The nascent coalition government in Estonia has announced that it wants to make education in Estonia compulsory, up to the age of 18. Up to now, education in Estonia is mandatory only to the end of basic school (Põhikool) level, which students complete at age 16 in the main.
High school (Gümnaasium) attendance is optional thereafter.
In a country where education is prized, to the extent that Estonia ranks first in the prestigious OECD PISA rankings, while having received only basic education is somewhat stigmatized, the development has additional significance.
Speaking Friday at a press conference after the end of week two of coalition negotiations with Eesti 200 and the Social Democrats (SDE), Reform Party leader and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, said that the change would address the fact that around 2,000 pupils, mostly boys, drop out of Estonia's education system every year, often before reaching the age of 18.
Change could come into effect in 2024
To curb this, secondary education would be compulsory to the age of 18, or alternatively until the acquisition of a vocation, via a vocational school.
The change could come into effect as early as next year, Kallas said.
"We specifically stated that those who enter the 9th grade in 2024; their obligation would not end in 9th grade, but would continue beyond basic school until they turn 18, or until they acquire a profession," Kallas said.
"The point being that we are clear that even nowadays, even a bachelor's degree is sometimes insufficient [to progress], but there are certainly many problems that arise with basic education," she went on.
The prime minister herself has a Masters in Business Administration.
The coalition would additionally boost teachers' wages to 120 percent of the national average, within a four-year period, an issue which was discussed in the context of budgetary topics, at Friday's meeting.
The raising of the school-leaving age would not entail additional expenses for the educational system, since vocational schools are currently not at full capacity.
"We can make use of what is already there. The idea is that at least everyone learns a vocation. This ensures better life management skills later on," she went on.
Eesti 200 chair: Policy worked well in Finland
Eesti 200 leader noted the example of Finland, which, he said, had put in place such a reform, with strong results – not only in terms of young people being better prepared for the workplace, but even on public health, and life expectancy.
A policy which had long been in Reform's cross-hairs, that of transitioning fully to education in Estonian, from kindergarten age, and for all children in all regions, remains on the table.
Some difference of opinion on how this would be achieved was mentioned at Friday's press conference, however; while Eesti 200's Lauri Hussar called for schools to be treated on a case-by-case basis, with a roadmap of achieving this, Kallas said that no separate plan would be needed per se, though schools would certainly receive all the help they needed to make the transition process as smooth as possible.
SDE chair Lauri Läänemets, also appearing at Friday's press conference (see gallery) said that the availability of education locally to the home is important for his party, while his party intend to head off as many school closures as possible, he added.
Forestry and climate policy
Other topics on the table included forestry, climate policy, the environment, biodiversity and national spatial planning processes.
The prime minister said that data on Estonia's forests, which cover around half the country's land surface area (forest which in turn is around half state-owned) would be collected and stored digitally, and the valorization (a Marxist term, in fact-ed.) of forests promoted.
Forests should be carbon sequesters, Kallas added – ie. they should remove CO2 – and their utilization, as one of the drivers of the national economy, should be optimized.
A climate law, as requested by both business and the science community, which would delineate obligations and goals, both for the state and the private sector, will also be adopted, if and when a Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition deal is signed, Kallas added.
A "green ladder" will also be inaugurated. This would help companies understand where they stood in terms of their green credentials.
The use of Estonian timber as a raw material, including even in the construction of public buildings, is a desirable goal, Lauri Hussar added.
SDE leader Lauri Läänemets added that this included also encouraging the used of construction materials which exerted the smallest environmental footprint possible.
Felling volumes, which ended up being a hot topic in the dying days of the incumbent Reform-SDE-Isamaa coalition still have to be agreed upon, while climate change and the apportioning of responsibility on that is also to be the subject of further discussion.
The prime minister also expounded on the importance of moving towards a circular economy, with a "polluter pays" principle, recycling and consumption limits being part and parcel of this.
After a very strong showing at the March 5 Riigikogu election, Reform, with 37 seats, entered talks with Eesti 200, who have 14 seats, their first in the Riigikogu, and SDE, with nine seats the smallest party, but one which Reform is in office with at the moment in any case.
This would give 60 seats at the 101-seat Riigikogu, a solid majority. At the same time, as an all-liberal coalition it is likely to be under fire from day one from the three de facto opposition parties.
The talks will continue next week.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael