Educational Challenges in Spain

Written by María Núñez Fontain

A BOAT WITHOUT A CAPTAIN IS CONDEMNED TO SINK

Spain is a developed country and member of the European Union, which would give it a clear advantage in terms of educational levels and resources. Nevertheless, taking a closer look at Spain’s educational system, this quickly proves not to be the case.

At first glance, Spain’s most predominant issue seems to be clear: despite numerous attempts to modernise and adapt the educational curriculum, it still seems to be far and detached from the demands of its society.[1] Due to its decentralized State, this also proved problematic when attempting to achieve unity and equality.

As recent as 2021, Spain introduced the LOMLOE,[2] the new law on education that built upon the previous one – LOE – and obliviated the previous legislation, the LOMCE. This new law highlights sustainable development, gender equality, childhood rights, digital transformation and the adoption of a transversal approach to ensure success throughout constant improvement.

DROPOUT RATES

Spanish students tend to obtain low results on the PISA tests, despite being one of the countries that spends most time in classrooms.[3] The PISA is a test which measures 15-year-old´s educational level, and it is taken every three years. These low results reflect Spain´s teaching method, which focuses on memorizing information and not developing one´s autonomy and problem-solving skills. Another issue which may be linked to Spain’s low results is the fact that it currently has the highest school drop out rate of all European Union, as the current teaching methods make it difficult to maintain the student´s motivation and interest.[4] Unfortunately, this apathy also translates onto the teachers, who should be the ones sparking the interest of the students but, at the same time, should be motivated themselves.

The rate of early school dropout reached 14% in 2012, 5% above the EU target for 2030 which is set at 9%. This number makes Spain the second country in Europe with the most amount of people between 18 and 24 years old without basic education and training.[5] This percentage being highest among students whose mothers did not complete their primary education.[6] Ultimately, this reflects the biggest challenge currently facing Spain’s education system: the socioeconomic segregation.

SOCIOECONOMIC SEGREGATION

This is an issue which the European Commission and the United Nations have repeatedly requested Spain to address, and the socioeconomic disparity was also targeted in a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in 2020. Before analysing its content, this article will offer a brief outlook at the socioeconomic situation of Spain with regards to education.

When addressing educational shortcomings, debates often revolve around aspects such as religion as a school subject or the strict use of the State’s official languages.[7] These two issues, while relevant, are far removed from the immediate problem. Spain shows high rates of inequality, scholarly failure, lack of monetary resources and scholarly segregation for socioeconomic reasons.[8]

In Spain, public schools host a high percentage of immigrants and students from low income families, which only increases the correlation between the quality of the education and the monetary resources to afford it – ultimately turning public schools into “guettos” with limited possibilities for their students and teachers.[9]

With the new legislation, the criteria for selecting students into public and private schools will fall on the hands of the public Administration, in what seems as an attempt to bridge this gap. In spite of this, the lack of awareness – or willingness to do so – must be addressed first if any solutions are going to be discussed.

Boy walking with a backpack in Spain. Picture by Jesús Rodríguez (2017)

THE ROLE OF TEACHERS

There is one challenge around which there is – almost – universal consensus: the role of the teachers. As the figures in charge of guiding students from an early age, teachers are often not given the respect they deserve as attending school is seen as a “tedious chore” in Spain. This might be because of the education teachers themselves receive, which is focused on the institutional aspects but does not give them the tools from a pedagogic perspective.[10]

Furthermore, the profession of a teacher presents a high percentage of instability, which prevents them from growing professionally.[11] This is exacerbated by the numerous changes in the educational laws that have taken place during recent times, a common object of concern and condemnation amongst teachers. With education often being used as a political weapon, its legislation changes along with the different governments.

Broken Chalk had the opportunity to interview Raúl Prada, the Head of Language Departments of a school in Spain. His answers will allow the reader to gain a better perspective on the education challenges that Spain currently faces from the perspective of a teacher who, as said by himself, is “in love with his profession”.

Q. What, in your opinion, are the main educational challenges in Spain?

I believe that the main challenges facing education in Spain are an excessive ratio in the classrooms that prevents the teacher from giving personalised attention. With the increase in students with special needs in each classroom, the problem worsens: these students are the most affected by this inability to provide them with special care and, ultimately, it plays a role in moving them further and further away from their integration into society.

