European Education Area Progress Report 2021

Education and Training Monitor 2021


1. Key indicators

Figure 1 – Key indicators overview
Estonia EU-27
2010 2020 2010 2020
EU-level targets 2030 target
Participation in early childhood education
(from age 3 to starting age of compulsory primary education)
≥ 96% 89.6%13 91.5%19 91.8%13 92.8%19
Low achieving eighth-graders in digital skills < 15% : : : :
Low achieving 15-year-olds in: Reading < 15% 13.3%09,b 11.1%18 19.7%09,b 22.5%18
Maths < 15% 12.7%09 10.2%18 22.7%09 22.9%18
Science < 15% 8.3%09 8.8%18 17.8%09 22.3%18
Early leavers from education and training (age 18-24) < 9% 11.0% 7.5% 13.8% 9.9%
Exposure of VET graduates to work based learning ≥ 60% : : : :
Tertiary educational attainment (age 25-34) ≥ 45% (2025) 38.2% 43.1% 32.2% 40.5%
Participation of adults in learning (age 25-64) ≥ 47% (2025) : : : :
Other contextual indicators
Education investment Public expedienture on education as a percentage of GDP 6.5% 6.0%19 5.0% 4.7%19
Expenditure on public and private institutions per FTE/student in € PPS ISCED 1-2 €4 65412 €5 82218 €6 07212,d €6 35917,d
ISCED 3-4 €5 55112 €5 92218 €7 36613,d €7 76217,d
ISCED 5-8 €6 41412,d €12 04318 €9 67912,d €9 99517,d
Early leavers from education and training (age 18-24) Native 11.1% 7.6% 12.4% 8.7%
EU-born :u :u 26.9% 19.8%
Non EU-born :u :u 32.4% 23.2%
Upper secondary level attainment (age 20-24, ISCED 3-8) 83.6% 87.7% 79.1% 84.3%
Tertiary educational attainment (age 25-34) Native 37.8% 41.7% 33.4% 41.3%
EU-born :u 84.2%u 29.3% 40.4%
Non EU-born 47.2%u 60.5% 23.1% 34.4%

Sources: Eurostat (UOE, LFS, COFOG); OECD (PISA). Further information can be found in Annex I and in Volume 1 ( Notes: The 2018 EU average on PISA reading performance does not include ES; the indicator used (ECE) refers to early-childhood education and care programmes which are considered by the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) to be ‘educational’ and therefore constitute the first level of education in education and training systems – ISCED level 0; FTE = full-time equivalent; b = break in time series, d = definition differs, u = low reliability, := not available, 09 = 2009, 12 = 2012, 13 = 2013, 17 = 2017, 18 = 2018, 19 = 2019.

Figure 2 - Position in relation to strongest and weakest performers

Source: DG Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, based on data from Eurostat (LFS 2020, UOE 2019) and OECD (PISA 2018).

2. Highlights

  • Estonia has a well-developed policy framework for well-being in education. This includes the objective of a learning environment focused on well-being and regular data collection through annual surveys conducted among students, teachers and parents.
  • Digital skills, equipment and e-learning platforms facilitated the smooth transition to online learning in schools and higher education. Very few children had no access to distance learning.
  • Against the backdrop of skills shortages and a declining population, there are currently not enough university and VET graduates to fill certain jobs in the future.
  • Gender gaps exist across the education system, from early school leaving to tertiary education attainment.

3. A focus on well-being in education and training

Well-being is part of Estonia’s education policy and is monitored regularly. In the Estonian education strategy 2021-2035 (pending adoption), a learning environment that focuses on well-being is defined as ‘a combination of mental, social and physical conditions for learning that support the learner’s self-efficacy and self-esteem, the development of life skills and social competences, and mental and physical health in general’ (heaolu loov õpikeskkond). Since 2018, the well-being of pupils and teachers has been monitored regularly through a satisfaction survey, in which pupils, teachers and parents participate; each school gets a feedback report indicating areas for improvement. This year’s well-being survey focused on distance learning and self-management; the results will be published in the autumn of 2021. The education strategy 2021-2035 will also contain indicators on well-being: the subjective well-being of staff and learners will be monitored during the implementation of the strategy. The value and image of the teaching profession in society will also be monitored1.

