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Teaching and learning in general upper secondary education


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

6.2Teaching and learning in general upper secondary education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Curriculum, Subjects, Number of Hours

The national curriculum for upper secondary schools was approved at the beginning of 2011 by a decree of the Government of Estonia. The schools brought the teaching and education activities and the school curriculum in line with the national curriculum by 1 September 2013 the latest. The curriculum has been adjusted and specified in 2013, 2014 (supplementation of subject syllabi) and 2018 (teaching of children with special educational needs), but the overall approach and principles have remained the same.

Preparation of the current national curriculum for upper secondary schools started in 2008. Compared to the previous curriculum (approved in 2002), the number of compulsory courses was decreased from 72 to 64; in order to graduate from upper secondary school, a student investigation paper or practical work must be completed and a school examination that integrates all subjects must be passed; and upper secondary schools must offer their students more elective courses than before. The curricula were developed mainly by the Foundation Innove, an education competence centre created by the Ministry of Education and Research. Practising teachers had a very important role in compiling the curricula; further, universities, research institutions, education organisations, researchers, students, parents, local government and public sector employees, etc. were also involved in preparing the curriculum.

The national curriculum for upper secondary schools prescribes the compulsory subjects of the secondary school level, elective subjects and their compulsory volume. When compiling the school curriculum, schools take the requirements of the national curriculum into consideration. The school curriculum determines the subjects and their volumes according to the fields of study and choices of the school.

In the national curriculum for upper secondary schools, the subject syllabi are compiled in the form of courses, whereas the word "course" refers primarily to a 35-hour (á 45 minutes) study unit. The national curriculum for upper secondary schools determines the list of compulsory subjects and the number of compulsory courses per subject, as well as the volume of elective subjects in 12 fields. A student investigation paper or practical work is included in the study minimum compulsory academic workload as an elective course. Schools may choose between a narrow and broad course of mathematics. Depending on this choice, there are 64 or 70 compulsory courses in schools with Estonian language of instruction and 68 or 74, in schools with Russian or other language of instruction. The difference is caused by the fact that in a school with Russian or other language as the language of instruction, one compulsory foreign language (5 courses) must be replaced with Estonian as a second language (9 courses). In total, it is compulsory to pass at least 96 courses at the upper secondary school level.

Subject Number of courses Subject Number of courses
Estonian 6 Biology 4
Literature 5 Chemistry 3
Russian* 6* Physics 5
Estonian as a second language** 9* History 6
Foreign language at B2 language proficiency level 5 Personal, social and health education 1
Foreign language at B1 language proficiency level 5 Civics and citizenship education 2
Mathematics (narrow) 8 Music 3
Mathematics (broad) 14 Art 2
Geography 3 Physical education 5
Elective course (student investigation paper or practical work 1    

*only at school with Russian as the language of instruction; **only at school with Russian or other language as the language of instruction

Upper secondary schools shall allow students to take elective courses by field with at least the following course load:

  •     language and literature - 4 courses;
  •     foreign language - 6 courses;
  •     mathematics - 14 courses;
  •     science subjects - 8 courses;
  •     social subjects - 7 courses;
  •     physical education – 2 courses;
  •     religion studies - 2 courses;
  •     national defence - 2 courses;
  •     economics and entrepreneurial studies - 2 courses;
  •     fundamentals of research - 1 course.

An upper secondary school may plan and carry out elective courses in cooperation with other schools and organisations, including using Estonian and international networks and information technology solutions.

The curricula of upper secondary schools with non-stationary form of study and upper secondary schools for students with special educational needs may be prepared without taking into consideration the requirements established in the national curriculum for upper secondary schools with regard to course loads and subjects of the elective courses.

About half of all upper secondary school students study information and communications technology / computer studies as an elective subject. Schools have at least one classroom with computers and in many cases, teachers use a computer for conducting lessons and children use the school’s or personal smart devices (tablet computers, mobile phones).

Pursuant to the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, the subject syllabi of at least the following compulsory subjects must be set out in the national curriculum for upper secondary schools by subject area: Estonian as a second language; English, German, French and Russian with a target level B1; English, German, French and Russian with a target level B2. Based on the national curriculum for upper secondary schools, students can learn also another foreign language than English, French, German or Russian.

Foreign language studies at upper secondary level of Estonian general education schools with stationary type of study in the academic year 2011/2012, % of the total number of students.


1st foreign language, %

2nd foreign language, %

3rd foreign language, %

4th foreign language, %

     Total, %
Estonian as a second language 16.38       16.1
English 86.8 11.6 0.66   99.06
French 1.5 2.7 3.8 0.3 8.3
German 3.6 14.7 12.6   30.9
Russian 5.1 57.0 3.7   65.8
Spanish   0.2 5.0 0.2 5.4
Finnish   0.1 4.3 0.2 4.6
Swedish   1.4 0.3   1.7
Latin     0.4 0.1 0.5
Chinese   0.1 0.5 0.1 0.7
Italian     0.2   0.2
Norwegian     0.3   0.3
Japanese     0.1   0.1

Legislation does not regulate the amount of homework assigned to students. Schools are required to follow the Regulation of the Ministry of Social Affairs of 2001 “Health Protection Requirements for Schools” which lays down that no homework is set for the day following holiday or for the first day of an academic quarter.

Studies in a school may be carried out according to the curriculum of the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) and pursuant to a curriculum developed on the basis of the Convention defining the Statute of the European Schools. A school that has been accredited by the International Baccalaureate Organization may teach on the basis of the curriculum of the International Baccalaureate Organization. The IBO curriculum is implemented in six schools. The European School in Tallinn has been operating since 2013.

Tallinn German Gymnasium and Kadrioru German Gymnasium, providing advanced studies in German, operate in Estonia under interstate agreements.

Teaching Methods and Materials

Teachers may choose the teaching methods they use. Methods to stimulate student participation are recommended. Research tasks are recommended where basic research methods are used and also special tasks that demand searching for information from different sources, including in foreign languages. One of the most essential tasks of a teacher is to support and to guide a student in developing the abilities of independent work, to influence the process of formation of values and to support self-confidence.

Schools are free to choose the educational literature required for completing the curriculum. Every year, support from the state budget is allocated to the owners of schools for the purchase of educational literature and learning materials. Publishers on the private market issue educational literature that complies with the national requirements. Educational literature shall comply with the content and technical requirements established by the regulation of the minister. Furthermore, the publishers shall order at least two reviews of the educational literature. The requirements for the reviewers and reviews have also been set out in the regulation of the minister. The state undertakes to ensure at least one compliant textbook per course in upper secondary school.