannot be concluded with a teacher whose language skills do not meet the requirements and that a head teacher, a school leader, or a support specialist can only be hired if they have the required level of proficiency. The amendment comes into effect in three years, giving time to the employees in the education sector to improve their Estonian language skills, and if necessary, sit an Estonian language proficiency examination. In connection with the accelerated transition to Estonian-medium education, faster enforcement of the amendment is under discussion.
The educators’ proficiency in Estonian is important for the transition to Estonian-medium education, supports the opportunities for professional development of the teaching staff, and ensures that people working at schools set an example to pupils in learning the state language. In order to support the implementation of the regulation, the Language Inspectorate offers consultations to schools and the employees of educational establishments are offered separate courses funded by the EU structural funds in addition to other language learning opportunities.
Low-stakes test on digital competence measures the actual level of digital knowledge and skills of pupils
In the spring of 2021, an experimental e-test on the digital competence of 8th and 11th-grade pupils of Estonian general education schools and 2nd-year VET pupils took place. Low-stakes tests are sample-based mark-free, but feedback-laden electronic assessment instruments. After completing the test, the pupil gets formative written feedback and the school receives general feedback on its pupils´ performance. It is a self-assessment tool for pupils and teachers, which highlights the topics or competencies that still need to developed and the ones where the pupil already excels.
Digital competence test has been carried out since 2018 for the third time. In spring 2021, nearly 4,000 students from general education schools and 1,000 vocational schools formed the sample of the test. In addition, all schools could take the test on voluntary basis. In total, more than 7000 students from all over Estonia participated (almost 50% of 8th-grade students, 28% 11th graders and 17% of VET students).
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, past years in distance and hybrid learning have highlighted the importance of learners´ digital competences. As several tasks of the 2019 test have been also used in the 2021 test, it is possible to compare the results from different years and analyse to which extent distance learning has affected the level of students´ digital competence. The analysis of the results shows that there are no significant changes in the digital competence of learners compared to 2019. Based on the 2021 results, 84% of the 8th-grade pupils have basic level digital skills.
The digital competence test developed by researchers from the universities of Tallinn and Tartu on the basis of the digital competence model measures students´ actual knowledge and skills. The test was organised for the third time from 2018. Based on the analysis of the previous years´ results, the test has been further developed and shortened ‒ it now takes 60 minutes and during the test, pupils can use the internet. It is planned to add tasks on the use of e-learning and communication environments to the current test and to adjust the following version of the test to the DigComp 2.2 model.
For many years, special attention has been paid to the development of pupils´ digital skills and the introduction of digital solutions in teaching and learning at all levels of education. The digital focus has been one of the priorities of the Lifelong Learning Strategy (2014‒2020), and it forms an inherent part of the new Education Strategy (2021‒2035). Digital competence is one of the eight general competences which has to be developed through all of the subject areas of national curricula. The digital competence model of Estonian learners is based on the digital competence framework DigComp (European Commission, 2017).
Hobby education and other support measures alleviated the learning gaps caused by distance learning
To support schools in coping with the consequences of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state provided additional funding for hobby education and additional support measures in schools. The aim of the so-called learning interest camps was to support the learning motivation of basic or upper secondary education pupils, to develop their general competences, and to stimulate their interest in learning. The activities organised in the camps had to be related to the subject areas defined in the national curriculum. Support was allocated to 517 hobby camps, and in the summer of 2021 more than 65.000 pupils from all over Estonia had the opportunity to participate in their activities.
Additional 40 euros per student was allocated to the general education schools managers (local governments of private providers) to level the pupils learning gaps and to support their smooth transitions in the academic year 2021/2022. The analysis carried out in November 2021 shows that schools used the support to assess the learning difficulties experienced by individual pupils, to organise remedial studies and other support measures.
Through local governments, pupils in need were provided with a faster Internet connection for distance learning, and in cooperation with the Estonian Union of Child Welfare, computers were purchased for pupils to use at home. Basic school and upper secondary school graduates were offered free preparatory courses in cooperation with universities to support their preparation for the final and state exams in mathematics, Estonian and English.
The training center of the Education and Youth Board organised a series of 53 webinars “Smarter from a distance” for teachers. The webinars focused on maintaining mental health and providing support for distance learning and leveling of learning gaps. About 9,000 people attended the webinars and more than 20,000 viewed the recordings. In the feedback survey, teachers appreciated the webinars for their practical and informative approach, as well as for the possibility to review the recordings.
Estonian-speaking teachers help to raise the quality of Estonian language studies for non-Estonian students
In 2018, the Ministry of Education and Research launched a pilot project ´Professional Estonian-speaking teacher in a Russian-language kindergarten group´ to ensure equal opportunities for all children in pre-primary education and proficiency in Estonian at the level required for basic education.
