Estonia: Pisa's European success story

How a small young nation has become the top performer outside of East Asia in the Pisa global education rankings

Estonia, with a population of just over a million, has been named as the top performing OECD country in reading and science

Today's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results once again show countries in East Asia leading the way as the top performers.

But, while it is thought that approaches being used in places such as Shanghai and Singapore could not be replicated in England due to cultural differences, do the rankings highlight other successes that the West could learn from? 


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One success story a little closer to home is that of Estonia.

The small nation has been revealed as the top-ranked European country across the board today and has even outperformed East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea in reading and science.

Its Pisa score of 523 in reading tests put it in fifth place globally, and the same score in maths means that Estonia is ranked eighth. It is now fourth in the world for science, with a score of 530 points.

Pisa: What can the UK learn from Estonia?

Until now the Baltic country, which gained independence in the early 1990s,  has not been talked up as a high-performing jurisdiction that we could learn from in the quite the same way as more celebrated examples such as Finland.

But this year's Pisa results show sustained success for a country's whose performance has consistently improved since its students first started taking part in the tests in 2006.

Mart Laidmets, the vice-minister of education and research in Estonia, told Tes that he hoped his nation’s success could demonstrate to other small countries what can be achieved with fewer resources.

Today’s Pisa report notes that expenditure on education in Estonia is about 30 per cent lower than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average.

However, it achieved the best results in the OECD in two of the three subjects: reading and science. (The Pisa global rankings include areas not in the OECD).

The report says: “Estonia, which spends around $64,000 (£49,500) per student (compared to an OECD average expenditure of about $89,000), was one of the top-performing OECD countries in reading, mathematics and science in Pisa 2018.

“This shows that, while education needs to be adequately resourced, and is often under-resourced in developing countries, a high level of spending per student is not required to achieve excellence in education.”

The report also notes that Estonia is one of just 15 nations that have constantly improved in both reading and maths since students first sat these tests. 

Mr Laidmets said: “Estonia indeed does not have large amount of resources for education compared to some other countries, but Estonia spends it wisely – for increasing teachers’ salaries, creating learning materials or making our school network more efficient and building newer school buildings that need less resources to maintain.

"Instead of having an inefficient school network or staff salary policy, we must choose specific areas to focus on that may have longer or better benefit for students. I believe that these are the key factors why it could be said that Estonia spends wisely on education." 

He told Tes that having highly qualified teachers who are treated as autonomous professionals, and setting equal expectations for all pupils, were key to his nation's approach to education.

“In Estonia, we really think that all children should be able to achieve. There is a focus on basic skills in reading, writing, maths and the life sciences," he said.

“In big schools in big cities to small schools in more rural areas, it is the same curriculum. And the same standards expected for all of the children.  We do not tend to see big variation in standards between different groups."

This is reflected in the Pisa report,  which notes that Estonia was one of 11 countries where performance was higher than the OECD average, while the relationship between socioeconomic status and reading performance was weaker than the OECD average.

Mr Laidmets added: “The three pillars of the Estonian education system are the national curriculum, the second is the teachers who are highly qualified – holding master's degrees. Teachers here have autonomy. They know the expectations of the national curriculum but there is no school inspectorate or external body which assesses how they approach this.

“And the third important aspect is parents. It is important that parents recognise that education gives people the chance to move forward and to reach their potential.”

Mr Laidmets says that his country also combines education in traditional subjects with a desire to properly prepare pupils for the 21st-century life.

He said: “We were the first country in the world, I think, to make digital skills a general component of the national curriculum in 2014.”

This is a key priority in Estonia, which was the birthplace of Skype, and places a premium on its population being digital.

The Estonian education ministry has set the goal that all schools should be able to provide a general education using only digital learning materials by 2020.

The ministry says that the country's digital transformation can be seen in the fact that twice as many students pursue careers in ICT there than in other OECD countries, on average.

Mathematician Conrad Wolfram has insight into this, having being asked by the Estonian government  to design computer-based maths lessons that were relevant to 21st-century life, as part of a pilot project.

He said: “Estonia has been prepared to be bold. I remember meeting with a minister and he told me that he didn’t want me to look at the existing curriculum. He told me he wanted me to reimagine what the curriculum could be. It is hard to imagine a minister in this country saying that.

“If you had to describe a country's approach – to give it a tagline  – then here in the United Kingdom I would say that fairness is what is important.

"If you think about something getting through Parliament then the argument would be about whether something is fair or not.

“In the United States, what defines them is the idea of freedom.  In Estonia I would say what is important is being smart. I think, as a small country, they recognise how important this is to their success.”

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