Preparedness for distance learning helped to maintain well-being during school closures. Estonia’s education system was already well-prepared for distance learning in terms of digital equipment, e-learning platforms and skills. The majority of Estonian pupils were satisfied with their online learning experience and had access to devices and to their schools’ online systems. This had a positive impact on well-being: half of the pupils felt safe, relaxed, happy and productive, especially older pupils (16-18 years) with more advanced self-management skills. For example, 70% of pupils said they had acquired new study methods and 80% felt more secure during online learning compared to contact learning (Telia, 2020). The number of children that were not reached by distance learning was very small (less than 1%), and for pupils with special educational needs it remained possible to arrange contact learning at school.

Well-being needs to remain a priority for policymakers, schools and teachers. As pre-pandemic data revealed, around 26.4% of pupils felt that they did not belong at school (EU average: 34.8%), lowering their reading performance by 29 points (EU average: 16 points). 25.4% were exposed to bullying at least a few times a month (EU average: 22.1%), which was also linked to a lower reading performance (by 15 points, compared to the EU average of 35 points, OECD 2019a). Only half of students said they felt happy sometimes or always (EU average: 70%). Less than half of teachers said they felt well-prepared to observe students’ development and to manage their behaviour and the class (Taimalu et al., 2019); this indicates a need for further training of teachers to address students’ and their own well-being. Teachers who have received such in-service training were better able to recognise and deal with stress factors during online learning (Carretero Gomez et al., 2021).

Some negative effects of COVID-19 could be observed, and measures were taken to address these. During school closures, the majority of pupils indicated that the time they spent with friends, doing exercise and collaborating with others had decreased; around 30% of pupils said they felt bored, lonely or tired (Telia, 2020). While 74% of students said they coped similarly or better with learning than before distance learning, 27% said they coped worse (Tammets et al., 2021). In March 2021, the Ministry of Education, together with several teachers’ and psychologists’ associations, issued a statement on the mental health of students during COVID-19. They recommended that teachers prioritise well-being and reduce stress during distance learning by offering the possibility to fill in learning gaps later, using formative assessment and providing additional support to pupils with learning difficulties (MoE, 2021a). School psychologists and other support professionals continued to be available, e.g. through the EU-funded Rajaleidja (Pathfinder) network, which offered free educational counselling services for parents and educators.

Raising resilience and well-being has also become a priority in adult learning. The education strategy 2021-2035 emphasises the importance of cooperation and self-management skills besides subject and professional knowledge. To develop the skills of adult learners, a new module, ‘study path and work in a changing environment’, has been introduced in the vocational curricula that all institutions must implement from September 2021 at the latest. The overarching goal of the module is to develop an attitude that values the self-development of a vocational learner. Teachers also receive in-service training, both to ensure their own well-being and to be able to create a positive learning atmosphere2, although not all courses are available in all regions.

4. Investing in education and training

Estonia’s investment in education and training remains very high compared to the EU average. In 2019, the government spent 15.5% of its budget on education, more than any other EU country and significantly more than the EU average (9.9%). This was the equivalent of 6% of Estonian GDP (EU average: 4.7%). 40% of its education budget was spent on primary and pre-primary education, a comparatively high share (EU average: 33%). In the last decade, the education spending in Estonia almost doubled from EUR 960.7 million in 2010 to EUR 1698.2 million in 2019.

Box 1: The National Recovery and Resilience Plan

To help the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Estonia has requested a total of EUR 969.3 million in grants under the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). Estonia’s recovery and resilience plan3 aims to address long-term structural challenges such as climate change, the digital transformation, healthcare and social protection. Reforms and investments related to education and skills are also planned: To help companies succeed in the digital and green transitions, over 4 000 professionals will get help to acquire digital and green skills by 2026. Around 3 200 young people not in education, employment or training will receive support to get a job and additional training by 2025: The ̀My first job ́ scheme will pay a wage subsidy to employers of young people between 16 and 29 who are registered as unemployed and have no or only short-term work experience.

