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Organisation of general upper secondary education


6.Upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary Education

6.1Organisation of general upper secondary education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Types of Institution

Upper secondary school is a general education school that follows basic school; and its standard period of study is 3 grades (years 10-12).

There are a number of forms in which upper secondary schools can operate.

Historically, the most common form is an upper secondary school that offers study from grade 1 to grade 12, i.e. 12 years. Due to a decrease in the number of students in general and the concentration of the population in larger cities, since 2010, the state has vigorously started the rearrangement of the school network. Creation of state upper secondary schools and municipal upper secondary schools with only upper secondary stage of study (grades 10 to 12) is supported. In the academic year 2019/2020, there are 24 purely upper secondary schools (i.e., schools providing only upper secondary level education) in Estonia, 18 of which are state upper secondary schools.   

Basic school and upper secondary school may operate as a single institution where non-stationary study is carried out. This form of study primarily involves adults and the organisation of study in such a school is different from day-time or stationary form of study. In non-stationary study, a greater emphasis is on independent work, the number of elective courses foreseen by the national curriculum for upper secondary schools is smaller, students have the possibility to study individual subjects, the subject of physical education is not required, people who have acquired vocational secondary education have the opportunity to study necessary individual subjects either for passing national examinations or for fulfilling entry criteria to higher education institutions, etc.

Since 2010, it has been possible that a general education school and a vocational school operate as a single institution.

Geographical Accessibility

According to the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, the Ministry of Education and Research and a rural municipality or city government shall establish and finance the number of schools necessary to provide opportunities to acquire secondary education. In the school year 2019/20, there are 160 stationary upper secondary schools in Estonia. Non-stationary studies are provided in 15 upper secondary schools (adult upper secondary schools).  

The school network has developed historically and upper secondary schools have also operated in low density areas. Today, due to the decreasing number of students in upper secondary schools in general, upper secondary education is concentrated in larger towns and cities.

Students living further from school use regular bus lines or school transport (in case regular lines are not suitable). School transport is financially supported by the state and local authorities. A local authority may decide on allocating transport supports to students of municipal schools who use regular bus lines for driving to school and back home. Many schools, especially those situated in rural areas, have boarding school facilities. Under certain conditions, living in boarding school facilities is financed by the state and local authorities.

Admission Requirements and Choice of School

For admission to upper secondary school, a basic school graduation certificate is required.

The Minister of Education and Research establishes the general conditions for admission of students to upper secondary school. More detailed terms and conditions for admission to upper secondary school, including process of evaluation of knowledge and skills are established by the owner of the school (state, local municipality or private owner) or, authorised by the latter, by the head of the school. The terms and conditions for admission to school are published on the school’s website.

Transfer from one school to another usually takes place during summer holidays, for valid reasons, a transfer may also take place in the middle of an academic year. Transfer from one upper secondary school to another is possible only in case vacant places exist and the student meets the established admission requirements.  A student having interrupted his or her studies in an upper secondary school has the right to continue studies in a vocational school and the studies already carried out are taken into account. The same applies also vice versa – a student having interrupted his or her studies in vocational school on the basis of a vocational secondary education curriculum has the right to continue studies in an upper secondary school (if vacant places exist) and the studies already carried out are taken into account.

Continuation of studies in an adult upper secondary school with non-stationary form of study is also possible.

Age Levels and Grouping of students

The standard period of study in the upper secondary stage of study is three years, i.e. grades 10 to 12. Usually children of the same age belong to the same class but, if a course arrangement is used, also children of different age may belong to the same group.

In general, students at the age of 16–18 study in upper secondary schools. People who have graduated from basic school and are at least 17 years old can study in adult upper secondary schools. People of at least 17 years of age can also study in the basic school classes of adult upper secondary school. Approximately 1 out of 6 students of upper secondary schools studies in an adult upper secondary school. In most cases, this concerns people who work or who have interrupted their studies in a diurnal school.

In the upper secondary stage of study, the size of study groups depends on the subject and the courses chosen by students.

Organisation of the School Year

According to the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, the duration of an academic year is from 1 September of the current year until 31 August of the next year. An academic year consists of academic quarters and school holidays. An academic quarter shall include not less than 175 days of study (35 weeks) and in the final year, at least 185 days of study (37 weeks). There are no lessons on the day of final examination and on two days before that but these days are counted as days of study. The Minister of Education and Research determines school holidays and the times of examinations on a yearly basis. The manager of a school may establish, upon a proposal of the head of the school and with the consent of the board of trustees, different school holidays than those prescribed by the Minister of Education and Research, bearing in mind that in school, there are at least four school holidays in an academic year with a total duration of at least 12 weeks and that the summer holiday lasts at least 8 consecutive weeks.

The Private Schools Act states that students shall have at least 8 weeks a holiday per academic year, of which two weeks shall be during the school year.

Organisation of the School Day and Week

The minimum academic workload for students at the upper secondary level is 96 courses in three years. No maximum workload has been established. A study week consists of 5 days. Lessons start between 8.00 and 9.00. The duration of lessons is 45 minutes and the break between lessons lasts at least 10 minutes. In upper secondary schools, studies are often scheduled as double lessons. Lunch break is usually in the middle of the school day and lasts up to 60 minutes, depending on the size of the school and the capacity of the school canteen. Lessons finish at 3–4 p.m. After lessons, students can participate in consultations, hobby groups and events of student communities.