In 2012, Estonia achieved one of the highest PISA results among the European countries, and its scores ranked 11th, 11th and 6th of the world for literacy, math and science.
Since the end of the Cold War, this small Baltic country went through a huge economic and education reform. From the declaration of dependence in 1991, Estonia took just 21 years to propel its education system to the point of success reflected by the 2012 PISA results. The country’s educational goal is to produce high-skilled workers, especially in the technological sector which generates high income.
Since 2012, the education sector in Estonia has invested greatly in expanding access to school in each and every area of the country. The Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020 was a policy adopted in 2014 as a guideline for education from kindergarten through university, including adult education. The key is to strengthen learning skills and creativity, which are demanded in its national job market.
With lifelong learning, age would not become a factor. The main idea is that education is a continuation even after you have passed a traditional student age. It believes in human’s inherent curiosity that can be developed and accumulated through the process of education, encouraging older citizens who have entered the job market to continue enhancing their skills and contributing to society without any restrictions.
As Estonia aims to build its economy based on ever evolving technology, a lifelong learning scheme therefore is a great fit to the modern world context. However, its success cannot easily be replicated by other countries. Estonia’s secret to maintain the efficacy of the lifelong learning plan in its education system is to ensure equal access to it for everyone.
Building up equality
The Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020 has five main principles; adjust education method, adjust teachers’ motivation, adjust education goal to fit market demand, implement digital media, and build equal opportunity in education and increase interactions throughout its lifelong learning system.
In order to achieve that, it clearly states that the government must ensure all citizens would be provided equal access to education that fits their needs and skills. Estonia’s Ministry of Education and Research describes in the plan that the amount of government’s spending in education could not be quantified into the level of achievement, therefore should not be compared to the budgets of other countries with high levels of achievement. A list of priorities must be set up for Estonia’s budget of education, meaning each target group would not receive the same amount of funding based on their needs.
First, the local administrations must set up an adequate number of childcare centers and kindergartens for their area. This strategy aims to ensure parents that their children would at least have one year of preparation before going to elementary school. It distributes the power to the locals, so each community has the autonomy to address their own local issues, which is more efficient than monopolizing all authorities to the central government.
Second, it must boost the quality of education for both high school and vocational school, as the country would like a clear division between primary education and secondary education. The strategy therefore states that besides guaranteeing the quality of primary education in every local school, curricula in high school and vocational school must also be intensified to meet the national standard. Each local administration then has a responsibility to ensure students in its area have an adequate basic knowledge that can be further developed in a higher education, and pass the national standard of evaluation.
The government is expected to take responsibility in providing financial support to assure equal quality of education in all local schools. Meanwhile, secondary education such as high school and vocational schools must be able to offer diverse options for the Estonian families. These two approaches would allow Estonia to create equal access to education at both local and national level.
Four pillars of education
The OECD country profile in 2020 said the number of Estonian children over a year old in Early Childhood Education and Care was higher than the average among the member states. The ratio of students per teacher in Estonia was at 8:1, compared to the standard ratio of 12:1 of other OECD members. It showed that Estonia has a wider access to education, and at the same time can manage to have its quality standard well-maintained.
The success in Estonia’s education system was a result of a coordinated strategies from several dimensions, such as the 2010 Amendments to the Basic and Upper Secondary School Act, the 2014 Amendments to the Pre-school Child Care Institutions Act, the 2015 Labour Market and Education Cooperation Programme, and the The Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020 that was implemented in 2014.
These are the four pillars that have fortified and quickly thrived the education of this small country that gained independence just after the Cold War. The careful approach of education development in turn also flourishes its economy and technological sector. It also became a strong base for the country to easily come up with a new education strategy post 2020.
However, there are some remaining gaps. Migrant students from Russia who mainly speak Russian still score less grades than students who speak Estonian, which could complicate their opportunity to go to university. Therefore, the government and several educators started to pay attention to language and racial diversity, thinking of how to simultaneously and equally develop skills of students from different backgrounds.
European dogma of lifelong learning
Estonia is just one example of countries that adopted the idea of lifelong learning and could significantly boost access to education through an efficient policy that clearly characterizes the local and national education strategy. At present, several countries and international organizations have put lifelong learning in their policy goals, as it could directly affect the economic development plan.
In 2010, lifelong learning was set up as one of the objectives in the EU 2020 Education and Training Strategy, as the member states believed it could help reduce the gap of academic achievement due to socio-economic status.
The book Lifelong Learning in Europe: Equity and Efficiency in the Balance, by Sheila Riddell, Jörg Markowitsch and Elisabet Weedon, says that European people think lifelong learning could be a key to bridge the social gaps. First, it is crucial to develop human capital, because individuals would be encouraged to grow their competitive skills and gain more expertise on their own. Second, it is also a great way to develop social capital, as it makes it easier for individuals across different sectors to meet and exchange their knowledge, in turn creating better rapport within a diverse society. Finally, it upholds the longstanding value of education among the Europeans, which believes students study a certain thing because they are genuinely interested to know about it, not because they need it as a passageway toward something else. This way of learning would robustly grow individuals to make great contributions to society. The book says it is a common value among long-established universities across Europe.
The lifelong learning is not limited to high-income countries or industrial countries. A lot of children entering elementary school in 2018 would be working a job that does not yet exist, even in low or middle-income countries. Technology and innovation will always create new kinds of occupations. Therefore, preparing humans to be susceptible to learning new things is a necessity for every country in the world.
Now, there are around 4 million programmers in India, 400,000 organic farmers in Uganda, and 100,000 data scientists in China. These jobs have become a thing just less than three decades ago, and all nations are improving their visions to help prepare their citizens for all kinds of possibilities in the next three decades and so on.
The Estonian method of equal development in human capital seems to be a logical way forward for any country across the globe. Citizens that are always ready to learn new things would strengthen and prosper society. The fundamental base such as ensuring quality of education and proper governmental support will help everyone in society to step forward together, unlock their potentials and break the barriers with sustainable lifelong education.