Want the best schools in Europe? Try Estonia

A great article from The Times on the way children are being taught in Estonia. Learning robotics from the age of seven and with teachers using virtual reality to bring geography, chemistry, history and language classes to life – the country is turning pupils into active participants in their education rather than passive recipients of facts.

Outside the Soviet-era building, painted a municipal shade of pale green, children are playing in the autumn sun. It is lunchtime at Südalinna school in Tallinn but the games of basketball, football, elastics and tag could be taking place anywhere in the world or in any decade. This non-selective state school in Estonia’s capital city has just celebrated its 55th anniversary with a concert of traditional songs by the choir. There are some aspects of life here that appear to have changed little since its creation in the Sixties, when Estonia was part of the eastern bloc and Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union. Pupils hang their coats on pegs behind huge metal grilles and the uniform includes a Lenin-style worker’s cap.

Yet the school is also on the cutting edge of innovation and is pioneering technology that has helped turn Estonia’s education system into one of the highest-performing in the world. Children learn robotics from the age of seven and teachers use virtual reality to bring geography, chemistry, history and language classes to life. When the pandemic hit, it was easy for the school to move quickly to remote learning because all the lessons were already available online. Even before the crisis, students did the occasional “digital day” from home. Technology is woven through the life of the school. In the corridors, robot tracks are painted on the floor next to the exercise bikes and table-football sets. Instead of dedicated computer science and software design classes, digital skills are integrated into the whole curriculum. Younger classes practise maths and spelling, for example, by programming robots to move from one number or letter to the next.

Kerttu Mölder-Jevdokimov, the teacher who runs the innovation programme, says schools need to be more imaginative about engaging students who are used to the stimulation of video games and iPhones. “Virtual reality [VR] is exciting to them,” she says. “If in geography lessons pupils are learning about different climates, then they can use VR glasses to go to Alaska or Nigeria. In history, the sixth grade are learning about ancient Egypt, so they can use VR to look inside the pyramids. In a music lesson, the students visit a big concert hall in New York and watch an opera. The English teacher can take them on a virtual tour of London.”

But she insists that the technology is a means to an end. “The important thing is what happens next. The VR experience only lasts a few minutes, then they always have to do something. One exercise involved going to Sweden and Iceland, and then they had to write the brochure for visitors and do the ad for these countries. The first time it is ‘wow’, but now they know this is a learning process.”

Pupils with Kerttu Mölder-Jevdokimov, who runs the school’s innovation programme in Tallinn

The aim, she says, is to turn pupils into active participants in their education rather than passive recipients of facts, and there is a highly interactive element to the lessons. “In chemistry they can do experiments using VR. They mix some liquids and then there’s a big explosion. They all jump back; it feels so real. In biology we have an app where they can put together the bones to make the human body.”

Teachers can monitor what each student is seeing in the virtual world through a central computer, which tracks each headset. “The first time they can look at whatever they want. On the London tour, for example, we thought that they would look at Big Ben but actually they were looking at the people in the street. The second time they look at the clip, they have to find what the teacher wants to talk about.”

Mölder-Jevdokimov takes me to the innovation lab, where robots are lined up neatly on shelves and VR headsets are packed securely in their padded cases. She admits that she was terrified the first time she tried out the virtual rainforest tour and saw a snake looming towards her. “I have a phobia. They should have warned me.” The VR experience is so powerful that only pupils over 11 are allowed to use the headsets and parents have to give their permission. “This is not about entertainment,” Mölder-Jevdokimov insists. “It’s not a gimmick.”

The next plan is for students to create their own VR worlds in a project that cuts across their Estonian language, art, history and science classes. “We have a 360-degree camera, so they can make their own films.” The school is always looking for fresh ideas to stimulate pupils. Mölder-Jevdokimov points to a box of miniature plastic bots. “We can’t use these any more because now the children play with them in kindergarten,” she says. “All the time we have to give students something new.”

Estonia has the best education system in Europe, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This tiny former Soviet state outperforms France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Finland and the UK as well as the US, Canada, Japan and South Korea in the Pisa rankings of student attainment. Despite relatively low spending on education, Estonia is among the top countries in the world in all three areas on which 15-year-olds are assessed for the global survey: reading, mathematics and science. Its schools are also the best at promoting fairness – or levelling up as the prime minister would say. While the gap between rich and poor students in England remains stubbornly high and has increased during the pandemic, Estonian students’ socio-economic status has the lowest impact on reading outcomes in the OECD. Pupils seem to be happier than those in many other nations too. An analysis by the Gregson Family Foundation found that Estonia is one of only five countries in the world where children have both high attainment levels and high life satisfaction levels. The UK is mid-table on attainment and near the bottom for wellbeing.

