According to the Constitution, parents have a deciding say in the choice of education for their children.
Children who attain 7 years of age are subject to the obligation to attend school and remain so until they acquire basic education or attain the age of 17 years. A local government must create an opportunity for performing the duty to attend school and a parent must ensure performance of the duty to attend school, i.e., a parent must choose a suitable school for the child, ensure that the child attends school and guarantee conditions facilitating learning at home. Law specifies the roles and responsibilities of different parties and the measures for ensuring performance of the duty to attend school.
Before commencing studies in school, a child has an opportunity to attend a preschool child care institution. Local governments are obliged to provide all children aged from 1.5 to 7 years permanently residing in their catchment area with the opportunity to attend a preschool child care institution in the catchment area if the parents so wish. Additionally, child minding services mainly targeted at the youngest children are provided. The amendments to the Preschool Child Care Institutions Act adopted in 2014 allow local government to be flexible in providing preschool places for children aged eighteen months to 3 years. A rural municipality or city government may, with the parent’s consent, substitute the place of a child from eighteen months to three years of age in a preschool institution with childcare service, whereas the parent’s own contribution must not exceed 20% of the minimum wage established by a Regulation of the Government of the Republic.
Child minding services are provided in suitable premises, incl. at the home of the child or the child minder. Children with special needs who are up to 7 years of age may attend a regular group (integration group) of a preschool child care institution, a group for children with special needs or a preschool for children with special needs located in the catchment area.
Preschool child care institutions are educational institutions. Teaching and education in preschool child care institutions is organised according to the curriculum, which complies with the national curriculum for preschool child care institutions.
In a preschool child care institution a child acquires preschool education, which provides the prerequisites for coping successfully in everyday life and at school. In order to assist children who do not attend preschool child care institutions, preparatory classes may be formed in preschool child care institutions or in schools. Participation in these groups is voluntary. A child may start school straight from home as well. Teachers of preschool child care institutions advise parents whose children do not attend a preschool child care institution in issues of teaching and education.
Basic education is the minimum compulsory general education. Basic education provides the prerequisites and grants the right to continue studies to acquire upper secondary education (in a general upper secondary school or vocational school) or to enter the labour market. Basic education is acquired in a basic school or upper secondary school which has basic school classes. Basic school includes grades 1–9. Attaining the basic education is based on the national curriculum. Children with special educational needs have the right to pursue their studies under the individual curriculum, apply home educating at the request of the parents and pursuant to the procedure established by the Minister. Completion of the school curriculum and passing three final examinations of basic school is a condition of graduation from the basic school. Schools may, where necessary, organise additional studies of one year to those who have graduated from basic school under simplified national curriculum for basic schools in order to provide additional preparation and support for the smooth continuance of studies or entry into the labour market.
The length of general upper secondary education is three years; studies are conducted according to the national curriculum. In order to graduate from an upper secondary school, students are required to pass three state examinations, a school examination of the upper secondary school and a student investigation paper or practical work. Acquisition of general upper secondary education creates prerequisites and grants the right to continue studies to acquire higher education.
Vocational training is conducted according to the Estonian Qualifications Framework (EKR) level 2-5 curricula. With level 2 and 3 vocational training, the commencement of studies does not require the existence of previous professional competencies; also people without basic education can commence the studies. The study volume is 15-120 Estonian vocational education credit points (hereinafter credit points; the study volume for a year is 60 credits). The proportion of work practice and practical work in the curriculum is at least 70% in level 2 vocational training and at least 50% in level 3 vocational training.
In level 4 and 5 vocational training, studies can be pursued according to initial training and continuing training curricula. The prerequisite for commencing studies according to a continuing training curriculum is the acquisition of profession corresponding to the previous or the same qualification level or the corresponding competencies and level of education.