Q. Do you think that in Spain there is a problem of socioeconomic segregation when it comes to education? Why? Why not?

Socioeconomic segregation is clearly connected to what was answered above, since the excess ratio at all levels causes students with more personal, social and economic difficulties to see themselves in clear inferiority with respect to those whose families can afford external support. This becomes even more evident in those families who cannot afford for their children to participate in activities during extracurricular hours.

Q. Have you encountered any experiences of socioeconomic segregation?

The aforementioned is a fact that we encounter every day in any classroom in Spain: an excess of students who should have more and better attention and teachers who cannot give more than they do, causing great frustration in them.

Q. How do you think teachers are viewed in the Spanish educational system?

The role of the teacher in Spain has been socially degraded increasingly each year, becoming not very well regarded by some families who question their decisions and, in many cases, far from helping, hinder their work. This is aggravated by the Administration, that increases every year the bureaucratic burden and forgets that the most important objective of the teacher is to educate.

Q. What measures or ideas would you suggest to improve the situation of the teachers?

The main solutions I would recommend based on my personal experience are firstly, to lower the ratio in the number of students per classroom, and secondly, to decrease the bureaucratic burden that exists in education and schools.

Q. Would you like to share any experience – positive, negative or both – about your experience and role as a teacher?

I am a positive person and in love with my profession, so any experience I can contribute with is positive. I always keep in mind what my students share with me while I try to be mindful of their needs. I feel that they appreciate and value it. However, I still always regret not being able to give more to those who need it.

Q. From a personal perspective, how do you feel the educational system has evolved and changed since you first started teaching and why do you think that is?

Unfortunately, the evolution of our educational system in the last 25 years is little or not enough. The reason is that the different governments that Spain has had in these years have made Education a political reason and approved successive laws – 8 different ones in 25 years. In doing so, they have failed to consider whether or not they enjoyed support from the entire political spectrum, rather focusing only on the political value of it. The result is that each party has approved a law tailored to its needs, which has been successively repealed when a party with a different ideology comes to government.

This situation has created great instability in the Spanish educational systems and has prompted some changes with no follow-up. Spain urgently needs an Educational law of general and permanent consensus, although subject to small variations.

Q. Any thoughts, comments or messages you would like to share as a teacher.

As a teacher, I say that the only way to survive on a day-to-day basis is the love for this profession and dedication to your students, and you must put aside the obstacles that grow every day because otherwise demotivation and helplessness will dig in us.

UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON EXTREME POVERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS

All of the aforementioned concerns – and some more – were crystallized into the report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, written during his visit to Spain.[12]

The UN Rapporteur starts by saying that “education and poverty are closely linked”. Indeed, the socioeconomic resources of a family dictate the schools they have access to, and the public schools grow overflooded with low income and immigrant students, whose education cannot be ensured at the level that should be.

This is also due to the lack of public investment in education, which despite being free, shows a reality in which its crucial role does not match the resources thereby attributed.[13] The UN Rapporteur correctly concludes that “school segregation increases grade repetition, failure and dropouts, decreases assessment scores and adversely affects students’ expectations of pursuing university studies”. Finally, the education section rescues a quote from a Save the Children report from 2018, which reads: “concentrating children from the poorest backgrounds in the same schools is no recipe for educational success or overcoming poverty”.[14]

UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston in Spain. Picture by Olivier de Schutter (2020)

CONCLUSION

Examining Spain’s educational system, it has become apparent that it presents several flaws. First, not only is the curriculum outdated, but it also fails in motivating the students and in preventing – or at least mitigating – the elevated school dropout rates. Second, Spanish schools do not cater to the needs of the population: not every school has the same resources and not every person can afford to attend any school. Instead of correcting this trend, in the last years it has been exacerbated, making schools a mirror of the social status of the students and their backgrounds. This effectively prevents a system based on equal opportunities.

Additionally, those in charge of actually providing the education are not motivated enough. The stability of their jobs is not ensured, and the lack of resources or their inadequate distribution prevents the teachers from giving individualised attention to the students. This overall contributes to a general environment of apathy which has an impact on both ends (students and teachers). Lastly, as long as education continues being a tool of politics, adjustable to the ideologies of the dominant political party, it will remain as a subdued element instead of a priority, and Spain will continue to suffer from low quality education and the inability to achieve efficient results.

