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Spanish education reforms…in the wrong direction

Schools’ emphasis on academic study, examination and cramming in the hours is dragging the country’s children back. But a planned overhaul of the system could simply make things worse.


Children arriving at school in Madrid.

Spanish children have more classroom hours than many of their counterparts in other countries. Photo: El Mundo.

Two of the children in my twice-weekly lunchtime English class return at 6pm on the same days for their French lessons. As well as additional language tuition, most of the pupils who attend the academy engage in an array of extra-curricular activities that include music theory, football, handball and even catechism. All on top of a school day that is essentially 9-5.

Amid the recession, English academies are mushrooming all over Spain, many of them doing booming business. I know of at least two cases of friends opening academies only to have to turn people away for lack of space and/or staff.

There are several reasons why Spanish parents may think their children need extra schooling. Nowadays, with employment prospects the way they are, they likely believe they are paying for a better future for their offspring. Increasingly, jobs require knowledge of other languages, leading to an ever-growing demand for English among adults hopeful of a promotion or, let’s face it, simply greater employability.

All this is good news for English teachers. It is also good news, in the short term at least, for Spain’s economy and unemployment figures. Sadly, it could also be an indication that, at the heart of the matter, parents consider their child’s schooling inadequate.

Triennial reports released by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), would suggest Spanish parents are right to worry. PISA assesses a cross-section of 15-year-olds from 65 (economically diverse) countries on how well-prepared they are “to participate in society”. As such, it sets tests that measure not merely academic ability, but how competently teenagers apply their knowledge to real situations.

Successive reports – of which the latest came out in 2012 – suggest Spain is “below” average when it comes to how well the education system is preparing its students for real life.

I should point out that talk of averages, particularly as regards education, can often lead to disproportionate hysteria. The UK inspection agency Ofsted is forever releasing banal statements like “50 percent of schools in England and Wales are below average in Maths”, the irony of which is hardly worth underlining. Yet there are few things more likely to unsettle parents than the possibility their child is under-performing.

Nonetheless, Spain’s continually poor performance in PISA should be cause for concern and there is little doubt that worries about the quality of Spanish schooling have filtered through to parents. But are they right to believe extra-schooling is the solution? Judging by PISA, the answer is a resounding: no.

Quality not quantity

Within Europe, Finland has consistently rated highly in PISA and this year came third overall behind the Shanghai region and Korea. Significantly, Finnish primary school pupils annually spend 608 hours in the classroom, while the same age demographic in Spain clocks up a whopping 875 teaching hours a year… and that’s without counting all the extra-curricular stuff. Yet 15-year-old Finns are – on average – far better prepared to take on the world. So what are they doing differently?

Spanish daily ABC earmarks several reasons why Finnish education is so successful, of which one of the most significant – certainly in comparison with Spain – is the status enjoyed by teachers: “It’s an honour to be a primary school teacher,” says Jari Lavonen, Head of Teachers’ Education at the University of Helsinki. Finnish children begin formal schooling at the age of seven, when they are considered to be at their most receptive, and those put in charge of their education are among the most highly-qualified in the country (along with doctors and lawyers, with whom they enjoy a similar status).

Despite the popularity of teacher studies in Finland, however, not everyone is accepted onto the course. Academically, only those predicted to score 9/10 at baccalaureat are admitted. Compare that with Spain, where studies in primary education are considered an easy option for students who are generally less academic.

Another stark different is that Finnish schools do not forget that, fundamentally, children are children. Spain, a country generally friendly to minors, does not, however, reflect this in its classrooms. As one British parent living in Madrid, generally happy with his son’s education, observes: “It was desks right from the start (age 2)… I just don’t understand the idea of getting so academic at such a young age.”

Even in the UK, a culture currently obsessed with student performance and league tables, the soft ‘carpet’ area forms an essential part of primary education up to Year 6.

The word “competencies” (the application of knowledge to real situations) has been bandied about the Spanish education system for the past five years or so, though relatively little is being done to ensure that teachers are creating competent human beings.