Commencement of studies in level 4 vocational training requires the acquisition of basic education. A curriculum of vocational secondary education is a level 4 vocational training curriculum with a study volume of 180 credit points and proportion of work practice and practical work of at least 35%. Commencement of studies in level 5 vocational training or specialised vocational training requires the acquisition of secondary education; study volume is 120-150 credit points and proportion of work practice and practical work at least 50%.
The graduates from a vocational secondary education curriculum, who wish to continue their studies at a university, shall generally pass the state examinations required for admission in the university on the same basis as upper secondary school graduates.
Higher education may be acquired as professional higher education (in an institution of professional higher education, educational institution belonging to the structure of university) or academic higher education (in a university). All persons with upper secondary education or foreign qualifications equal thereto have an equal right to compete to be admitted to the above educational institutions.
The standard period of study in professional higher education is three to four years (180–240 ECTS credit points); the standard period of study in obstetrics is four and a half years. A person who has acquired professional higher education has the right to continue his or her studies in Master's study under the conditions and pursuant to the procedures established by the board of the educational institution.
Academic higher education has three cycles: Bachelor's Study (standard period of study 3–4 years, 180–240 credit points), Master's study (standard period of study 1–2 years, 60–120 credit points) and Doctoral study (standard period of study 3–4 years, 180–240 credit points). The standard period of Bachelor's and Master's study is at least five years in total. In case of medical training, veterinary training, pharmacist training, dentistry training, architectural studies, civil engineering studies and teacher training for general teachers, study is based on integrated curricula of Bachelor's and Master's study, the standard period of which is five to six years and the volume is 300–360 credit points. The first two cycles of academic higher education study end with the taking of an examination or defence of a respective thesis and award of the degree. Doctoral study ends with the defence of a doctoral thesis and award of an academic degree.
In Estonia, adult education is divided into formal education acquired within the adult education system and continuing education.
An adult learner is not defined by age; instead, an adult learner is regarded as a learner to whom learning is not the primary activity. On these grounds, adult formal education refers to a study provided in the form other than daytime study to acquire basic education, upper secondary education or higher education.
Institutions that provide adult formal education are obliged to follow legal acts that regulate the level concerned (the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, the Vocational Educational Institutions Act, the Higher Education Act, the Private Schools Act).
Continuing education is defined as targeted and organised studies conducted under a curriculum outside the formal education. The continuing education institutions which wish to use state or local government funds or European Structural Funds, or wish to grant their learners study leave, shall submit the Estonian Education Information System a notice of economic activities.
Additionally, through Estonian Education Information System, the continuing education institution shall make public the curriculum groups in which continuing education is pursued, the curricula on the basis of which an activity licence for conducting continuing education was awarded, details of the activity licence, contact information and website address of the institution. The website of the continuing education institution shall present the bases for the organisation of studies of continuing education, continuing education curricula, names of adult educators involved in the continuing education course along with a description of their qualification, education or professional experience certifying their competence, information on the activity licence issued for the provision of continuing education with the authorisation obligation, and the bases for ensuring the quality of the activities of the continuing education institution.
In general education, compulsory school attendance may also be fulfilled by studying at home. Home schooling may be conducted on the wish of parents or for health reasons. A student studying at home remains enrolled in the school. The student is provided with textbooks, exercise-books and other required learning materials on the same grounds and in accordance with the same procedure as the students performing the duty to attend school in a school. The school together with the person carrying out instruction prepare an individual curriculum for the student on the basis of school curriculum. The school assesses subject-related knowledge and skills and their correspondence to the objectives determined by the curriculum at least twice a year.
Study carried out outside school at the request of a parent is organised and financed by the parent.
For a child accompanying a public servant who is on a mission in a representation of Estonia or on a long-term assignment abroad and temporarily pursuing his or her education in a foreign educational institution, studying at home is advisable only for subjects and topics that are not included in the curriculum of the foreign educational institution.
Studying at home for health reasons is carried out by the school where the student is enrolled. The student will be given consultation for at least 8 hours a week.
Home schooling is regulated by the conditions and procedure for home schooling and in-hospital teaching.