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Austerity and education reforms in Spain: Moving far from international excellence

published 7 May 2013 updated 7 May 2013
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At a time of economic crisis, many governments have a schizophrenic relationship with education.  On the one hand, they consider education as a strategic sector and the key to getting us out of the crisis.  On the other, they apply indiscriminate cuts to the sector, with very negative effects in terms of educational quality and equity.  To try to overcome this contradiction, during a crisis, our governments propose “educational reforms” aimed at improving education systems without necessarily investing more resources, but rather spending less. We need to look no further than the case of the Spanish government that is currently preparing an organic law for “Improving Education Quality” while at the same time implementing very severe cuts in education.  Below I argue that the educational changes taking place in Spain are turning us abruptly away from the path to excellence as well as international models of quality education.

Improving education quality in Spain?

The education reform that the government wants to implement in Spain, in the framework of the Organic Law for Improving Education Quality (LOMCE), is being heavily criticised for the low level of participation and consultation with which it is being carried out and above all for its content.

LOMCE is notable for its marked managerialist approach to educational change,  promoting models of school management that emulate the private sector, introducing standardised evaluation tests (whose results could be made public to encourage school selection and competition between schools) and making the state’s relations with private education centres more flexible.  One of the more controversial measures as part of this law is the lowering of the school age at which students are segregated into different streams according to ability.

Rather than going on at length about all the details of the reform, I have listed in the following table the principal education measures being implemented as part of LOMCE and the Spanish government’s broader programme of education spending adjustment.  I also compare these measures to the situation in a country that is upheld as an international point of reference, Finland, as described in the blog Education Reform in Times of Crises: Emulating Finland. [1]

The new scene in Spain(cuts + LOMCE)

The Finnish model

A 25% increase in the pupil teacher ratio

Reduced class sizes

The breaking up of the support services for pupils with special needs and learning difficulties

Ample human and material resources for the groups most disadvantaged groups

Teachers' salaries cut repeatedly

An increase in teachers’ workload owing to the dismissal of supply staff

A considerable increase in the number of absence days required before a teacher can be replaced

Professionalism among teachers

Re-centralisation of language policy and the curriculum: Madrid has increased control over content from 45 to 55% in the historic communities, and from 55 to 65% in the other communities

Independence for schools in defining the curriculum

An increase of 66% in university fees and a cut of €50 million for scholarships

The introduction of fees for vocational training (for the first time in the history of democracy)

Education completely free at every level

The new law obliges administrations to establish new contracts with private education centres if there is sufficient “social demand”

The duration of the contracts has been extended from a maximum duration of four years, to a minimum of six

The setting of a minimum duration opens the door to contracts that can be renewed automatically

An eminently public provision of education

Streaming of pupils according to aptitude from the fourth year of secondary education (a break away from the highly comprehensive system promoted by the previous law)

A highly comprehensive system

The state will introduce new external exams (one at the end of primary education, the other at the end of compulsory secondary education and the other at the end of high school, at baccalaureate level)

No standardised evaluations; teachers can set their system of evaluation independently

External evaluation aimed at the publication of results to encourage competition between education centres

Evaluation has a formative objective Teachers and education centres cooperate closely

As we can see from the table above, the Spanish education system is moving sharply away from global models of educational excellence.  Bearing in mind that these reforms are, furthermore, being applied at a time when unemployment, poverty and inequality are on the rise, educational excellence and equity could become increasingly unattainable in the short term.  We must also bear in mind that the social crisis and the resulting deterioration of students’ material and social conditions have a very negative impact on learning opportunities. Hence the education system needs more active policies, and material and educational resources, to correct initial inequalities and to promote learning for as many children in socio-economic difficulty as possible.  But, paradoxically, the prevailing austerity measures not only mean that the system does not have the resources needed to confront these new challenges, but also that it has far fewer than before.

In short, the gradual impoverishment of the population will ensure that the level of education in Spain will fall substantially.  The PISA 2012 results may not reflect the outcome of all these misguided policies, but it is certain that if education policy does not take a drastic change of direction, in the medium term the Spanish education system will be even more unfair and ineffective that it is now.

Quality and austerity: An impossible equation

The reforms aimed at “improving education quality” in Spain are being implemented at the same time as massive cuts in education and other social services by the Mariano Rajoy government.  These cuts, which are being applied twofold in the autonomous communities governed by conservative parties such as Catalonia, are moving us drastically away from the models of international educational excellence, such as the Finnish model, because they mean less resources for education and an increasing reduction in the state’s responsibility for providing universal quality education.

In reality, the Minister’s attempts to combine severe cuts with plans that are supposedly aimed at “improving education quality” amount to, to put it nicely, an impossible equation.  The prevailing economic and social adjustment programmes are creating new problems and challenges for the Spanish education system.  Unfortunately, the managerialist and segregationist reforms put forward by Wert will not only fail to tackle these problems effectively, but will actually make them worse.

[1] This post notes that Finland is used as an education blueprint by different social groups, often in a selective and biased way, to legitimise certain political preferences.  It also questions the lack of a more holistic understanding of the success of the Finnish system when the country is used as a reference point for education reform.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.