circular estonia

innovation in education and governance

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A school I’m working with…

Just a short post about a school I am working with. It’s one of the new state grammar schools being created as part of a reform programme. By 2020 half of all the grammar schools in Estonia should be directly run by the Ministry of Education to ensure a certain quality level. It is also in an effort to organise the school system. This particular school got in touch with us and wanted to become a “pilot school” to test and develop the new approaches to teaching, learning and creating a school culture fit for the 21st Century according to the new educational strategy. They were keen to have the university’s involvement.

They opened their doors for the first time in September 2015 but the university started working with them already in February 2015. Back then the school was writing their curriculum (a basic document all schools are required to have) and trying engage with prospective teachers in the curriculum development efforts – we had a workshop together and meetings in smaller teams to brainstorm what the school should be like. We looked at different curriculums from other schools and activities that the school could implement. I ended up coordinating the university’s team of researchers, a team of mentors working with teachers (helping with professional development), and now a team of university students who are going to develop a course to teach learning skills – everyone is doing this on top of their daily work or studies but we are all excited to have the opportunity to learn and create together!

Some key observations about this school (bearing in mind this is based on just a few encounters):

  • It has a very enthusiastic and highly committed leadership team!
  • Everything starts with a vision and a set of core values – the whole team has to buy into these & that’s why I love how the school has made it a priority to engage everyone and to communicate the vision and values constantly. I can also see how important the preparatory team building was: the time we spent discussing the learner profile, values and the vision!
  • The school has about 50% native Russian and 50% native Estonian speakers. There are both challenges and opportunities this brings to teaching as well as social cohesion.
  • The school is very outward-looking and hoping to engage with local community and businesses; some of their focus areas entrepreneurship, design and East-West cultural and economic ties.
  • It tries to implement a more ‘university-style’ system with more freedom and autonomy given to students than in a regular grammar school, classes are 75 minutes long, many courses are taught in concentration/ more intensively over a shorter period of time, rather than every subject being spread across 3 years; teachers are encouraged to integrate their subjects and work collaboratively and creatively, to think critically about what and why they are teaching, the learner is at the centre of every activity etc.
  • I love their interest-based tutor group system – I see this as a space where the real learning and socialisation takes place.
  • It seems that the ideas the leadership tries to implement and the wider context of the school development bring along some very unique challenges which we will properly reflect on at a later date as it just requires time to see  what works or doesn’t work, and why.

In August the school organised a camp that was open to all new students. I haven’t heard of many other schools doing this! It was a lot of fun and a great way for everyone to get to know one another in a non-formal, non-academic setting, although there was some ‘academics’ involved when the teachers introduced their subject at a fair-type event one day… Their task was to “sell” their classes to students by making them as interesting and engaging as possible. The maths teacher managed to engage students for more than a few hours after the event had finished!

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One of the interest-based tutor group meetings. I visited two groups and loved hearing and seeing what was going on. The tutor groups provide a really unique way of relating between students and teachers – it is a space for reflection, feedback, new ideas, organising events and just being you… The ‘interest’ in a certain subject or topic is what unites the students, not age, what courses they take or anything else.

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T-shirts with a school slogan – Future’s Architect. An example of how you can communicate the school’s vision and values. I heard the teachers and school leaders referring to the common values and school’s vision on a number of times when communicating with students and solving any ‘behavioural’ issues.

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The Enterprising School Strategy in Estonia

What is Estonia doing to promote entrepreneurship through education?

I was recently introduced to a project called the Enterprising School. It seems it is (or has been) a collaborative project between Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Sweden. However, it is unlcear as to whether it is still ongoing as the Swedish site claims the programme has finished, and there is not much activity on the website. I am definitely interested in finding out more.

