Secondary education

The role of the upper secondary school is to create conditions for the students to obtain the knowledge, skills and values necessary for continuation of studies in higher education or vocational institutions.

Secondary education

Secondary education is based on basic education and divided into general secondary education, provided by upper secondary schools, and vocational secondary education, provided by vocational educational institutions. General secondary education constitutes a set of knowledge, skills and competences, set out in the national curriculum for upper secondary schools, the acquiring of which is the precondition for further studies at universities and vocational educational institutions. Upper secondary education is not mandatory.


Upper secondary schools

The upper secondary school is a general education school, which follows on from basic school and has a nominal study period of three years. Upper secondary schools consisting of years 1to 12 (i.e. the study period lasts 12 years) have historically prevailed in Estonia. There are few upper secondary schools specialising solely in the provision of upper secondary education (i.e. years 10 to 12). As of 2010, the Government is actively promoting national upper secondary schools that provide exclusively upper secondary education. Everyday learning is based on school curricula prepared based on the national curriculum for upper secondary schools.


Enrolment in upper secondary schools

The prerequisite for entering upper secondary education is the completion of basic education. The Minister of Education and Research establishes general requirements for entering upper secondary education. The owner of a school or the head of school authorised by the owner of a school will establish the conditions of and procedure for admission to the school. Admission requirements and procedures are published on the school’s website.


Changing upper secondary schools

A student can transfer from one upper secondary school to another if the receiving school has vacancies available and the student meets the admission criteria. Student who have interrupted their studies at an upper secondary school have the right to continue their studies in a vocational educational institution. The courses completed before the transfer will be acknowledged. A student can also continue their studies in a part-time study format in an upper secondary school for adults.


Upper secondary schools for adults

Upper secondary schools for adults provide an opportunity to acquire upper secondary education for all adults, primarily in a part-time study format. Part-time study places more emphasis on independent work and the number of optional courses provided for in the national curriculum for upper secondary schools is smaller; students choose to study only certain subjects, there are no physical education classes and persons who have acquired vocational secondary education may select the courses which are required for state exams or for admission to higher education institutions.

Upper secondary education can also be completed by external studies, i.e. by studying independently and sitting the state exams. Upper secondary schools for adults admit persons who have completed basic education and are at least 17 years old.

Approximately 1/6 of all upper secondary students study in secondary schools for adults. These are mainly persons who work or have interrupted their studies in mainstream upper secondary schools. In the academic year 2013/2014, there were 202 mainstream upper secondary schools and 16 part-time upper secondary schools for adults in Estonia.


The national curriculum for upper secondary schools sets out compulsory subjects and optional courses and their volumes. The school curricula are based on the national curriculum. The subjects and academic study hours are set by the schools based on school-specific priorities. The minimum mandatory study load is 96 courses in upper secondary schools, spread across three academic years, and 72 courses in part-time secondary educational institutions. The national curriculum sets out subject syllabuses by courses. A course is defined as a 35-hour (@ 45 minutes) study cycle. The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, adopted in 2010, provides that schools have the right to use the curricula of the International Baccalaureate Organisation and the Convention Defining the Statute of the European Schools. The IBO curriculum has so far been implemented by four schools. Part-time upper secondary schools and upper secondary schools for students with special educational needs are not required to follow the requirements for volumes of elective courses and subjects stipulated in the national curriculum for upper secondary schools.



Students’ academic performance is assessed on a five-point scale. The law allows schools to use other marking systems internally but when a student leaves school or is transferred from one school to another, the marks must be converted to the universally recognised five-point format. Most alternative marking systems have been modelled on those used by higher educational institutions. Upper secondary schools give marks for individual courses and school levels.



From the academic year 2013/2014 onwards, the procedure for sitting state exams and leaving upper secondary school is changed. More detailed information on final examinations is available at the External Evaluation, State Examinations. Full-time and part-time students who have fulfilled the criteria for completing upper secondary education are given school leaving certificates. The results of state examinations and the relevant certificates are made available in an electronic format. The data on state examination and school leaving certificates are entered in the national education information system (EHIS), the sub-register of documents certifying education. A state examination certificate is valid only together with a school leaving certificate. A school leaving certificate is valid as a document certifying education even if not accompanied by a results report card and state examination certificate.

From the academic year 2013/2014 onwards, school leaving certificates are issued based on a decision by the teachers’ council to students:

  • whose school level marks are at least ‘satisfactory’ or, in the case of elective courses, ‘satisfactory’ or ‘pass’;
  • who have completed mandatory courses and received at least ‘satisfactory’ for state examinations in Estonian or Estonian as a second language, mathematics and a foreign language (English, French, Russian or German);
  • who have received at least ‘satisfactory’ for the upper secondary school leaving examination;
  • who have completed a student research project or practical assignment during the course of upper secondary school studies (not applicable to part-time students);
  • students with special educational needs whose mandatory minimum academic results have been lowered or replaced by the school curriculum or an individual curriculum, established on the recommendation by the counselling commission, will qualify for leaving school upon achieving the results required by the school curriculum or the individual curriculum.

Duration of the academic year

According to the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act, an academic year runs from 1 September in one year to 31 August in the following year. Each academic year consists of four terms, half-terms and summer holidays. The terms last at least a total of 175 days (i.e. 35 weeks) or, in the final year, 185 days (37 weeks). While there are no classes on the days of school leaving examinations and two days prior to each examination, these days are included in study days. The start and end dates of half-terms and summer holidays as well as the dates of basic and upper secondary school leaving examinations are established by the Minister of Education and Research separately for each academic year.


State upper secondary schools

Estonia has a total of seven state upper secondary schools that belong in the area of administration of the Ministry of Education and Research.

For the purpose of providing general secondary education in high quality and ensuring a more efficient school network, the Ministry of Education and Research has initiated the establishment of state upper secondary schools where studies are pursued in grades 10-12 in regional centres.

The first so-called regional upper secondary school – the Viljandi Secondary School – started its work on 1 September 2012. A year later the Lääne County Joint Gymnasium started to operate in the town of Haapsalu and Jõgeva County Gymnasium in the town of Jõgeva.

In addition, Nõo Science Gymnasium (specialisation in sciences and nature), Noarootsi Gymnasium (Swedish language and Nordic culture), Tallinn Music High School (grades 1–12, specialisation in music) and Narva Old Town State School (grades 1–12), a language immersion school located in Narva, also operate as state upper secondary schools. These schools admit students from all over the country.

Under the Basic and Upper Secondary Schools Act, each county shall have at least one state upper secondary school by 2020. Cooperation agreements on the establishment of new upper secondary schools have been made with the local authorities of Võru, Jõhvi, Pärnu, Tartu, Põlva and Valga. According to the plan, new state upper secondary schools will start on 1 September 2015 and in Valga and Põlva on 1 September 2016.

Last updated: 12 May 2015