School. It’s a short but powerful word, heavy-laden with memories and emotions. For most of us it is a mixed bag of experiences, made up of childhood friends, some inspirational teachers, some less so, the odd victory and the occasional, inevitable humiliation. Perhaps it’s because our own school experiences are etched so strongly in our minds that the theme of education is such a minefield. Or maybe because academic and social success at school are invariably considered the cornerstone of a rich and happy life. A wealth of research into how children learn and thrive has been carried out, yet divisions still run deep. And, while some demand more homework and firmer discipline, others look longingly to the Finnish model of fewer hours and more freedom.
THE SPANISH EDUCATION SYSTEM
- 3-6 years: primer ciclo
- 6-8 years: primer ciclo
- 8-10 years: segundo ciclo
- 10-12 years: tercer ciclo
- 12-14 years: primer ciclo
- 14-16 years: segundo ciclo
- Bachillerato or
- Ciclos formativos de Grado Medio
The education system in Spain is under constant scrutiny. Reduced public funding, frequent policy changes and top-down decision-making have created a state of flux in which children and teachers invariably pay the price, and the statistics on students’ results make for sober reading. With the lack of a shared vision, it is hard to see how progress towards a more successful model can be achieved. Yet, there are signs that despite the obstacles, a growing body of parents, teachers and policy-makers are making their voices heard.
Since its transition to democracy, education in Spain has been highly politicised and the country has seen several systemic overhauls, leading to public concern that along with each new government comes a new educational reform. The latest legislation, the LOMCE (Ley Orgánica para la Mejora de la Calidad Educativa) was passed in 2013 and has proved highly contentious. Proposed by the then Minister of Education, José Ignacio Wert, the law was passed by parliament when the Partido Popular had a parliamentary majority, so, its detractors say, was subject to little discussion or consultation. The aim of the LOMCE is ostensibly to improve education in Spain and reduce academic failure. The reality is that it has been widely rejected by the teaching profession throughout Spain (according to research by the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, around 80 percent of teachers consider the curricular contents and external evaluations to be inadequate). Catalunya has so far refused to implement the law which, among other things, would reduce teaching hours in Catalan and make substantial changes to the curriculum.
Although the LOMCE may not be the answer, it is clear that the education system in Spain is in need of change. The most recent PISA (Programme for International Assessment) results, comparing the test results of 15 year olds in different countries and regions, were published in 2013 and Spain did not fare well. Out of 44 countries included in the study, Spain ranked between 27th and 31st for different subjects. The education secretary at the time, Montserrat Gomendio, declared that what was needed was a “radical change in teaching methodology,” and that Spain needed to move beyond “old-fashioned” models based solely on memorising content.
Michelle Courtright is from the US and her two children, aged nine and 11, go to their local public school in Sant Andreu. Although there is much that she sees as positive about their academic environment, it is this teaching style that most concerns her. “I love that our school has strong music and art programmes, I love that having a garden is a big part of their third grade science curriculum. I am not as impressed with the rigid memorisation techniques used in language, arts and math.” She is also worried that this will be the way of things to come for her children. “As happy as we were with early education, the middle years seem to be quite old-fashioned and I suspect it is going to get worse as they move on to a public institut,” she said.
Isabella Petith is from the UK and is happy with the education her 10-year-old daughter has received so far at her public school in Gràcia, but also sees a big divide between primary and secondary education here. She credits this in part to the parental involvement in primary schools. “The AMPA (Associación de Madres y Padres de Alumnos) is huge here at primary level. Parents are very active. I think this is much less the case in secondary schools.” Courtright agreed that family involvement is key to schools’ day-to-day functioning. “Parental involvement has been crucial to our school. You see how much the system is underfunded and the community must really support the schools in ways I had never expected. Our AMPA has been grant-writing, soliciting scholarships for underprivileged students to participate in swim lessons, and buying air conditioning units for the classrooms.”
Spain currently invests just 4.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in education, significantly less than the EU average of 5.3 percent. Only Germany, Italy and Greece invest less, while the most generous is Denmark which dedicates 7.9 percent of its GDP to education. At the same time, the school population in Spain is increasing (by over 1.4 million between 2010 and 2015) whilst the number of teachers has decreased slightly.
Besides sufficient funding, studies show time and again that the most successful education systems are those that value their teachers. Unfortunately, years of policy changing and little consultation with teachers have left many feeling disenfranchised from the system. Primary school teacher Eva Pegenaute agreed, “Human resources have been reduced a lot in recent years and we work without really being able to achieve everything we think is necessary. This creates anxiety and that makes our job harder. We feel undervalued and that our voices are not listened to by the administration or, at times, by the families.”
A study by Acción Magistral (a joint project by FAD, BBVA and the Comisión Española de Cooperación con la UNESCO) called ‘La Educación en España. Horizonte 2020’ delivered a devastating verdict on public education in Spain and the role of teachers. The study was compiled through interviews with over 200 teachers and education experts. Seventy percent of the interviewees reported feeling demotivated and undervalued, and 80 percent believed that by 2020 the main political parties would still not have reached an agreement—a Pacto de Estado—on the future of education in this country.
