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The Entrepreneurial Estonian: How Estonia’s Education System Creates Unicorns

Estonia produces more unicorns (startups that achieve a value of one billion dollars) per capita than any country in the world. The birthplace of Skype, Bolt, Wise, and other companies, the country is teeming with young entrepreneurs creating the companies of the future. In fact, Estonia has the highest rates of entrepreneurs and business startups in Europe, at six times the European average.

Evi Mustel, President of Mustel Group and Honorary Vice-Consul of Estonia in Vancouver. ( )
Evi Mustel, President of Mustel Group and Honorary Vice-Consul of Estonia in Vancouver. ( )

In addition to a government that has embraced digitalization, one of the key contributors to Estonia’s success is its approach to education. When it re-gained its independence in 1991, Estonia did not try to restore an old legacy system but created a new one with entrepreneurship and digitalization at its heart. Estonia has created an educational system equipped to support a high-tech, high-skilled economy.

PISA (Program for International Student Assessment, run by the OECD) ranks Estonia the highest in Europe, out-ranking the US and Canada in reading, math, and science. It also has the highest ranking in foreign language proficiency. But ironically, Estonia’s spending on education is well below the OECD average. Many countries spend much more on education but have poor results. The how is more important than how much.

The key pillars of the Estonian education system are competition among schools, autonomy of educational professionals, a digitally focused curriculum, and equity or fairness among students.

Competition: Funding for schools is based on the number of students. Results of the performance of schools are public and those that have better results, have more students wanting to attend. In turn these schools receive more funding.

Autonomy: In addition to building this competitive mindset, there is a high level of independence in how funds are spent and how students are taught. Schools are evaluated every three years through online test for students and the authorities only intervene if there is a problem. Twenty years ago, there were more than 70 school inspectors and now there are only nine. Estonia has moved away from controlling schools to supporting them. The outcome is that the education professionals feel empowered. And teachers are respected for their expertise as they are required to have a master’s degree and receive continuous training, including adaptation to technology. In turn, they have even more independence and say in curriculum, something North American educational professionals are continuously struggling for.

Photo of children in an IT class taken by Aivo Kallas for the Ministry of Education and Research
Photo of children in an IT class taken by Aivo Kallas for the Ministry of Education and Research

Curriculum: This pillar is oriented towards business and the digital economy. There is a lot of collaboration between schools and companies. The government invested early to ensure that all schools had access to electronic devices and good internet connections. Instead of dedicated computer science and software design classes as we see in many North American schools, digital skills are woven into all aspects of the curriculum. Students learn robotics from the age of seven and use virtual reality extensively to bring geography, chemistry, history, and language learning to life.

When the pandemic hit, it was easy for schools to move quickly to remote learning because all the lessons were already available online. Even before the pandemic, students did the occasional ‘digital day’ from home. Currently, there is a national library of more that 20,000 educational resources called the ‘e-Schoolbag’ for teachers and students.

Equality: Every student has the same access to resources and the same opportunities. All school fees, food, and books are provided free to all. A students’ socio-economic status has the lowest impact on outcomes in the OECD. Even pre-school is heavily subsidized. Children do not begin school until the age of seven and 94% of children four to seven go to a pre-school with teachers who are highly qualified, as they are required to have a degree. As a result, they are more educators than childcare providers. By the time children start school, they are ready, and well ahead of their peers in other countries. More importantly, they are happier than those in other nations.

To be clear, there are challenges: namely, a shortage of specialized teachers in certain fields and the performance of ethnic Russian students. But Estonia has much to teach other countries in terms of ways to engage educational professionals and students, resulting in immense benefits for not only the well-being of the population, but also the strength of the country's economy.

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