The project has received very positive feedback from both kindergartens and parents and in 2020/21, it was extended to general education schools. 20 Estonian-speaking teachers started working in Estonian or Russian-language schools in the 1st and 2nd grade, in which there are at least 10 children with a home language different from the school´s language of instruction. In general education, the aim of the project is to increase the quality of Estonian language studies so that participating non-Estonian students achieve Estonian language proficiency at A2 level by the end of the 3rd grade, and to ensure the development of every child, including in mother tongue. Teachers and school teams that have joined the project will participate in the training provided by Tallinn University and in monitoring activities.
From 2021, the project activities are organized by the Office of Multilingual Learning of the Education and Youth Authority.
Despite COVID, basic school final examinations and upper secondary school state examinations will be held in spring 2021
In early March, the Estonian government decided that both basic school final examinations and upper secondary school state examinations will be held in the school year 2020/21. This year’s examinations hold a particular significance, as they will provide valuable information on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and long-term distance and hybrid learning. Examination results will provide feedback on pupils’ level of competence and, if necessary, enable planning support measures for mitigating learning gaps. This year, graduation from basic school will not be tied to examination results.
Under normal circumstances, the results of basic school final examinations are converted to numerical grades and pupils will be able to graduate from basic school if they have achieved at least a ‘satisfactory’ result in three examinations (Estonian language or Estonian as a second language, mathematics, and elective exam). This year, examination results will not be converted to grades. The graduation certificate will include the exam scores, but graduation will not be tied to the results. Pupils who achieve a score of at least 60% in the examination for Estonian as a second language (level B1) will also be issued a certificate of proficiency in Estonian. Both the grades recorded on the graduation certificate and examination results still matter for further studies: even if the examination score does not count towards graduation, many upper secondary schools and vocational schools will still take them into account alongside grades.
Upper secondary school state examinations will take place in the usual manner. Pupils will be considered to have passed the examination and eligible for graduation if they score at least one point, the minimum positive examination result. Similar to the changes made last year, completing a creative assignment at the end of basic school or completing a student research paper or practical work during upper secondary school will not be required for graduation if it is not possible under the prevailing circumstances.
The Ministry of Education and Research has drawn up a crisis exit strategy to support pupils and teachers in mitigating the impact of the crisis. Exit strategy measures include various additional learning opportunities (preparatory courses for graduation from upper secondary school, compensatory courses before and at the beginning of the next academic year, additional supervision), mental health support for both pupils and teachers, ensuring the safety of school environment, development camps for children and youths, etc.
Additional state exams for upper secondary school graduates took place in autumn
Basic school final examinations were cancelled and upper secondary school state examinations were not mandatory in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic: pupils were allowed to graduate from upper secondary school without taking state examinations. Under normal circumstances, three mandatory state examinations must be passed to graduate from upper secondary school: Estonian language or Estonian as a second language, mathematics, and a foreign language.
Additional state examinations for the academic year 2019/20 were held between the end of September and mid-October in five Estonian cities: Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu, Viljandi, and Jõhvi. In most cases, the participants probably needed to take the examinations for enrolment in a higher education institution. Most of the participants signing up for the Estonian language and extended mathematics examinations sought to improve their results from the spring, while those signing up for the exams of Estonian as a second language and narrow mathematics had not taken the exams in spring. The English language state examination was cancelled in spring and the autumn examination was the first opportunity for pupils to take the exam.
Masks and disinfectants were provided to both to the examinees and the examiners on-site. Examinees were spread out in the examination halls. Persons with symptoms of illness were not permitted to take the examinations. Examination results were announced by 10 November at the latest.
New standard-determining tests
At the beginning of the 2020/21 school year, 4th and 7th grades will pass standard-determining tests in science and mathematics. Standard-determining tests are low-stakes test that map pupils’ knowledge at the end of the first and second stage of studies. Grades are not awarded to students, the tests are aimed at providing help and tools for the teacher for organizing the teaching. The new tests assess the acquisition of general and field competencies, transversal topics and learning outcomes of the national curriculum. Standard-determining tests are organized in an electronic environment (Examination Information System).
Two-way language immersion moves from kindergarten to school
As of the school year 2020/21, the first municipal school in Tapa will start using the two-way language immersion model with children graduating from kindergarten. The development of a two-way immersion programme started in Estonia in 2013 and so far the model has been used in kindergartens. In two-way language immersion, children whose home language is Estonian or Russian study together, and the language immersion methodology allows them to develop their mother tongue as well as learn another language at the same time. Children spend half of their time interacting with one teacher in one language and the other half with another teacher in another language.