Earlier this month, Esperanza Aguirre, president of the Madrid regional government, announced the creation of a special bachillerato (post-compulsory secondary education, for students intending to go to college). Her plan entails putting the highest achievers - with a minimum grade point average of eight in E.S.O. (obligatory high school) and at least seven on the external exam taken by all 14-year-olds in Madrid - in separate schools. According to Aguirre, this model, to be implemented next year for 100 students in a pilot program, will give young people "an education which aspires, like they do, to the highest standard of excellence."
The eventual scope of the measure is unclear. Nor can we be sure what its real impact will be. There are already 19 public schools in Spain, including two in Madrid, that offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate program, only open to students with excellent grades. But it has certainly reopened an old debate. Is it better to separate the best students from the rest of the pack, so they will learn more, or is it better (socially and educationally) to keep them together? This is a particularly important question in Spain, where even if the education system has come a long way in the last 30 years, it still leaves a lot to be desired.
Evaluations, international as well as national, reveal a system where the majority of students have average scores (77.1 percent on the PISA exam, versus the OECD average of 73.6 percent). There are practically just as many students with poor results as those with average ones (19.5 percent versus 18.8 percent), but very few have outstanding scores: 3.4 percent versus 7.6 percent. The problem is that ideas for improving this situation usually mean very different things, depending on who is proposing them.
The Madrid regional government's stance seems to be that the wheat must be separated from the chaff. Aguirre made this clear last month when she said that she thinks it is "absurd" to continue with a system "that keeps together, until the age of 16, kids who are capable of doing infinitesimal calculus with others who can't handle fractions." For many, the new "excellence bachillerato" is along these same lines, even if it only affects post-obligatory education.
The secretary of state for education, Mario Bedera, has rejected a measure that he calls electioneering and "segregationist". Education Minister Ángel Gabilondo toned that message down, adding that the school system must meet the needs of the highest achievers without "isolating and separating them, including everyone in the same space," according to the news agency Efe.
But that stance isn't really monolithic either, nor does it necessarily mean that all students must do the same thing all the time. In fact, some left-wing sectors have criticized some of the measures implemented in the past year by the Socialist education ministry - calling them segregationist - such as moving up the possibility of entering alternative study programs (with easier contents, fewer classes and teachers) and pre-vocational qualification programs (PCPI) to the age of 15. What's more, it has made the fourth year of mandatory secondary school "orientational", with a core group of subjects that all students must take and others either geared towards post-obligatory secondary school or vocational training (FP).
"Most countries in the OECD prefer to address the educational needs of the brightest students with specific programs within the same schools, without the need to segregate. There is no reason why these enrichment programs can't fit into the regular school schedule or outside of it," according to Juan Manuel Moreno, a senior education specialist from the World Bank's Education Network. This year, both the Education Ministry and various regional governments are introducing programs (already in place in Ceuta and Melilla) with extra classes for the brightest students in both elementary and secondary school. In the ministry's action plan for this year, the magic word - "excellence" - is repeated almost 50 times. In fact, the second of its 12 objectives is equity and excellence.
In the last decade, the results of Spanish students (according to PISA), which many feel are mediocre, have barely improved. When it comes to education, progress is usually slow, and it also depends on social and economic factors. But people get impatient when their children's education is at stake. They want the best, and they want it now. That makes it hard to do the right thing from a social point of view, which is why spectacular measures like the one being proposed by the Madrid government are so popular, says Rafael Feito, a professor of sociology at Madrid's Complutense University.
But the latest PISA report, published last December, says, "The goals of improving the highest results and fighting to reduce the lowest ones should not exclude anyone. Countries with the highest scores in reading, including Finland, Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai, in China, are also among the countries that have the least variation in student performance." In other words, improving the performance of the best students brings up the level of the lowest achievers.
One of the reasons to not totally separate students according to their grades, either within the same high school or in different centers, is to avoid creating ghettos that end up affecting the entire system. It also leaves students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds with less of a chance of accessing these advanced programs. Germany (number 20 out of the 65 countries and regions that use the PISA literacy assessment) is one of the models that Madrid is considering for its program. There, where students are separated by their grades at the age of 10 or 11, the impact of the socio-economic and cultural status on performance is one of the highest in the OECD.
