National Curricula for Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools 2011
In January 2011, the Government of the Republic approved the updated national curricula for basic schools and upper secondary schools. The document actually consists of two separate documents – the National Curriculum for Upper Secondary Schools and the National Curriculum for Basic Schools.
The main changes in the general parts of the curricula were based on the understanding that the goals and objectives of the current curriculum are still worth striving for. The updated curricula do not overturn the current organisation of school education. The changes are related to the viability of the objectives and are aimed at ensuring that good ideas are actually put into practice. In order to achieve this, the achievement of general objectives and competences and subject integration have been consciously taken into account in the preparation of subject syllabuses, subject volumes have been reduced, study results have been expressed more clearly, and the freedom of choice of upper secondary school pupils has been increased.
The curricula stress issues that are related to the study environment. Compared to earlier versions, the updated documents are oriented towards learning rather than teaching. This trend is supported by the principles according to which the school is responsible for organising learning in a way that protects the pupils’ health and well-being and ensures that their study load corresponds to their resources, developing a helpful and trusting environment in the school, and using teaching methods that take into account and are appropriate for the pupils’ individual traits. The curricula go into more detail on the subject of the physical learning environment and study processes, describing the provision of education and the requirements necessary for ensuring the provision of education.
In order to reduce the excessive focus on grades found in the evaluation process, the curricula underline objectives that are intended to support the pupils, including the provision of feedback, motivation and guidance to pupils. The role of grades has been retained as input that supports and shape pupils and as indicators, the basis of which facilitates the moving of pupils from one class to the next. The often formal grades for behaviour and diligence, which were so far required by the state, have been abandoned in order to make it possible for the schools to engage more meaningfully in handling important issues like the pupils’ behaviour and diligence.
Unlike the current curriculum, the updated curricula address the issue of graduation. There are no significant changes in this regard in terms of basic schools. After lengthy discussions, it has been decided that state examinations covering Estonian, one foreign language and mathematics will be compulsory for pupils graduating from upper secondary schools. There is the added option of receiving an upper secondary school leaving certificate based on an examination held by the school if the pupil fails the state examination. Three specific examinations based on mandatory courses allow for the upper secondary schools to become less focused on state examinations. The curriculum also provides requirements for final examinations and research projects or practical projects.
In upper secondary schools, the volume of study common to all pupils was reduced from 72 courses to 63 courses. The curriculum introduced conditions for offering different fields of study and choices to pupils. In basic schools, the distribution of lessons will generally remain the same, although one human studies lesson was moved from the first stage of study to the third. However, the schools gained the option of changing the names and volumes of subjects, while being obligated to ensure equal opportunities for the achievement of study results.
Compared to the upper secondary schools, the function of providing the pupils with disciplined education is more important in basic schools. Basic schools guarantee that all pupils are at the level of cognitive, moral and social development appropriate for their age and acquire a well-rounded world view. It is the task of basic schools to provide the pupils with a complete set of resources for coping in life. The main goal of the education provided in upper secondary schools is to ensure that the pupils find a field of activity that corresponds to their interests and abilities and can be studied during the following stages of education.
These differences are also reflected in the emphases in the learning environments and the organisation of learning. Basic schools must provide a safe environment for the development of all pupils, while upper secondary schools focus on choices that allow the pupils to continue their education in institutions of higher education or post-upper secondary school professional education.
The most important task in working with curricula is reviewing the volume and complexity of learning content in order to ensure that the material being taught in classrooms is appropriate for the pupils’ age and skill level. Taking into account the specifics of the subjects, working groups engaged in the preparation of the curricula made changes of various magnitude and depth. The study of subjects was brought closer to the pupils and was adjusted to their interests and daily life by, for example, emphasising composition in the case of native language learning, research-based learning in the case of natural sciences, coping in particular language situations in the case of foreign languages, practical issues in the case of social studies, making music in the case of music classes, etc.
Topics were moved from the basic school curriculum to the upper secondary school curriculum, for example in the case of mathematics and natural sciences. The depth and excessive interpretation of topics was limited, especially in the case of natural sciences, but also mathematics. In the case of foreign languages, the descriptions of the levels of language proficiency were made more specific in order to allow for the pupils’ skill levels to be assessed in terms of various component skills.
In order to establish better links between closely related subjects, the latter have been categorised by subject domain, which makes it easier to focus on their common aims. Connections between subjects have also been established with regard to the general parts of the subjects, their central themes, and other subject domains. The lack of integration between subjects and the scarcity of connections between individual subjects and the general part of the curriculum have been shortcomings that the current curriculum has been criticised for.
The work related to the implementation of the curricula will continue after the adoption of the curricula through the preparation of subject textbooks and other reference materials, information activities, training and the publishing of study books. The initial deadlines for schools have been set for the 2011/2012 academic year, when the 1st, 4th and 7th year students of basic schools will start studying according to the updated curriculum. The deadline for the full implementation of the curriculum is set for the 2013/2014 academic year.
The preparation of the curricula was preceded by the preparation and approval of the corresponding terms of reference by the Council of the National Curriculum for Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools. A council of experts was convened for the purpose of making substantive decisions with regard to the curriculum. The members of the council of experts include education theorists, officials of the Ministry of Education and Research and the National Examinations and Qualifications Centre. Issues related to the development of curricula have also been regularly discussed with the representatives of various interest groups (mainly the Estonian Association of Parents, the Estonian Association of Teachers, the Estonian School Heads Association, the Estonian School Student Councils' Union). Preparation of the curricula was coordinated by the Curriculum Division of the General Education Department of the Ministry of Education and Research. The draft curricula were prepared by the subject working groups formed at the National Examinations and Qualifications Centre and the University of Tartu, which comprised the corresponding specialists (including the representatives of institutions of higher education and the teachers of general education schools).