5. Modernising early childhood and school education

Participation in early childhood education and care remains slightly below the EU average, but does not depend on socio-economic status. In 2019, 91.5% of children aged between 3 and compulsory school age (7 years) participated in early childhood education and care. While participation rates have increased somewhat since 2014, this is still slightly below the EU average of 92.8% and the EU-level target of 96% is not yet within reach. Among children under 3 years old, 31.8% were enrolled in childcare in 2019; this was below the EU average of 35.3%, but the trend is upwards. Low-income households were as likely as high-income households to enrol their children under 3 years old in early childhood education and care. Due to government subsidies, childcare remains affordable for most families, ensuring equal access (UNESCO, 2021). Early childhood education and care facilities were kept open during the pandemic as much as possible, although parents were encouraged to keep their children at home. Some municipalities waived fees for all families to incentivise staying at home, regardless of attendance.

Reform efforts in early childhood education and care concentrate on defining learning outcomes and early identification of learning support needs. The draft law on early childhood education and care, the Pre-Primary Education Act, is still under discussion. In its current version, it aims to define structured learning outcomes for early childhood education and care. Children’s development will be regularly assessed, even if children are cared for at home. The aim is to detect learning difficulties earlier than is currently the case, so that children get the educational support they need. According to a recent audit report, a third of kindergartens lacked education support services, potentially leading to an increased need for support at school – which is associated with higher costs (National Audit Office, 2020). The bill also obliges municipalities to proactively offer a kindergarten place to every child aged one and a half. Several points of the bill remain controversial and another consultation round with stakeholders is expected to take place in the second half of 2021.

Early school leaving rates continue to fall slowly, but with significant disparities. Early leavers are people between 18 and 24 who have obtained no more than a lower secondary diploma and are not enrolled in further education and training. In 2020, the rate of early leavers from education and training fell to 7.5%, from 9.8% the year before; the rate is below the EU average of 9.9% and in line with the European target of below 9%. The figure, however, hides some regional disparities: at 10.1% in 2020, early school leaving was higher in rural areas. Moreover, young people with a disability (aged 18-24) had a school leaving rate of 16.2% (Sakkeus et al., 2021). Gender differences also persist: while 9.2% of men aged 18-24 left school early, only 5.8% of women did. The education strategy 2021-2035 attributes this gender gap to differences in attitudes towards learning (MoE, 2020a). Considering the skills shortage in Estonia and the shortage of higher education and VET graduates in certain fields, reducing early school leaving remains crucial. During the pandemic, and in an effort to reduce the risk of dropouts, career guidance services were provided online by the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund and were used extensively (OECD, 2020).

Estonian-language skills have not improved at the expected pace. The national goal remains for Estonian to be the main language of instruction by 2035, but this seems out of reach at this point. To achieve this target, the Ministry of Education is preparing measures to support Estonian-language learning. Since the level of teaching Estonian in Russian-medium schools is still insufficient, the ministry is considering the possibility that all Russian-medium schools should start learning and teaching in Estonian earlier and more intensively. Currently, only upper secondary schools are required to do at least 60% of their teaching in Estonian, but this could be applied to basic schools as well. In that case, legal changes might be required. An action plan to move towards a high-quality Estonian-language education system will be adopted in November 2021, and in August 2021 the Ministry announced additional funding for schools to support Estonian-language learning; 23 schools with more than 10% of students with a native language other than Estonian will benefit.