Finland, which ranks third highest on PISA exam averages, is one of the countries where the cultural and socio-economic impact is the lowest (it is even lower in Spain). This Nordic country is also the paradigm in comprehensive education; all students are kept together until the age of 16. In primary school (ages 7 to 12), the key is to address the needs of each student (27 percent of all pupils get extra support). In secondary school (ages 13 to 15), students have ample choices within the mandatory and elective curriculum and the center has a lot of leeway regarding how different courses are taught and at what grade.
When students get to post-mandatory secondary school, however, grades do start to count. There is only one process to choose a high school or vocational center - students must list five choices. If a school has more demand than supply, only those with the best grades in mandatory high school get in. This is not exactly what Aguirre is planning to do in Madrid; in Finland, it is much more watered-down and it depends on the prestige of the centers and student interest. In fact, it is much more like what is already occurring in some regions, where the grade point average is used to break a tie between two students who want to get into the same high school, when they have the same number of points for proximity, income, etc., or if there is a lot of demand for a vocational training program.
At any rate, the president of Madrid's Board of Education and the former secretary general of education during the Popular Party government, Francisco López Rupérez, points out that Aguirre's proposal only applies to post-compulsory education. He also says that the initiative is about symbolically restoring the image of excellence to public schools. The main model for this scheme, he says, are the 95 lycées of excellence in France, which only admit students with the best grades. "It's a question of meritocracy, not segregation. In France, both the left and the right accept it as one of the Republican principles," he says. One thing is clear: France (number 22 on the PISA ranking) has the greatest variation in performance on the PISA exams due to the socio-economic status of its students.
According to the president of the high school principals' association FEDADI, José Antonio Martínez, it is impossible to improve quality once students reach high school; measures must be taken earlier, especially in primary school. Neither he nor many other experts approve of segregating students, even in post-compulsory high school. "It's perfectly legitimate to make an effort to educate the elite, especially if it is based on academic meritocracy. That's what universities, above all, are for. But totally segregating the brightest students at that age, by putting them in a special school, is problematic and potentially detrimental to the quality, efficiency and equality of the entire system," says Juan Manuel Moreno.
"It's hard to imagine why we can give students who stand out for their athletic or artistic skills separate training to hone these abilities, but not those who stand out for their academic or intellectual capacity," says Complutense University sociologist Mariano Fernández Enguita. Yet he adds: "This formula should be an exception, not the rule of a generalized strategy of stratifying students according to their intellectual capacity or academic achievement. We can give exceptional treatment to exceptional students, as long as high schools continue to include all kinds of students. Otherwise, it would destroy the role of the school as a place where kids learn to live with others and social cohesion is promoted."
Apart from the French and German models, the region of Madrid is also looking to Grammar Schools in the United Kingdom (which accept 25 percent of the students with the best scores on an assessment exam taken at the age of 11) as well as magnet schools in the United States, which only accept 10 to 20 percent of applicants.
These programs are completely logical in countries where the idea is widespread that making schools compete against each other is a good way to improve the system. The average scores in both countries are higher than Spain's on the PISA exam, as is the percentage of outstanding students (9.9 percent in the United States, eight percent in the United Kingdom), but the percentage of students with poor scores is almost the same in Spain (around 18 percent in the two Anglo-Saxon countries, versus 19.5 percent in Spain). But there are countries that have even managed to do better than that, with a more equitable system. The question is what model Spain wants to follow on its path to improvement.
They insulted him, they stabbed him with automatic pencils, they stole from him, they chased him around the schoolyard during recess and if he stopped running, they'd surround him and beat him in a corner; they wouldn't let the other kids play with him, they told him they were going to kill him... This was the living hell a child went through not on the street, but at his school, between the ages of seven and 10.