Despite its pessimistic view of the future, however, the report also notes that a paradigm shift is taking place. It recognises that ‘the field of education is very much alive’ and that a dedicated minority of educators is actively challenging the traditional system. It states that, ‘group dynamics, collaborative learning and the disappearance of traditional textbooks will be commonplace in less than five years time’, and it welcomes the introduction of more forward-thinking pedagogies.
Empar Navarro is a secondary school teacher in Barcelona. She agreed that change is underway. “In Catalunya, there’s a growing movement towards more progressive methodology in public education,” she said. “In general, secondary school teachers are very aware of the need to innovate and improve public education. In Catalunya, public education has historically been a place for self criticism and constant experimentation.
These schools aim to work with children's natural curiosity and the understanding that emotional security is not only good for a child, but also essential to their ability and desire to learn and engage.
Over the last 10 years or so, a number of public schools have opened in Catalunya that offer a different learning philosophy, often referred to as educación activa or viva. The children work on projects rather than individual subjects, and have autonomy to choose what they focus on. These schools aim to work with children’s natural curiosity and the understanding that emotional security is not only good for a child, but also essential to their ability and desire to learn and engage. The children sit the same exams as their counterparts in other schools, but the acquiring of skills and knowledge is seen as a natural consequence of their environment. To Pegenaute, who has personal experience of both pedagogies as a teacher and a parent, this is the way forward. “They tend to be happier children at school, above all in the higher grades as this is when in ‘normal’ schools they are tired of continually studying and doing homework.” She recognised that for the teachers this type of education is more work, but it brings many benefits. “The pupils’ motivation is a breath of fresh air for the teachers and that in itself has a positive effect on the students themselves.”
In Barcelona there are several ‘active’ public primary schools, including Els Encants, Congrés-Indians, and the newly-opened Univers and Entença. For the 2016-2017 academic year, all these schools were over-subscribed, with hundreds of hopeful parents missing out on a place for their children. For many of these parents and, for some who don’t have the option of such a school in their neighbourhood, change is not happening fast enough. Over 300 families in the city have organised a group called Volem una Escola Activa which demands more active schools. They now form part of www.escolanova21.cat, a platform that promotes research-based advances in public education. Supported by a number of institutions including La Caixa’s education foundation, the Universitat Oberta and the Generalitat, their website lists 26 schools that adhere to the platform’s objective ‘to contribute to every child having access to an education that is relevant and makes sense.’
Carrie Lewis is from the US and her two boys, aged seven and nine, attend Congrés-Indians. She chose the school after experiencing a year of a more rigid primary school which, she felt, had little focus on creativity or the children’s emotional needs. “This went against everything I was reading about how closely children’s intellectual development was stimulated and aided by emotional and affective ties. I wanted to find out what my kids were naturally drawn to and intrigued by. I didn’t want them being judged or told how to feel.” She has found Congrés-Indians to be rewarding and enriching for the whole family, and described it as “a school where the words love and respect are included in the description of the pedagogical approach and are actually lived each day in the classrooms and the sandbox.”
Divisions between classrooms have been pulled down, walls repainted in bright colours, and sofas and beanbags incorporated.
If options are still scarce at primary level, what about secondary education? Navarro explained that the pace of change is slower in secondaries, as the perception of educational needs in higher grades is so different. “Most families associate innovation and experimentation as values that are appropriate for the early stages of education, but they believe that the traditional methods of secondary school, like memorising, repeating and testing are what will help their children in their later studies.” However, she noted that a growing number of parents are now demanding continuity when their children move up from primary schools that offer an active approach.
Navarro also noted that parental support is hugely important for the success of individual projects. She sees that families are aware of the importance of their role and “in the centres where they are more organised and carry more weight, their support of innovative initiatives has enabled these to become consolidated.”
Among the 26 schools listed on the Escola Nova 21 website is secondary school Quatre Cantons in Poblenou. The pupils here work in groups, and classes are kept as small as possible. In an interview with El Periódico in 2015, the director, Xavier Grau, explained that "What we want to do is to maximise creativity, oral expression and teamwork.” The positive effects he sees in the pupils include a strong sense of solidarity and their increased ability to discover their true vocation. “They are more supportive of each other. They help each other a lot, they are more curious, there is more commitment when it comes to learning new things. They learn almost without wanting”.
The trend towards a new kind of education can be seen also in the private sector, where many parents are willing to pay for a less rigid environment for their children. At primary level there are a few recent private projects in and around Barcelona, such as Liberi in Premià de Mar and Espai Obert La Serra in Sant Pere de Ribes. These go beyond ‘active education’ and offer educación libre, in which the child decides almost entirely what activities he/she will do. This is the case at Liberi, a primary school with around 90 students. Housed in wooden modules in the leafy grounds of an old masía, the school’s central philosophy is to respect each child’s autonomy and freedom of movement. Lessons are not compulsory and for those who prefer, there is plenty of time for one-on-one study. Non-academic subjects, such as art, music and dance are encouraged and freely available.
