A new Survey of Adult Skills conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 24 countries and regions shows Spain near the bottom of developed economies when it comes to basic skills like reading, counting and problem-solving.
The survey of 16-to-65-year-olds, which mirrors the organization's famous PISA evaluation of high school students, also shows that Spain's younger adults are nevertheless better prepared than their elders: younger respondents performed much better than older ones in the literacy, numeracy and problem-solving questions posed to them.
The overall picture, however, is not a rosy one for Spain, which scored an average of 252 points out of 500 in reading skills (only Italians did worse), 19 points below the average. The math score was 246, or 23 points below average. Additionally, Spain has bigger proportions of people in the lower skill levels (27.5 percent for reading compared with the average 15 percent, and 30 percent for math compared with the average 19 percent) and very few individuals who performed well at the very highest levels of proficiency.
"There is a lot of room for improvement, as other countries show," said the OECD's deputy secretary general, Yves Leterme. Fewer basic skills, he explained, show a correlation with fewer job opportunities and even less quality of life.
"In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and to not participate in associative or volunteer activities," reads one of the key findings of the report.
In Spain, 75 percent of respondents with better scores had a job, compared with 47 percent of those who scored lowest.
It is absolutely impossible to infer any legislative influence from these data"
The secretary of state for education in the conservative Popular Party government, Montserrat Gomendio, noted that the greatest differences in test results are to be found between the 35-to-54 age group and those 55-to-65. Her conclusion was that Spain was doing better under the 1970 education law (LOGSE) than with the 1990 reform, brought in by the Socialist government of Felipe González. "There is evidence to support that LOGSE did not succeed in improving reading and math skills," she said.
Several studies back this idea, including two reports by Antonio Villar and José Antonio Robles Zurita, both professors at the private university Pablo de Olavide. Both studies are part of a book that was commissioned by the Education Ministry from various scholars to analyze the results of the OECD survey.
Yet two other authors in the same book, Julio Carabaña of the public Complutense University and José Saturnino Martínez of La Laguna, reject this theory. Martínez says it is wrong to compare results from a time when only part of the population was in school with another period when the whole population was, from the 1990s onwards. "What one cannot assert, in any case, is that skills did not improve with LOGSE, because the results are better, even if the difference is not as great," he insists.
Carabaña says the ministry's explanation is "complete nonsense." "It is absolutely impossible to infer any legislative influence from these data," he says. The differences, according to him, are explained mostly by respondents' age: "Until the age of 25 your skills improve, until 35 they remain stationary, and after that they deteriorate."
The OECD survey notes that while reading and math skills are acquired during primary and secondary school, these can decline over time if they are not developed and maintained. This is why Leterme insisted on the importance of continuing education programs for adults.
The study also warns that what's important is not so much increasing the number of people with tertiary degrees, as improving the quality of education. For example, Spanish adults with a university degree performed on average no better in literacy than high school graduates from Japan, the Netherlands and Australia; as for numeracy skills, Spanish university graduates had similar proficiency levels as high schoolers from the Netherlands, Japan, Sweden, Austria, Slovakia and Denmark.