Salaries, dropout rates and ageing of teachers remain a challenge. Half of Estonia’s teachers are older than 50 (EU average: 39%), making Estonian teaching staff among the oldest in the EU. The dropout rate from the teaching profession is high: in 2018, only 54% of teacher training graduates had worked as teachers for 5 consecutive years after graduation (MoE, 2020a; Eurydice, 2021). The lack of induction programmes and mentorship schemes could contribute to the high drop-out rate: only 21.7% of teachers reported having participated in an induction programme, (Figure 3). Although school leaders consider mentoring important for teachers’ work, only 19% of incoming teachers (with up to 5 years of experience) are appointed mentors; in some EU Member States, this figure is as high as 45% (OECD, 2019b). Skills shortages in other areas could furthermore contribute to pressure felt by teachers: The National Audit Office found that around 1 000 full-time support professionals would be needed to provide the additional assistance required in schools and pre-schools. However, the number of admissions for these professions at universities is not sufficient to cover this need. Better organisation of support services could help to compensate for the lack of support professionals, and the Ministry of Education will prepare an action plan on educational support services in the autumn of 2021 (National Audit Office, 2020). In addition, one of the main aims of the education strategy 2021-2035 is to improve the working environment, pay and continued training of teachers and school leaders (MoE, 2020a). The state budget for 2022 plans a 7.3% increase in teachers’ salaries compared to 2021 which is in line with the average wage growth in Estonia. In 2022, the projected average monthly salary will be EUR 1 653 and a total of around EUR 30 million will be set aside for the increase of teachers’ salaries (Valitsus, 2021).

Figure 3 – Proportion of lower secondary teachers who participated in a formal or informal induction programme during their first job, TALIS 2018

Source: European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2021. Teachers in Europe: Careers, Development and Well-being, Figure 2.5, on the basis of TALIS 2018.

6. Modernising vocational education and training and adult learning

Estonia has made progress in establishing work-based learning. Participation in apprenticeships increased to 9% of VET students in 2020/21, around 3 pps higher than the previous period, while around 15% of VET graduates have participated in work-based learning in 2019/20. Thus, efforts made since 2018 to attract young people into apprenticeships are slowly showing results. The quality of work-based learning in VET institutions was assessed for the first time in 2020 as a pilot project, and expert assistance and counselling are available to discuss the institutions’ assessment results. During the COVID-19 crisis, VET providers reorganised work-based learning by postponing or suspending training in enterprises, or continuing training when possible. In 2020, 80% of recent VET graduates were in employment (compared to the EU average of 76.1%).

Alleviating teacher shortages in vocational education and training remains a national priority. One in three new teachers quit their job within a year. In autumn 2020, a working group was convened to prepare proposals to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers. In 2020, a new professional standard for VET teachers came into force, establishing a partial professional qualification for internship supervisors (EQF level 54). The partial qualification is not compulsory, but is recommended for those wanting to become an internship supervisor in a company. It can be obtained via in-service training or a professional exam; the awarding body is Tallinn University. In addition, the professional standard for vocational teachers at EQF level 8[5 was approved as a way of recognising excellence among VET teachers and harmonising the career paths of general education and VET teachers. During the COVID-19 crisis, VET teachers were trained via centralised webinars and best practices were shared through VET teachers’ networks.

The high dropout rate from initial VET remains a challenge, especially in the first year of studies. To mitigate the dropout risk and facilitate the transition from compulsory education to VET and/or to the labour market, a transition year was introduced in 2017. In 2020, vocational orientation curricula were introduced in several VET institutions. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, demand for in-service training and retraining increased and vocational orientation studies became increasingly important for preventing early school leaving from education and training.

In 2020, despite the crisis, participation in adult learning in Estonia remained well above the EU average. Estonian adults within the 25-64 age group continued to actively participate in learning at almost double the rate of the EU average (17.1% vs 9.2%) in 2020. Participation in learning schemes for the low-qualified, however, dropped to 6.6% in 2020, from 9.2% in 2019. In the same vein, participation of the unemployed also dropped slightly to 20.5%, compared to 22.3% in 2019, but still remained well above the EU average (10.6%).

