This study of preschool education and childcare in Estonia maps the use, accessibility and flexibility of nursery and childcare service as well as the needs of parents in this regard, and presents a prognosis for childcare needs in Estonia until 2030. The current study is a follow-up study of a similar study carried out in 2015.
The study draws from the data from the Estonian Education Information System (EHIS), social services reporting (s-veeb) and the accounting data from local authorities, county level population prognosis from Statistics Estonia, as well as the results of two surveys carried out with local authorities and parents of preschool children. The parent survey gathered responses about 4,583 children from 3,444 parents of preschool children aged 0–7. The local authority survey was completed by 74 authorities out of 79.
Number of children and prognosis for 2030
The number of children aged 0–7 has dropped in Estonia by 4.2% over the period 2015–2020, totalling at 113,495 on 1 January 2020. Even though the total number of children has decreased, there are local authorities where the number of children has increased by a third.
The number of children aged 0–7 is forecast to decrease by 11.1% between 2020 and 2030, to 100,900 children. All counties, other than Harjumaa, are forecast to experience a decrease. The number of crèche-age children is forecast to decrease faster, which reduces the pressure to create more nursery and childcare service places in the near future for children under the age of 3.
On the assumption that the proportional use of nurseries and the childcare service remains unchanged, the number of nursery and childcare service places available in local authorities in 2020 will be sufficient for childcare in 2030, with the exception of two counties: Harjumaa and Tartumaa. If private providers continue to provide nursery and childcare service at a similar level in 2030 as now, there will be a surplus of places also in Harjumaa and Tartumaa.
There may be sufficient numbers of nursery and childcare service places available in 2030 at county level, but that may differ from region to region. If urban sprawl continues, the rural municipalities and regions bordering with bigger towns may continue to experience a growing number of children at the expense of further reducing numbers in other local authorities and regions
Number of nursery and childcare service providers
Preschool childcare in Estonia is mainly organised through nurseries run by local authorities In total, there were 557 local authority owned nurseries in 2019, which formed 67% of all nursery and childcare service providers. This was followed by private childcare service providers with 192 establishments. There were significantly fewer private nurseries and local authority run childcare service establishments (54 and 25 accordingly).
In regions with higher population density, the number of local authority owned nurseries per 1,000 children is lower. Even though there are more private service providers in higher population density areas, there are 6.2 nurseries or childcare service providers per 1,000 children in central regions, compared to twice as many in peripheral regions (13.9 in partly peripheral and 10.6 in peripheral).
Number of nursery and childcare service users
There were 69,624 preschool-age nursery and childcare service users, which forms 61% of all 0–7-year-olds. In 2015 it was proportionally similar at 62%.
Sources: number of children using nursery and childcare service – data extraction from EHIS on 10.11.2019, consolidated report on the childcare service in 2019 from s-veeb, local authority corrections in the survey; number of children – Table RV0240, Statistics Estonia.
The frequency of use of nursery and childcare service increases with age. According to the parent survey, the services are used by 4% of children under the age of 12 months, 21% of those aged 12 to 24 months, 78% of 2-year-olds and 90% or more of those aged 3 and above.
The largest share (90%) of children using nursery or childcare service use a local authority owned nursery.
Childcare service is used for children under 3 years of age: 4,9% of 2-year-olds and 14% of 2–3-year-olds use the childcare service (according to s-veeb). The use of childcare service is different in Harjumaa and Tartumaa, where 17% and 31% of 2–3-year-olds use childcare service accordingly. Childcare service is specifically used in these counties to alleviate the shortage of places in local authority owned nurseries.
According to the parent survey, 54% of preschool children are looked after by friends, relatives or acquaintances for free.
Around half of the parents (approx. 57% according to the parent survey) would like to change their existing childcare arrangement. The majority of these parents (51%) would like to increase the use of some form of childcare.
Acquisition of preschool education in school or nursery and mandatory nursery
According to the parent survey, 97% of preschool children aged 6–7 attend a nursery or a preschool or both. Just 3% (approx. 422 children) miss out on preschool education taught at nursery or preschool.
The use of nurseries is widespread in Estonia and they have parents’ full support. 86% of parents believe it’s beneficial for a child to start nursery or childcare service from the age of 3 and 89% consider it necessary for a child to acquire preschool education either at nursery or preschool for at least a year before school. The majority of parents, however, do not support the idea of making nursery mandatory.
Waiting for a place in nursery of childcare service
According to the parent survey, the majority of children (approx. 77%) attending nursery or childcare service received a place as soon as the parent applied for it. Approximately 5% of preschool-age children did not attend nursery or childcare service because they could not get a place. The lack of places is a bigger issue for children aged between 18 months and 3 years, 7% of whom did not attend nursery or childcare service because they couldn’t get a place.
According to the local authority survey, there were 2,421 children in 33 local authorities (i.e. 42% of total) who did not get a place in a nursery or in the childcare service in September 2020 after their parent applied for it. The situation has not improved compared to the 2015 study. The local authorities that are short of nursery and childcare service places plan to create additional opportunities in the near future. According to the survey, in the next two years local authorities plan to create 79% of new places in relation to the number of children on the waiting list in the autumn of 2020.
Parents’ spending on nurseries and childcare service
Based on local authority regulations and the survey, in the autumn of 2020 local authorities charged for a standard, non-concessionary nursery place in the local authority of child’s residence a fee of 33 euros on average, plus 32 euros per month on average for meals for a full-time, 5-days-a-week childcare.
