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Education, a stagnant pond

Spain needs sustained action to check the known evils in its school system

The OECD says that education is now more important than ever, given the high rate of youth unemployment. The statement would seem to have been designed expressly for Spain. But the data of the 2012 Pisa report, which evaluates knowledge in math (and, this time to a lesser extent, language and sciences), indicates that the results obtained by Spanish students have barely changed in recent years, and are still a little below the average of the 65 countries evaluated. This is a “negative tendency,” according to the report, given that the socioeconomic level of students in this country has increased during this time.

The Spanish case indicates that while expenditure on education has risen by 35 percent since 2003 — though recent cutbacks have diminished this percentage — this has not led to notable improvements such as those achieved by other countries. Recent educational reforms have been particularly successful in Portugal, Germany, Mexico and Brazil, though the two Latin American countries still remain far below Spain and the OECD average.

Spain, however, seems doomed to dwell in mediocrity, and is now losing ground even in an area where it seemed unbeatable: equality of opportunities. This is a worrying regression which needs to be countered. Greater equity, as the above-mentioned countries have demonstrated, is compatible with a general improvement of student performance. This lesser equity is the factor which, for example, in Spain produces such disparate results between one region and another, so much so that several regions, such as Madrid, Navarre, Castilla y León and the Basque Country, achieve results well above the OECD average, while others, such as Extremadura, Murcia, Andalusia and the Balearic Islands, are embarrassingly close to the bottom. These are differences which the multilateral organization blames not on the possible fragmentation of the educational system, but on socioeconomic differences.

The great advantage of the Pisa report, focused this year on an area so essential to a country’s social and economic progress, is that comparisons with the most outstanding countries — the Asian ones, beyond all doubt — suggest an interesting array of recipes for the possible improvement of national systems. In general, Spanish schools have less autonomy; the percentage of immigrant pupils has increased by more than the average; the teachers are poorly motivated; cooperation between teachers is infrequent; there is a high level of student absenteeism; and few external evaluations take place — this last point being one that the government’s recently approved educational reform sets out to modify.

In short, everything indicates that improving the general level requires, not so much overarching laws — much less so when they are passed without inter-party consensus, as has been usual in the last 30 years — as actions sustained in time to check the well-identified evils which prevent our school system from ranking higher up the scale, and giving our young people a better future.

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