Box 2: The European Social Fund supports work-based learning in Estonia

With close to EUR 27 million of funding from the European Social Fund, the PRÕM project brings vocational education and training (VET) and higher education closer to the needs of the labour market. One of its main aims is to improve the image of VET and to develop a comprehensive work-based learning system. PRÕM has already helped to improve the quality of work-based learning and expand apprenticeship programmes. During the project, which runs from 2015 to 2022, the share of graduates of work-based learning in VET has increased from 2% to 15%, while employers are now more aware of work-based learning. By 2020, 6 700 students had participated in the project, apprenticeships were offered by 1 300 companies and more than 6 000 apprenticeship supervisors had been trained in schools and companies. This approach was successfully extended to higher education: certain learning outcomes, as defined in the curricula, can be fulfilled by carrying out practical work. Whereas universities remain responsible for study, companies are involved in curriculum development and the evaluation process.

Another initiative, the ‘Young Master’ festival, celebrates vocational students’ skills and achievements. Further information can be found at; provides information on vocational education and study possibilities.

7. Modernising higher education

Tertiary education attainment is increasing slowly and is highly unequal between men and women. In 2020, 43.1% of Estonians between 25 and 34 held a university degree. This is above the EU average of 40.5%, but below the EU-level target of 45%. This relatively high level of tertiary education attainment increased slowly over the past decade: between 2010 and 2020, Estonia made rather slow progress (+4.9 pps) compared to other EU countries in further increasing tertiary education attainment (EU average: +8.3 pps). Gender differences also persist, with women being much more likely to hold a university degree. While 54.7% of women aged 25-34 graduated from university, only 32.7% of men did; at 22 pps, the gender gap in tertiary education attainment was the second highest in the EU (EU average: 10.8 pps). Explanations for this gender gap require further research, but it could partly be linked to the gender gap in early school leaving, which is also high (see above).

Figure 4 – Gender gap in tertiary education (age groups 25-34), 2020

How many more women hold a university degree compared to men, source: LFS, edat_lfse_03.

The number of tertiary graduates is insufficient to fill jobs in the future, especially in some professions. The absolute number of students in tertiary education fell by 24% between 2014 and 2019 compared to only 1% in the EU (around 60 000 students were enrolled in Estonian universities in 2014 and only 45 500 in 2019). The decline was strongest in engineering and social sciences and least pronounced in health and ICT. The Estonian skills forecasting agency, OSKA, found that the number of vocational and higher education graduates is insufficient to fill jobs in the future, especially in certain fields like technology, production and construction, science, education and agriculture. OSKA also predicted rising unemployment following the COVID-19 crisis, while the shortages in some professions will persist (OSKA, 2020a,b). Given the country’s rising demand for high-skilled jobs in specific fields, falling numbers of enrolled students and a shrinking population, tackling the gender gap in tertiary education attainment and improving completion rates in higher education could become crucial. Finally, migration might play a role in addressing skills shortages; at 60.5%, the tertiary education attainment rate is considerably higher among non-EU born nationals living in Estonia than among the native population. The Estonian education system already attracts a high number of foreign students: in 2019/2020, 14.7% of all graduates were international degree students. A third of international students who remained in Estonia after their studies work in ICT (MoE, 2020b). Plans to restrict the possibility for foreign students to work while studying in Estonia have been put on hold by the government.

Faced with a shortage in certain professions, learning paths are becoming more flexible. One of the aims of the education strategy 2021-2035 is to allow smooth transitions between educational levels and types to address skills shortages. A recent report commissioned by the Ministry of Education and Research found that micro-credentials could play an important role as they allow people to acquire new knowledge and skills in a flexible and individualised way. However, a common understanding of micro-credentials and a quality assurance mechanism need to be developed (Balti, 2021). Under the Recovery and Resilience Facility, planned investments and reforms aim to provide flexible learning opportunities to respond to the needs of the green economy and the digital transformation. Upskilling and retraining programmes for adults will be introduced and study programmes in higher and vocational education will be modernised, including developing and piloting more flexible training programmes offering micro-credentials.

