Why Estonia is Europe's newest education powerhouse

The small country on the Baltic sea outperforms all the major European economies, including the UK who sits at number 22 in the influential global education tests, and ranks sixth in the world. How do they do it? 


The results of the international education league tables are published every three years and have become a hotly anticipated event in education circles. 

For parents, it's the chance to discover a little more about the education systems that are getting it right – right as in the right balance between high grades and high levels of happiness in the classroom – and wonder why we can't cherry pick some of their A* secrets, even though they are not so secret. 

The tests are carried out by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic organisation, and are called Programme for International Student Assessment – or PISA for short. 

Pupils across 36 member countries sit the PISA tests that measure the ability of 15-year-olds to apply their skills and knowledge to real-life problem-solving in reading, maths and science.

In the latest PISA tables, published in December 2019, Estonia has risen to sixth place in the world, and the "secret" appears to be that the country, when it regained its independence from Russia, looked to Finland for its education ideas. Finland has long been heralded as the leading light in education. It gets the results of the academically awesome Asian nations such as China but minus the hot-housing and school-related stress. 

So what gives Estonia an A* education system? 

1. High quality early years education
Most children start nursery at the age of three and investment is high in this area of education. There is a strong emphasis on learning through play.

2. Children don't start school until they are seven 
While children start school, on average, three years later than most pupils in the UK, they are "education ready" when they start. Experts say that by making sure as many children as possible are emotionally and physically ready to learn when they start school, it levels out attainment later on and results in a much smaller gap between rich and poor by the time they are teenagers.

3. Setting or streaming is rare. Pupils all learn together 
Putting students in different groups by subject or overall attainment, known as sets or streams in the UK, is very rare in Estonia. Educationalists say teaching by level of abilities causes segregation which does not assist with levelling attainment. 

4. E-schooling rules 
Homework is all completed and graded online. Books are borrowed electronically. Embracing the electronic age and an "access to all" approach means no child gets left behind. 

5. Teaching is a highly valued profession 
Like Finland, teachers in Estonia are held in high regard and there is an atmosphere of respect and co-operation that is highly condusive to learning. 


How did the UK perform in the latest PISA tests? 

According to the BBC, Andreas Schleicher, the director of OECD, said there were "positive signals" from the UK's results for the tests taken in 2018 – which he said showed "modest improvements".

In reading, the UK is 14th, up from 22nd in the previous tests three years ago. 

In science, the UK is 14th, up from 15th.

In maths, the UK is 18th up from 27th.

The UK's maths results represent a particular improvement on three years ago, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).



Individual countries saw improvements too.  In Wales, while the country's chools system has been ranked the worst in the UK for the fifth time running, results are an improvement on previous years in all three areas and the performance gap between pupils on free school meals and their better off peers is also improved. According to Wales Online, however, it's "worrying" that in answer to questions on wellbeing, the percentage of pupils in Wales saying they sometimes or always felt miserable or worried was higher than in other participating countries - and the percentage saying they sometimes or always felt proud, cheerful or joyful was lower.

Back when the last PISA tests were published in 2016, Scotland made headlines and caused a political row as the results made uncomfortable reading. The 2019 are mixed: performance in reading has improved but it declined in maths and science. Scotland's scores in the latests assessments are "above the OECD average" in reading and "similar to the OECD average" in maths and science.