I’ve come to Tallinn as chair of the Times Education Commission to find out the secret of its success. Technology is certainly part of the answer. Estonia, which only gained independence from Moscow in 1991, sees itself as a start-up nation. It thrives on innovation and believes it cannot afford the expensive bureaucracies on which older, wealthier nations rely. There is an entrepreneurial approach to the public sector that cuts across everything from health to taxation, and 99 per cent of government services are now delivered online. Estonia – or “e-Estonia”, as it styles itself – has electronic ID cards, online voting and e-cabinet meetings. With a flat rate of income tax, its economy has grown eightfold since independence and technology has been central to that increase. Skype was founded here and Estonia has generated the highest number of billion-dollar start-ups per capita in the world, including the Uber rival Bolt and the money-transfer company Wise.

A country that is building a digital future has created an education system equipped to support a high-tech, high-skill economy. The government invested early on to ensure that all schools had access to electronic devices and a good internet connection. The vast majority of pupils in Estonia use electronic timetables and exams are gradually being moved online. There is a national online library of more than 20,000 educational resources called the “e-Schoolbag”, where teachers, subject specialists, academics and publishers can post resources, with a group of experts responsible for regularly reviewing the content. Teachers can use and adapt the material for their own lessons, and parents and pupils can also access the library from home. Most homework and school tests are set digitally, drastically reducing the amount of marking teachers have to do.

Südalinna school in Tallinn

Südalinna school in TallinnARVO SILM

It’s impressive, but there is much more to Estonia’s outstanding education record than computers and cables. In fact the Education and Youth Board in Tallinn is now worrying that it is falling behind in the technological revolution and has started to explore how artificial intelligence could be used to further personalise learning. “Estonians are never happy with what they have,” says Gunda Tire, the country’s head of international assessment. “When the Pisa results first came out, it was like, ‘Oh, this was an accident.’ By now, people do believe that the system is good, but they keep looking for how to improve. Our success consists of many things.”

The entrepreneurial spirit runs through the whole system. Estonian schools have a high degree of autonomy and head teachers are free to decide how to organise pupils’ lives and shape the curriculum. There are no regular inspections. Schools are evaluated every three years through online tests for pupils and the authorities only intervene if there is a problem. Twenty years ago there were more than 70 school inspectors in Estonia; now there are only nine. “We have moved away from controlling educational institutions to supporting educational institutions,” Liina Kersna, minister of education and research, tells me. “We trust our teachers and our teachers have a lot of autonomy.” She attributes Estonia’s achievement in the Pisa rankings to “our decentralised and equal education system, professional and dedicated teachers, innovation and technology and because we value life-long learning”.

At the Education and Youth Board, Heli Aru-Chabilan, the technology specialist, says the school system reflects Estonians’ innate suspicion of central control. “In the Soviet era it was framed in such a way that the state had to look at all the details, but that doesn’t really show the quality of the education in a true form, so we made a move to the assessment of schools based on statistics, where you figure out which have the bigger problems and then offer help. It’s more collaborative.” Mart Laidmets, the general director of the Education and Youth Board, believes that outcomes are improved by giving schools greater freedom. “They feel responsibility on the right level. You can’t push responsibility on someone else’s shoulders so you are doing your best.”

The consequence is that the professionals feel empowered. Teachers in Estonia are required to have a master’s degree and are respected for their expertise. Instead of being forced to follow a particular lesson format, or cram their students for the exam marking scheme, they can decide how and what they teach. Salaries have increased by 70 per cent over the past seven years while the workload has been reduced. There are almost twice as many teachers per pupil in Estonia as in England. They spend less time in the classroom than most teachers across the OECD, meaning they have more time for lesson preparation and professional development. All schools allocate one per cent of their budget to teacher training, and staff are encouraged to visit other schools and collaborate with each other.

Gunda Tire, who manages the Pisa programme in Estonia, compares the education system to a tree, with different branches for pupils to climb. “Basically the idea for our education is that no matter which path you have started on, you have the possibility to move on from one branch to another.” She says the strength of the tree depends on the roots, which give stability and nourishment at the very start of life. Children in Estonia do not start school until they are seven, but their education begins long before that. They are legally entitled to a kindergarten place from the age of 18 months, and nurseries are heavily subsidised so that parents never pay more than 20 per cent of the minimum wage (less than £500 a month). As a result, 94 per cent of children between the ages of 4 and 7 go to nursery. Pre-school teachers are highly qualified and are required to have a degree – they are educators rather than childcare providers.

In England, 40 per cent of the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils emerges before the age of five; in Estonia the state intervenes early in an attempt to close the divide. Although its overall spending on education is comparatively low, Estonia has one of the highest levels of expenditure on early years as a percentage of GDP (in 2016 it was 1.2 per cent compared with the OECD average of 0.8 per cent and more than double the 0.5 per cent spent in England at that time). Tire says it means that by the time children start school, they are ready for more formal lessons whatever their social background and quickly overtake pupils in other countries. “Estonian children are very happy because they have a long childhood, longer than in England,” she says. “They study and they learn but they just have bit more of a relaxed, non-school atmosphere.”