Up near Tibidabo, the concertada (a semi-private school that is funded by parents and the state), Sadako school is also a pioneer in progressive learning. The school is part of the international Changemaker Schools Network, a community of schools that focus on the promotion of empathy, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving. Spanning from primary through to the end of compulsory education at 16, there are no traditional classrooms or textbooks here, with learning facilitated through working groups and projects.
But, it was the Jesuits who made the front pages in 2015 when they announced radical changes in several of their Catalan schools, including two in Barcelona. Divisions between classrooms have been pulled down, walls repainted in bright colours, and sofas and beanbags incorporated, leading at least one newspaper to report that it was more like Google’s offices than a school. The classes of 25 have been replaced by classes of 75 with three teachers, and pupils are welcome to go out to the patio whenever they need to take a break. Textbooks are a thing of the past, replaced by project-based learning, and students evaluate their own progress.
Xavier Aragay, the director of the Jesuit Education Foundation insists that change is possible but needs to be gradual. He told El País newspaper, “The important thing is that it is possible to transform education. Many gurus and thinkers say that education is not in line with the needs of the 21st century. An educational model cannot be changed in one day. It’s like trying to change the four wheels of a car while it is still in motion. It’s a complicated process and it takes time.”
"Some parents don't understand the system and compare their own children's learning with other children. They see that they are learning less contents than in traditional schools and lose faith in the system."
To come up with the ideal school, the Jesuits surveyed 13,000 people in their educational community. But, not everyone is delighted by the changes. Many parents, particularly of children in higher grades, have complained that such a radical change in the middle of the school year is disturbing to the children’s academic progress.
For many parents, active education, and educación libre in particular, is unknown territory. It’s too early to see quantifiable results from these schools in Spain so it requires a certain leap of faith by the parents. It is harder to assess students’ learning when it is less linear and some parents report being worried that their child isn’t really doing much. Pegenaute has experienced parents who have not been convinced by this new approach to education “Some parents don’t understand the system and compare their own children’s learning with other children. They see that they are learning less contents than in traditional schools and lose faith in the system.”
One of Navarro’s biggest concerns in the public sector is the attitude of the administration, both at central and local levels. On the one hand it is encouraging new educational initiatives and has invested in certain key ‘shop window’ projects. Yet, at the same time its own policies impede progress. Cuts, the closing of schools, and higher student-teacher ratios all limit schools’ capacity to move forward. She said that those projects that are not well supported by families or the government, “survive thanks to the dedication of the staff who work at getting over the constant obstacles placed in their path by the administration.”
So, what does the future hold for Catalunya’s school children? How will they feel when they look back on their school days? The education paradigm is deeply engrained in society and change towards a new model will be a slow and gradual process, made slower by the lack of a shared vision and clear leadership. Cuts and policies that continue to sideline the teaching profession will no doubt continue to take their toll. But, despite all the setbacks and years of political wrangling at the top, it is reassuring to see that there is a quiet revolution gathering pace at the heart of the system.
THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION OF CATALUNYA
A concern that many foreign parents have is how their children’s home languages will be supported within the school system. John Stone is the President of the English Language Association of Catalonia. Here he talks to Metropolitan about the situation for English-speaking children in Catalunya and how the association is working for change.
"Many school systems in developed countries actively support heritage languages—languages spoken by children at home, but otherwise largely absent from a child’s daily life. Scandinavian countries have a tradition of pull-out classes during the school day; French state schools feature “international sections” whose curricula and teaching staff reflect bilateral agreements with foreign governments; many Canadian school boards offer free after-school classes; and a growing number of US states will stream young heritage speakers into bilingual programmes where their home language skills are both enhanced academically and used to create an immersion experience for monolingual kids.
Research points to better outcomes across the curriculum when heritage languages are used academically. Children feel a greater connection between home and school; educators are more aware of, and responsive to, plurilingual children’s distinctive experiences of learning.
Sadly, robust support for heritage languages is exceptional in the EU. National school systems underwrite national languages: other languages are seen as additional skills originating at school, not at home. In Catalunya, nearly a dozen heritage languages enjoy token support but do not receive public funding. The four heritage languages which are taught as part of the foreign language curriculum—English, French, German, and Italian—are excluded from this programme. So, children speaking these languages at home receive no additional support. There are no protocols in place to identify heritage speakers of these languages, no strategies to enhance their learning experience either in the foreign language classroom or in the Generalitat’s limited CLIL immersion programmes. They are not streamed to schools offering enhanced or advanced English (or French, etc.), though such schools exist. Their experience depends on the skill and initiative of individual teachers, and the supplemental home schooling efforts of parents. As a result, a heritage speaker of English may associate the ESL classroom with boredom, conflict, frustration, and exclusion: they are not likely to associate it with their own right to learn."
Membership of the group is free and open to all. You can find the group on Facebook.