At first his parents - who prefer not to reveal the minor's identity - thought that they were isolated incidents, but when he asked them what it meant to "leave someone in a coma", because this is what the other kids said they were going to do to him, they realized that the situation was serious. They went in to the school - Amor de Dios, a private, state-subsidized religious center in Alcorcón - several times, and met with teachers, the principal and the school psychologist, to no avail: no one managed to protect their child from this torment.
The school refused to fine the bullies or put them in another class, as the parents asked, instead brushing them off and accusing them of making it up, saying that such incidents were common in primary school and they didn't have any proof of it anyway.
After they sent a certified fax to the vicariate of the congregation and the bullying didn't stop, the boy's parents turned to the education inspectors and the municipal victim assistance center. Finally, the Board of Education decided "urgently, and halfway through the course" to transfer him to another school, in February 2010. But the parents wanted the school to admit "that they weren't crazy and that their son wasn't lying." And so, in July 2010, they sued the school. According to the family's lawyer, Pedro González, they weren't interested in "an economic compensation, but a moral one" to disprove the "school's accusations that they were only looking to make money."
Now a Madrid court has ruled in their favor, sentencing the Hermanas del Amor de Dios congregation, to which the school belongs, to pay the boy 40,000 eurosin damages for its passivity after the parents had complained, and for not having taken any measures to protect him. The judge found that there was solid evidence that he was bullied by a group of classmates "constantly, collectively, and repeatedly over time," while the school "absolutely neglected its duties, leaving the child unprotected."
This is the largest sum a Spanish school has ever been made to pay in damages for a case of bullying. In 2009, a provincial court of Madrid sentenced the Swiss School of Alcobendas to pay 30,000 euros, and before that, the parents of the seven kids who bullied Jokin, the 14-year-old Basque boy who committed suicide, were sentenced to pay 10,000 euros each to his family, but the school was absolved.
As the sentence reflects, the parents could have sued the school for up to 120,000 euros, but they only asked for one-third of that amount. According to their attorney, the interesting thing about the case is that the judge allowed as evidence recordings made by the mother during meetings with the school, which were not challenged or refuted by the defendant except in their damage assessment. These recordings show "beyond a shadow of a doubt", according to the sentence, "constant harassment of the minor" recognized by the principal and the psychologist. Also key was the testimony from a father of one of the accused, a "hero" and an "exemplary man" who accused his son and his accomplices of terrorizing the boy in the schoolyard, and reproached the school for having had to find out about it from the victim's mother, thanks to which he was able to correct his son's behavior.
The inspector also took the stand. He testified that he did not have access to all the school's reports, but that he saw signs of an at-risk situation, which is why "he transferred the boy overnight," according to Pedro González. The sentence, however, is not final and the school has already filed an appeal, according to José Luis García Olaskoaga, from the organization that runs the 23 schools the congregation has in Spain, because it thinks "there has been no failure to act", that "no incidence of bullying" was detected and that the ruling "is based on testimonies that do not reflect reality."
According to the school, it did not become aware of the situation until December 2010. At that time it considered taking disciplinary action, although they never saw "anything out of the ordinary; the accused denied it and without any objective proof," there was nothing they could do about it. Amor de Dios has an internal code that includes up to eight sanctions for such cases, such as putting the bully in another class or expelling him, but none were applied, except for a punishment of two weeks without recess after a theft, which was lifted after just four days.
According to Iñaki Piñuel, the psychologist specialized in school violence who diagnosed the boy, whose expert report has been taken into consideration by the court, he has a serious case of "chronic post-traumatic stress", and "extreme psychological damage" caused by "a serious threat to the life or physical or psychological safety," which could affect him his entire life if not treated. If treated, he will recover in one or two years. For the boy, having to change schools - with the downside that the bullies win, the institution goes unscathed and the sense of defenselessness is reinforced in the victim - has had a healing effect. Now, he is assessed as "very intelligent and outgoing", and recovering from this "invisible injury" that caused irritability, nervousness, fear and the sense of being in constant danger, lack of concentration and short-term memory loss, as well as psychosomatic symptoms such as loss of appetite, headaches and insomnia. Every day he's closer and closer to "getting his smile back."