8. References

Balti Uuringute Instituut (2021), Mikrokvalifikatsioonide kasutuselevõtmise võimalused Eesti haridus-ja kutsesüsteemis rahvusvahelisele praktikale toetudes [Possibilities for introducing micro-credentials in the Estonian education and vocational training system on the basis of international practice],

Carretero Gomez, S., Napierala, J., Bessios, A., Mägi, E., Pugacewicz, A., Ranieri, M., Triquet, K., Lombaerts, K., Robledo Bottcher, N., Montanari, M. and Gonzalez Vazquez, I., (2021), What did we learn from schooling practices during the COVID-19 lockdown, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

Eurydice/European Commission/EACEA (2021), Teachers in Europe: Careers, Development and Well-being. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Ministry of Education and Research/MoE (2020a), Haridusvaldkonna arengukava 2021–2035 [Development Plan in the Field of Education 2021-2035],

Ministry of Education and Research (2020b), Slight Downturn in Number of International Students at Estonian Universities in 2020,

Ministry of Education and Research, (2021a), Pöördumine: hoidkem õpilaste vaimset tervist [Let’s Maintain Students’ Mental Health],

National Audit Office (2020), Availability of Education Support Services,

OECD (2019a), PISA 2018 Results (Volume III): What School Life Means for Students’ Lives, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2019b), TALIS 2018 Results (Volume I): Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners,

OECD (2020), How Estonia is delivering online career guidance during the coronavirus crisis,

OSKA (2020a), Estonian Labour Market Today and Tomorrow 2019-2027 – Key Findings,

OSKA (2020b), Covid-19 impact on the need for labour force and skills – Key Findings,

Sakkeus, L., Abuladze, L., Leppik, L./European Commission/DG Employment and Social Affairs (2021), European Semester 2020-2021 country fiche on disability equality – Estonia. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Tammets, K., Ley, T., Eisenschmidt, E., Soodla, P., Sillat, P.J., Kollom, K., Väljataga, T., Loogma, K., Sirk, M. (2021), Eriolukorrast tingitud distantsõppe – kogemused ja mõju Eesti üldharidussüsteemile (Vahearuanne) [Distance learning in response to an emergency situation – experience and impact on the Estonian general education system (Interim report)], Tallinna Ülikool.

Taimalu, M., Uibu, K., Luik, P., Leijen, Ä. (2019), Õpetajad ja koolijuhid elukestvate õppijatena. OECD rahvusvahelise õpetamise ja õppimise uuringu TALIS 2018 tulemused [Teachers and school leaders as lifelong learners. Results of the international study of teaching and learning TALIS 2018].

Telia Company/Word Childhood Foundation/Ipsos (2020), Children’s Experiences with Digital Learning during Covid-19 Period,

UNESCO (2021), Where do rich countries stand on childcare?

Valitsus/Government of Estonia (2021), The government approved the state budget strategy for 2022–2025,

Annex I: Key indicators sources

Indicator Eurostat online data code
Early leavers from education and training educ_uoe_enra21
Low achieving eighth-graders in digital skills IEA, ICILS.
Low achieving 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science OECD (PISA)
Early leavers from education and training Main data: edat_lfse_14.
Data by country of birth: edat_lfse_02.
Exposure of VET graduates to work based learning Data for the EU-level target is not available. Data collection starts in 2021. Source: EU LFS.
Tertiary educational attainment Main data: edat_lfse_03.
Data by country of birth:edat_lfse_9912.
Participation of adults in learning Data for the EU-level target is not available. Data collection starts in 2022. Source: EU LFS.
Public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP gov_10a_exp
Expenditure on public and private institutions per student educ_uoe_fini04
Upper secondary level attainment edat_lfse_03

Annex II: Structure of the education system

Source: European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2021. The Structure of the European Education Systems 2021/2022: Schematic Diagrams. Eurydice Facts and Figures. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

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1 The strategy’s indicators are developed with the help of an EU-funded project (DG Reform), involving the OECD.

2 Examples of topics covered: communication, coping with tensions, positive psychology in the classroom, mental health.


4 Corresponding to a short-cycle tertiary education degree in the European Qualification Framework (EQF).

5 Corresponding to a PhD.