At the end of nursery school, children get a school readiness card describing their skills, their development and what more they need to do. Those who need extra support are referred to a specialist, such as a speech therapist, before they even start formal education. In “basic school”, which runs from 7 to 16, there is a strong emphasis on inclusion. Classes are mixed ability and pupils are not routinely separated into higher and lower sets. Students who are struggling or have behavioural problems are taken out for individual tuition or small group teaching. Most schools have their own in-house psychologist as well as educational technologists, and a national network of 15 Pathfinder centres offers extra help with mental-health problems and special educational needs.

School lunches are free for all pupils, along with transport, textbooks and trips. “Many schools also give free porridge in the morning,” says Tire. “Food is a very good incentive to go to school. If you’re hungry, you can’t think about reading, learning, enjoying things. It’s about equality too. We don’t have a system that tries to figure out, ‘You are poor and you are rich,’ because many would be in between. If the law says education is free in this country then you have to provide books, lunches and things that help you learn. The kid goes to school, and all kids are the same.”

There are virtually no exclusions, and Tire looks baffled when I ask whether schools have silent corridors or if pupils can get a detention for bringing the wrong pen to class. “I think those are methods from the 1890s,” she says. “Discipline is a dangerous word because you will think that it is an army-type discipline, but there should be a productive environment. We are here to study, so we study.”

There is a national wellbeing survey to assess the mental health of pupils and teachers. “It shouldn’t be a goal to have everybody happy because then we give them ice cream all the time,” says Tire. “The aim should be for people to be satisfied with their life. We should be concentrating on, ‘How do we mentally challenge our children to have a goal?’ ”

It seems to work. The vast majority of young people stay in education until they are 19, with around 25 per cent going to vocational institutions and the rest progressing to more academic gymnasiums. Everybody is expected to pass their school certificate and if students fail they can take it again. The education minister says the curriculum is moving away from “knowledge and understanding” towards “implementation, analysis, synthesis and assessment”, with more collaboration across subjects. There is an emphasis on problem-solving, critical thinking, values, citizenship, entrepreneurship and digital competence – the qualities that employers say they want. Students must complete a cross-disciplinary creative project to graduate from basic school and a research project before they leave upper secondary school. While in England schools are judged on their delivery of a narrow range of academic subjects, in Estonia creative subjects are seen as central to a balanced education. “Music, sports and arts are part of the curriculum,” says Tire. “All that is part of growing up. The wider the education given to a child, the more the kid knows when he’s out there in the world.”

I visit the Viimsi gymnasium, a 25-minute drive along the coast from Tallinn. This upper secondary school, with nearly 500 students between 16 and 19, is in a beautiful light and airy wood-clad building that opened three years ago. Specialising in what it calls “21st- century skills”, it is heavily oversubscribed.

When I arrive, some of the pupils are sitting in rows in their classroom doing a test – a mock for their final national exams. At the end of their school career they are assessed formally on only three subjects: Estonian, maths and a foreign language (most of them choose English), but the curriculum is far broader than that. Only a small part of the school timetable is taken up with preparing for the national tests. It is compulsory for pupils to study both humanities and sciences up to the age of 19. At Viimsi, students must also choose extra modules and take a school exam to graduate.

The principal, Karmen Paul, shows me into the auditorium, a high-ceilinged white-painted room where the artwork on the wall depicts a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. “It’s about the stages of development,” she explains. “If you help open the chrysalis, it might become the butterfly that cannot fly. As a teacher you can be there and instruct and listen, but you cannot do the work for the pupils. They have to be active learners.” This mindset is, she thinks, the key to Estonia’s success in the Pisa rankings. “Knowledge is important but, in the end, you need those 21st-century skills: critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration. Learning is about learning from each other and with each other. We say that it’s OK to fail and you can learn from that.”

The school is attempting to formalise this concept by pioneering a “maturity” exam, which all pupils must take in addition to their other qualifications as a condition of graduation. To pass they must do work experience, attend lectures from outside speakers and write an analysis of what they have learnt about themselves during their three years at the gymnasium. “We have a self-evaluation form for 21st-century skills,” the principal explains. “They create their development e-portfolio. Then, when they finish our school, they have an oral examination where they talk about how they have developed one or other of the skills.”

The lack of complacency in Estonia is combined with a refreshing open-mindedness. Andreas Schleicher, the international education guru who oversees the OECD’s Pisa system, believes that as a relatively new country, Estonia lacks the dogma and resistance to change of many larger nations. “It goes back to when Estonia became independent,” he says. “Unlike other countries in the region, they didn’t try to restore the old system but had a young generation create an entirely new public system with entrepreneurship and digitalisation at its heart.” With a population of only 1.3 million and 521 schools, Estonia is very different from the UK, but Schleicher believes there are lessons to learn. “If you look at all the best education systems around the world, they have similarities,” he says. “The curriculum is quite holistic, valuing a broad range of outcomes rather than just narrow academic outcomes. It’s also about work organisation and support. [The UK] tries to address teacher shortages largely by making teaching financially more attractive, but I think the bigger challenge is to make teaching intellectually more attractive.”


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