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School leadership in Estonia: Autonomy in focus

8 December 2023
by Eva Toome

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What’s it like to run a school in Estonia, where autonomy is a key feature of education? “We have lots of freedom, sure, but it’s more about what you do with it,” says Mari Roostik, Principal of Jaan Poska Gymnasium.

As a school principal in Estonia, she acts as a top executive, guiding her school towards well-defined goals. The primary goal is to foster smart, healthy, and happy children, preparing them for life’s challenges. She enjoys the freedom to shape her team and the flexibility to develop a unique curriculum, establishing the school’s specific focus.

Balancing freedom and regulations

Freedom has its limits when it comes to the national curriculum and teachers’ minimum salaries, Mari Roostik points out. Budget considerations also play a significant role. In Estonia, schools, including private ones, receive state funding based on student numbers. This funding covers staff salaries, textbooks, school lunches, and teacher training, leaving the school principal with autonomy over the remaining funds.

How to become a school leader?

To become a school leader, you can take Master’s degree programs in educational innovation at universities; the state also offers different programs. And private companies play a role, too. For instance, the school principal internship program enables educators to acquire practical experience in private companies. “I had the chance to gain crucial leadership skills at Veriff, an Estonian tech company. This experience transformed me into being a true believer in the power of making data-driven decisions in education.”

Fostering teacher development

“As a leader, it’s also my responsibility to ensure that our teachers are healthy and happy,” says Mari Roostik. “I trust every teacher, and I don’t need to supervise their classroom activities; this is my team!” But she also places a strong focus on teacher training. Each teacher in the school has a professional development plan. “Just like in a good company, I hold development discussions with teachers to understand how they are doing, their goals, and progress.”

“Of course, a school principal’s role extends beyond the school walls. We also define and enhance the school’s role in the community, collaborating closely not only with parents but also with other educational institutions,” Roostik adds.

So, this is the role of a school principal in Estonia: autonomy on one hand, and responsibility on the other. It’s a balance.

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