Estonian Minister for How school works in the European country with best record in PISA 2018 tests / Digital examination, fully free education from lunches to hobby activities

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Mailis Reps / Foto:
“Our schools have come to an understanding that in order to provide modern skills and teach our students to be ready to tackle modern challenges, the digital way is the only way”, says the minister of Education of the European country with the best results in the 2018 PISA tests. In two systems – Romanian and Estonian – which have much in common when it comes to major education policies, what are the differences which make the Baltic country stand among the elite, while Romania comes among the last at EU level? It’s the essential detail – from state investment to the attitude towards learning and technologies, as one can understand from answers provided to by the Estonian minister of Education, Mailis Reps.
  • In PISA 2018 tests measuring the capacity of of students of assimilating key competences and knowledge and apply them in life, Estonia came first in Europe in all categories – reading, science and math.
  • Among EU countries, Romania and Bulgaria come last in PISA tests, Romania reporting its worst result in the past 9 years.

The Baltic country, with a population of 1.3 million, spends 1.4 billion euro annually for education – or 6% of its GDP. Romania, with 19.5 million people, has planned a 6.3 billion euro budget for education this year – just 2.7% of its GDP, despite long-lasting promises of increasing the slice to 6%.

The Estonian official says there have been contacts with Romania and Estonia was ready to share its experience. Is the private sector involved in any way in supporting a free education sector? Are parents involved in supporting or expected to support the education of their children, financially or in any other material way?
Mailis Reps: One of the pillars of Estonia’s successful education is that there is an universal access to education and Estonia’s education system is one of the [most] equitable and inclusive in the world. According to the OECD PISA, the performance of 15-year-olds in Estonia from lower social-economic background ranks among the top 10 countries in the world and varies far less according to which school they attend compared to OECD average.

Education is fully free in Estonia and parents are not expected to contribute financially.

Additionally, students are provided with free lunches, study materials, free transport to school/home, free medical care and free hobby activities. There are number of support schemes: speech therapists, psychologists, social and special education specialists, needs-based support.
Parent contribution may be the case for attending a private school, which is voluntary as all children are granted a place in public school. Private schools often tend to have some specific focus or touch to their curricula or are either a community-based initiative. Also, private schools receive funding from the government.

How big of a priority is education for the Estonian government? What percentage of the GDP does it get? What is the key reasoning behind this policy?
M.R.: Of course, education has been and is continuing to be one of the highest priorities of Estonian governments. The right for education stems from the constitution and every child has right to obtain at least basic education. Estonians have always been believing in education and we, indeed, are an education nation. Throughout our history we always have emphasized education and its value. Education is perceived as a mean to advance forward as an individual, society or financial terms. Estonian governments have understood that educated people lead to success that is beneficial to the whole society.

Estonia’s investment in education is around 6% of the GDP which is about 1,4 billion euros annually.

What is the Estonian approach to providing a balanced training for various abilities, so that children do not become differentiated by their abilities (math, practical abilities etc.)? And how does this respond to the interests of the economy and of the society, as compared to education programs focused on specific abilities?
M.R.: As said earlier, Estonian schools have high level of equity. We have changed the paradigm of assessment, going on from controlling focus to supportive approach of schools, teacher and students. This also focuses on comparing students’ development with previous accomplishments.
This means also that we have changed from the fact and knowledge-based learning to nurture and foster child’s interests, strengths and creativity: our education is focused on developing skills and competences, of which the most important is the skill of learning.

Of course, often the child’s interests do not match the societal needs, but we tackle this challenge by asking higher education institutions to enroll a specific number of students which do not exceed the demand for the given job. We are “predicting” the future with the OSKA scheme/method which is a very thorough analysis on the needs for labour and skills necessary for Estonia’s economic development over next 10 years. We do also encourage life-long learning, which, in fact, reached all-time high last year. This aligns well with the skill of learning and we are working on making every Estonian a life-long learner as the 21st century requires constantly up-to-date skills and competencies.

What is the approach of the Estonian schools to the use of technology and the Internet? When it comes to children, tech and the Internet have often been described by various experts – besides their advantages – as potential threats and even as causes for less socially, psychologically or economically fit young people. What is the perspective in Estonian schools, when it comes to this?
M.R.: Estonian school and education is very technologically advanced: there are digital learning materials (free!), digital assessment and examination, digital class diaries and social network for parents-school-students’ communication etc. There’s an intiative by the government called “Digital Focus”, which aims to transform school digitally: up-to-date digital infrastructure, digital learning materials and, for the wider societal benefit, developing people’s digital skills and competences.

It must be noted, however, that being digital is not a goal in itself, rather using digital solutions is a way to make learning and teaching more interesting, innovative and personalized. Of course there are threats like in any other area of life, but our schools have come to an understanding that in order to provide modern skills and teach our students to be ready to tackle modern challenges, the digital way is the only way to achieve this.

What is the approach to homework in Estonian schools?
M.R.: Above all, it must bear a greater goal, instead of being a mere extension to a in-person class or to cover areas for that there weren’t enough time during regular class. Nevertheless, we believe that homework is something than can be used wisely for enhancing the learning outcomes. Students are allowed to be given homework under conditions that they have clear aim and support students’ individuality and foster creativity as well as they must be understandable for a student. Under these principles, schools have autonomy to choose how to implement those or how to approach homework as such.

The law states that no homework is given in the 1st grade as well as for a day following a national holiday or holiday.

How do you tackle the need to provide a balance between a high volume of things to learn in school and the need of children to find meaning, need, interest and fun in those things? What level of freedom do teachers in Estonian schools have, when it comes to organizing their classes/lessons?
M.R.: Estonian schools enjoy a really wide autonomy: there are certain objectives and goals set in the national curricula that must be met, but schools and teachers are free to choose their methods, paths or means how to achieve those. It has proven very effective as teachers have freedom to choose a way to teach accordingly to students’ interests, aims, goals and needs.

Has the government decided any changes to the education sector in the wake of the 2018 PISA tests?
M.R.: Our education is top-performing already so there is actually no point of changing drastically something that works and delivers well, right? However, we understand very well that being at the top bring whole need challenges on how to go on. Education is never ready and we are constantly looking for ways to make our system better.

Have Romanian officials contacted your education authorities for exchanges of experience or any other informative process, in past several months? If so, is there a clear or draft plan for such exchanges?
M.R.: Indeed, we have been in contact with Romanian officials. There have been some ideas on enhancing cooperation between Estonian and Romanian higher education institutions whose contacts we have facilitated. But I do see huge potential in bi-lateral cooperation: Estonia has proven itself as a top-performer in education and we are ready to share our experiences and best practices in shaping the education policy of the future.

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