One local authority does not charge its parents any nursery fees and in several authorities the fee for meals is partially or fully covered by the local authority. Another most frequent benefit (60 local authorities) that reduces parents’ costs is a concession for a second or third child of the same family. 33 local authorities offer children of large families concessions regardless of whether other children of the family attend the nursery or not. In addition, there are concessionary fees either for meals or place available for disadvantaged families. 44 local authorities (56%) have provided support for parents or private sector service providers to secure sufficient nursery or childcare service.
According to the parent survey, in the autumn of 2020 parents spent on average 70–75 euros per month on a local authority run nursery or childcare service, and two to three times that on private nursery or childcare service. About 20% of parents are very dissatisfied with nursery fees. The higher the fee, the lower the satisfaction level. The average fee for those who are very dissatisfied is 85 euros per month, whereas the fee for those who are very satisfied is 51 euros per month.
According to the data from EHIS, in 2019 Estonia had 7,348 full-time equivalent nursery teachers and, based on the local authority survey of 2020, 3,950 teaching assistants. There are on average 9 children per one full-time equivalent nursery teacher and 16 children per one teaching assistant.
As to support specialists, according to EHIS, there were 283 full-time equivalent speech therapists and 133 special needs teachers. According to the local authority survey, there were many fewer other specialists employed. There are 222 children per one full-time equivalent speech therapist and 471 children per one special needs teacher.
The extra need for support specialists is very high. If we took into account only the local authorities that reported the need for more specialists in the survey, then there is a shortage of 133.2 full-time speech therapists and 95.5 full-time special needs teachers, which forms 47% and 72% of current full-time employees.
Since one nursery would often struggle to offer full-time work load to such a specialist, then effective support service provision would require central coordination and collaboration between nurseries.
Special needs and support measures
In EHIS, special educational needs have been reported for a quarter (25.6%) and support service needs for 27% of nursery children and 21% of nursery children are reported to receive support services.
According to parents, the need for support services is much wider than reported in the register. The parents of 44% of children believe that their child needs services from a speech therapist, 17% of children from a psychologist, 14% from a special needs teacher and 12% from a physiotherapist. In parents’ view, services from speech therapists and psychologists are only provided to half of the children that need them. In addition, half of those receiving these services do not receive a sufficient amount of it.
Based on parents’ views, 42% of children need nursery or childcare service in summer, about 6% need early morning or late evening services and 5% need weekend services.
It is currently not sufficient for those who require more flexible nursery or childcare service hours. Only half of the children that need it have an opportunity to attend nursery or childcare service in summer or early mornings. The late evening or weekend service is unavailable to three-quarters of those who need it.
Local authorities are more likely to offer early morning nursery or childcare service opportunities than late evening ones. At least one nursery in 14 local authorities is open in the morning before 7am and at least one nursery in 7 local authorities is open in the evening after 7pm.
Outside space and after-school activities
The nurseries and childcare service establishments of 97% of children have an outside space. Local authority owned nurseries (99%) and childcare service (96%) are slightly more likely to have some outside space than private nurseries (84%) or private childcare service establishments (77%).
After-school activities are available in nurseries and childcare service establishments of 77% of children. Such activities are more frequently offered in nurseries (80%) than in childcare service establishments (approx. 50%).
The majority of parents have a high opinion about their child’s nursery or childcare service. Parents gave on average 4 or more points on a 5-point-scale to every factor describing their nursery or childcare service. The lowest score was given to group sizes, but even then the factor averaged 4 points.
There are slight differences in parent satisfaction by childcare type, region and child’s age. The parents of children in private nurseries and private childcare service are more satisfied with group sizes but less satisfied with the location. After-school activities are less common in childcare service and, thus, parents of nursery children are more satisfied with such activities.
Children’s special needs should be noticed and assessed, and support necessary for specific special needs should be ensured. In order to do that the situation must be improved from different angles.
To policy-makers. To define clearly the type, amount and standard of support services the local authority has to ensure for its preschoolers.
To local authorities. In order to ensure the provision of support services to children at nurseries and childcare service establishments, we recommend to coordinate the activity of support services specialists across all childcare establishments within the local authority or even between different local authorities, incl. if necessary, to create coordination centres for specialists in low density local authorities.
To policy-makers. To train more support specialists at higher education level, offer nursery teachers refresher training that allows them to retrain as support specialists. To improve the professional standard of nursery teachers and teaching assistants in a way that in addition to spotting special needs and seeking help from a specialist, they could also participate in offering support services, thus, taking on some of the support specialist’s work load. This would take some pressure off finding new support specialists.
To support specialists. To develop novel solutions for offering support services (e.g. offer part-teleservices) to support special needs children.
To policy-makers. To unify the preschool education component for children aged between 18 months and 3 years in nursery and childcare service.
To local authorities. To ensure all children on equal grounds a place in a nursery or in childcare service..
To policy-makers. To create a system and a plan that assesses the preschool education opportunities of all children, incl. those who do not attend a nursery or a preschool, and if necessary provides parents with guidelines about teaching children at home or how to seek specialist help.
To local authorities. To ensure childcare opportunities during summer for those who need it and to avoid the possibility of an opposite majority decision.
To local authorities. To create flexible childcare opportunities for parents whose work dictates childcare needs that do not fit usual childcare hours.