The Estonian educational structure is divided into four levels. Preschool education is provided at kindergartens and other childcare institutions. Primary education (grades 1-6), as well as basic education (grades 7-9), is compulsory in Estonia. Secondary education (grades 10-12) may be completed at a gymnasium in general secondary education school or at a secondary vocational school. Students have three options at the higher education level: vocational higher education, diploma level (applied) higher education, or academic higher education.
In Estonia basic education (grades 1-9) is compulsory. A child that is seven years old on October 1 of the current year must attend school and remain in school until the completion of grade 9 or age 17. Children of foreign citizens or stateless people who are residents of Estonia must fulfill the requirement of compulsory school attendance.
The duration of a school year is from the start of study in one calendar year until the start of study in the next calendar year. A school year consists of a period of study, an examination session, and school holidays. The school year starts on September 1. A study period must include no less than 175 days of study. School holidays are determined in an ordinance issued by the Minister of Education.
The official language of instruction is Estonian; however, instruction in a basic school may be in another language. In a municipal school, the local government decides the language of instruction, and in a state school, the Ministry of Education decides. Since Russians are the largest minority group in Estonia, the Russian language is the second most common language of instruction behind Estonian. In the 2000/2001 academic year, Estonia had 566 Estonian schools, 100 Russian schools, 19 Estonian/Russian schools, 2 English schools, and 2 Finnish schools. By the year 2007, the level of competence in the Estonian language must allow students to continue studying all subjects in the tenth grade in Estonian, regardless of the basic school attended.
One week of study includes five days of study. The weekly study load and the number of lessons for students is determined by the curriculum of the school. The length of each lesson is 45 minutes, with a break of not less than 10 minutes. Usually, there is one meal break of 15 minutes. The school director determines the number of lessons and their sequence.
In planning the location of schools throughout the country, government officials keep in mind that basic education is compulsory; however, secondary schools for general education and vocational education must also be available. Primary schools are located as close to the homes of the children as possible. An upper-secondary school must have a large enough student population that will enable the school to provide elective courses in the curriculum and employ a teaching staff with excellent qualifications. The establishment of a school requires that the following number of children of an appropriate age must reside permanently within the district area of the school:
- 30 students to establish a three-grade primary school
- 60 students to establish a six-grade primary school
- 90 students to establish a basic school
- 60 students to establish an upper-secondary school (grades 10-12)
A local government also may establish a municipal school in a district area with a number of children at an appropriate age smaller than the number specified. In this case, the deficit in the salaries must be covered from the local governmental budget.
The network of vocational schools must take into consideration regional needs. At least one vocational school must be located in every county.
The list of children subject to the compulsory attendance law is composed by local authorities according to the children's places of residence. A school is required to ensure study opportunities for each child who resides in the district area of the school. Parents may freely choose a school for a child if there are vacancies in the school they wish their child to attend.
The obligation to attend school may also be fulfilled by studying at home. The procedures for home schooling have been established in an ordinance issued by the Minister of Education.
Local governments must allow children with special needs to attend a local school under the conditions established by the Minister of Education. If suitable conditions are not found, disabled children and children who need special support may attend the nearest school that meets their requirements. The conditions for admission to a private school are established by the school.
Religious education is offered, but it is nonconfessional and attendance is voluntary. The teaching of religious studies is compulsory for a school if at least 15 students in a specific age group desire such a course. The school director approves the curriculum.
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