While Finnish education is less academic than its success would suggest, Spanish education, even at primary level, is still heavily didactic. Assessment through frequent examination means pupils often learn to repeat “like parrots” what they have been taught in class (precisely the kind of assessment shunned by PISA). What’s more, exams are seen as a final outcome, rather than a way of assessing a pupil’s overall development. Interestingly in Finland, where 15-year-olds prove significantly more capable than their Spanish counterparts, students do not sit mandatory exams until the age of 17.

Paring down the curriculum

Naturally, any comparisons between Finland and Spain should be treated with caution. Clearly the Nordic country’s academic success is rooted in several interdependent and cultural factors that go beyond the effectiveness of its education system.

However, it remains clear that until Spanish ministers put effective education for all at the centre of their agenda, little can change in terms of Spain’s positioning in PISA. The latest reforms put forward by Education Minister José Ignacio Wert propose paring down the curriculum to core academic subjects and the possible removal altogether of art and music. Meanwhile, even more frequent examination would aim to sort the wheat from the chaff and only those deemed most capable within the system’s’ limited parameters would be considered worthy candidates for further education.

But those who believe that a more elitist system creates greater success should note PISA measures effective education according to how well pupils perform in spite of their wealth or background. Successive reports have shown that economically disadvantaged children from top contenders Shanghai, Korea and Finland achieved some of the highest test scores. Countries with less wealth per capita than the OECD average fare much better in terms of efficacious and inclusive education than the wealthy yet decidedly middling United Kingdom.

So despite cultural differences, Spain cannot cry poverty when explaining its PISA results. The real reasons clearly go much deeper. Sadly, the latest reforms put forward by Wert look set to take the country in precisely the wrong direction.

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Published: Nov 12 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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7 Comments for “Spanish education reforms…in the wrong direction”

  1. I totally agree with this. Great article Olwen, well documented and right on. I have 3 kids that attend a “concertado” school and they get bombarded with useless homework exercises, sometimes up to 3 hours a night and the oldest is 8 years old! Quantity is overwhelming and quality is lacking. It’s the “oposiciones” mentality: just memorize facts and regurgitate them (later to be forgotten). #frustrating

    • I complete agree Joe and thanks for your comment.

      Unfortunately, the labour culture in Spain does nothing to inspire a more dynamic education system since people are still very much valued according to their qualifications or “titles”; the concept of on-going job appraisals has never been heard of… as you say, the oposiciones system is the most extreme example of that.

      Sadly, I sense there is huge reluctance, fear even, about making any real or resounding changes…

  2. How true, sadly, and how well-observed.

    For instance, we, and I include in that group a native English speaker heavily involved in spoken English work with Spanish students of all ages, have always said that the sheer weight of theoretical work undertaken by school kids here is ridiculously disproportionate to the pathetic attempts at practical, conversational work. This is largely because many of the Spanish school teachers responsible for English language lessons do not themselves have any level of proficiency in spoken English (although to be fair they are now seeking extra-curricular input from the same sources as the students, in recognition of that).

    It’s all so typically Spanish. Far too much paperwork and far too little action. Sound familiar?

  3. It seems nothing has changed since I came to live in Spain 12 years ago. Exactly the same criticism’s then.

    And despite the volume and the nature of the work given to kids, a teacher’s job here remains a doddle compared with the UK, and probably elsewhere. Not that the teachers would ever agree, of course. Not even over the extensive coffee break they take each morning.

    • I see your point Colin. Even about the coffee breaks, though I actually found my time here as a teacher in a “concertado” school more stressful than in London precisely because so much time is wasted. Two hours for lunch and playtime and another 2 hours of lessons, for example. Or all those useless meetings and so-called training sessions. Why not have a shorter lunch break and go home earlier, freeing up a teacher’s precious time to prepare?

  4. Thanks, Olwen. I suspect that your colleagues, though, were not as stressed as you, as they lacked your expectations.

    As for the wasted time – as the concept of time is different here, it almost certainly passed your colleagues by that there were major inefficiencies in the horario. They are certainly not trained to look for productivity improvements.

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