You can find more information here

As far as I know one of the main promoters of enterprise education in Estonia is the Junior Achievement Foundation, which is actually a global organisation promoting enterprise skills, workforce readiness, and financial literacy among young people. You can read about their global reach more by following this link  As I understand it, in Estonia the students are introduced to the opportunity mainly by their economics teachers (if the school has this subject as an elective), the students then are given the opportunity (so it is not compulsory) to create and register their enterprises, participate in competitions and “fairs” where they have a chance to showcase their work – a popular event the media likes to talk about.

I remember some of my classmates setting up a student enterprise (õpilasfirma) as part of our semester-long economics class (I don’t think I understood the programme at the time.) Business and economics seemed really daunting to me, something boring and something I never connected with opportunity to do what I love. I have a completely different view of enterprise now and I think there are real opportunities to expand and improve the “enterprise education” in Estonia. But on the other hand, I have been away for a while and not connected to schools, so maybe there is more happening? Perhaps there are great initiatives which I don’t know about?

I suppose teaching children to code (which I never did), taking them to various subject-specific competitions or providing overall a great education/knowledge based is one very important component of being able to be a successful entrepreneur in the future.

Sidenote: Since living in England I have become more familiar with some programmes here. An example of a collaborative project to support enterprise and employment in Bradford, UK, is the E3 Bradford. It would be interesting to compare the approaches of the 2 organisations – JA and E3 – but I will do this another time.

Coming back to the subject of the enterprising school strategy in Estonia, there is really just one other strategic source I could think of for any information and insight on the matter, and that is the Eesti Koostöö Kogu (EKK). The EKK has for several years now facilitated the debate around and drafting the Estonian Life Long Learning Strategy. This is perhaps the most comprehensive and wide-reaching strategic document concerning the future of education in Estonia.

I quote the introductory paragraph: “Developing life-long learning is one of the main political and social challenges of Estonia, which would support the rise in quality of life and the development of the economy. Estonia has a small population but has set high goals in terms of quality of life and good economy. Therefore it is necessary for the citizens to be entrepreneurial and have modern knowledge and skills. It is also essential to create access to learning possibilities both in the formal and informal education systems. The main goal of the education system is to help people socialize, find an area of work which corresponds to their interests and abilities, and prepare them for their roles in work, public life and family.” (Source:, emphasis added)

I am glad to read that they have emphasised the importance of developing a coherent strategy that takes into account the the whole context of learning, beyond formal education. But what does that mean in practice? And what does it mean in terms of enterprise education?

The proposal of the strategy emphasises the importance of knowledge and innovation-based economy, that has been mentioned in various other strategies in the past, including the Säästev Eesti 21. I am also glad mention is made of connections to regional development and sustainability, referring again to Säästev Eesti 21, but I would need to come back to this very important aspect and how it might relate to enterprise another time. One of the key things I am picking up from the report at the moment is this (in Estonian this time ):

“Vaatamata mitmetele varasematele katsetustele (Õpi-Eesti jõudis Riigikogu suurde saali 2001. aastal) pole aga siiani suudetud kokku leppida strateegias, mis määratleks Eesti hariduse arengu kõige tähtsamad, valdkonnaülesed (haridusastmete ja –liikide ülesed) prioriteedid ja hõlmaks kogu elukestva õppe süsteemi tervikuna, kirjeldaks kitsaskohti, mis takistavad saavutamast kõige olulisemaid eesmärke ja selgitaks, kuidas vastata väljakutsetele, mis meie ees lähiajal seisavad. Strateegia koostamine on vajalik haridusvaldkonna sidustatud juhtimiseks ning 2014 – 2020. a EL tõukefondide otstarbekaks planeerimiseks ja kasutamiseks.”

In sum, it says that irrespective of the efforts, a comprehensive strategy has not been agreed. And the problem arising from that is lack of direction to organise any activities.

The opportunity to come up with creative and concrete solutions is there, but agreement on key priorities and understaning of the challenges and linking these with Estonia’s strategic vision and values is so important – something the government and civil society both need to take ownership and responsibility for. Having said that, I think we desperately need to talk about our vision and values and an enterprising mindset should be one of these.