Vocational training, gap year more crucial as school-leaving age rises

e-dictation participants from across Estonia, Tuesday, March 14, 2023.
e-dictation participants from across Estonia, Tuesday, March 14, 2023. Source: ERR/authors' personal collections.

Following Finland's lead, the Ministry of Education and Research intends to establish a single entry environment for basic school students into both upper secondary education and vocational training, with the intermediate 'gap' year playing an increasingly important role.

The government's plan is to mandate education until the age of 18 or until completion of vocational training. The new system would be implemented beginning next year, i.e., for students entering grade 9 in 2024. To keep young people in the education system until the age of 18, a larger emphasis will be placed on vocational education and training institutions and their willingness to accept more students who have graduated from basic school.

During a debate on the issue in the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu on May 8, Education Minister Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) said that this would not incur any additional expenses because, for instance, there is more capacity to teach in vocational schools than there is currently students. However, according to the minister, the subject of who is accountable for the availability and subsequent management of schooling places must be nevertheless resolved.

"Today, the responsibility for vocational training and general upper-secondary education is divided: we have municipal and state general upper-secondary high schools and vocational schools. When it comes to basic schools, it is evident that the municipality must guarantee a place of study, but it is unclear who must guarantee a place of study for a young person after basic education. We need to clarify this. We also need to clarity who will be responsible for monitoring noncompliance with this new learning requirement," Kallas said.

"We are right now discussing whether the obligation to attend school should remain the municipality's responsibility also in the future. However, the state must devise the means necessary for the municipality to effectively monitor compliance with the learning obligation," she said.

Young people can already take a gap year after graduating from basic school, but under the new system, the gap year will play an even more crucial role.

"At the end of basic education, if a young person is undecided about what to do next, he or she may take a gap year. During this year, they receive some fundamental education while also receiving career counseling and working with case managers and career counselors. After the gap year, they will be able to decide what to do next," Kallas explained.

Minister said that some vocational schools are already offering the so-called gap-year courses, which are very successful. The state is promising to extend the availability of gap-year courses for next year.

Anvar Samost, head of news for ERR, at Kohtla-Järve High School in the framework of the ERR media project. Source: Kohtla-Järve High School

The new system is modeled on a similar educational system in Finland.

At the conclusion of basic school, Kallas explained, Finnish students have between four and five options for their secondary education. Work-based learning or going to work, is an option.

"But this going to work is, so to speak, supported at the same time by such career training that it is not just like going to work would be," Kallas said.

"We are developing these different approaches of lifelong learning. Basic school pupils are very different. You cannot take them all at once, so that they all continue on to general upper-secondary education or vocational training," she said.

Thus, the issue of extending compulsory schooling is closely related to the modification, development and expansion of vocational education and training curricula.

"There is currently only one type of post-secondary curriculum, so if a young person does not want to become a chef or a car mechanic, he or she has no other option [but to progress to general upper-secondary level]," the minister explained. More tailored and relevant solutions may be offered in vocational training institutes, she suggested, needing extensive curriculum restructuring.

Currently, 70 percent of basic school students continue on to upper-secondary school, but there are a significant number of dropouts in the first year, which, according to Kallas, implies that it is not always the best option for everyone. Moreover, the study alternatives available to them at the moment in vocational education are inadequate.

The Ministry of Education and Research will have a completed action plan by the end of the year.

"Ideally, this system should function so that a young person can make an informed decision about what they want to do after basic school by March. Is he or she interested in attending a vocational school, taking a gap year, progressing to general upper-secondary education or enrolling in a workplace-based schooling?" Kallas said that after basic school, the Finnish system has a common enrollment system in which the young person chooses between many forms of education and the state then is informed of the planned progress. The local government can at the same time oversee the adolescent's schooling, whether he or she has met the planned goals by autumn.

Teachers' Day. Source: Teele Tõnisson


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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Kristina Kersa

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