References

Freedom of Opinion and Expression to the Philippines

Presented by María Núñez Fontán and Olimpia Guidi

This report was presented to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights about the state of freedom of opinion and expression in the Philippines.

The Philippines, deeply committed to upholding human rights, has meticulously crafted a comprehensive national normative framework governing freedom of opinion and expression. This report will thoroughly examine various facets of this framework, particularly emphasising its educational dimensions.

13A_Freedom_of_opinion_and_expression_to_the_Philippines

Download the report PDF.

Featured image by Rachel Hinman on Flickr.

Freedom Writers: The Teacher of the “Unteachables”

Written by María Núñez Fontán

Cover of the movie Freedom Writers[2]

INTRODUCTION

Freedom Writers is an American film which was released on 2007 based on the book from 1999 titled The Freedom Writers Diary. The movie was written and directed by Richard LaGravanese and the character of Gruwell was portrayed by the actress Hilary Swank, who starred alongside other names such as Scott Glenn, Imelda Stauntan, Patrick Dempsey and Mario Dewar Barrett.[1]

BACKGROUND

Based on real life events, it depicts the story of Erin Gruwell, an English teacher at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, California. Gruwell had already been in the spotlight for her labor as a teacher in the ABC News program Primetime Live, where her story was told by Tracey Durning in a documentary.[3] The plot of the movie is inspired by the real stories that the students of Gruwell´s English class compiled themselves. The name also makes a reference to the multiracial civil rights activists known as ‘Freedom Riders’, who are known for testing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, ordering the desegregation of interstate buses.[4]

PLOT OF THE MOVIE

The events of the movie take place at Woodrow Wilson High School, in Long Beach California, in the 90s. The school used to be a prestigious institution until the enforcement of the voluntary integration of at-risk students and students of color, amidst the increase of racial tension.[5] The topics of gang violence, race and intolerance are displayed throughout the whole movie.

Eva, of Latin American background, goes to a convenience store while Paco, her boyfriend, waits outside. Grant Rice, a fellow student of African American ethnicity who was involved in a brawl with Paco days before, is leaving the same store, and when doing so, Paco retaliates against him. Unfortunately, he hits instead one of Sindy Ngor´s friends, another fellow student of Cambodian ethnicity who was at the same location. Grant is arrested later and Eva is called as a witness to the case, being torn between protecting her boyfriend or telling the truth.

After this incident, Erin decides to openly address racism and teaches her students about the Holocaust, which came as a surprise for most of the students except for Ben Samuels, a White student. Then, Gruwell asks her students to play what she calls “the line game”, which consists of taking steps forward if the students have experienced any of the events mentioned by the teacher. Upon seeing that everybody has gone through something of their own, the students grow closer together. Gruwell provides the students with diaries so they can use them as a vehicle to tell their stories.

Erin Gruwell. U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Upon more efforts from Gruwell to educate her students on tolerance and race, Eva Benítez goes against her father´s wishes to always protect their own and tells the truth about Paco and the killing.

Ultimately, Gruwell compiles all of the students´ diary entries into ‘The Freedom Writers Diary’. Despite facing personal problems and challenges to be able to teach again, she manages to do so – being responsible for preparing many students, most of them the firsts in their families, to graduate and attend college.

AFTERMATH

These events took place in the 90s, so their protagonists have had time to reflect upon the experiences they lived and carry them on moving forward.

One of the students from Woodrow Wilson High School, Sue Ellen Alpizar, recalls her problematic family background growing up, and how in school she was considered “not college material”. She recalls feeling afraid when turning in her first paper, but Gruwell instead helped her becoming aware of her learning disorder. Her learning abilities improved and she went on to obtain degrees from two different colleges and currently works at the Freedom Writers Foundation.

“Erin was the first person to tell me I could go to college, the first person who believed in me”[6]

Sue Ellen Alpizar

Another student, Latilla Cain, revealed that she grew up in a gang environment. She recalls that Gruwell´s efforts to get to know her as an individual made a difference with her. Currently, she is a program specialist with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County & Inland Empire and is also a program coordinator with the Freedom Writers Foundation.

According to Gruwell´s testimony, all of the Freedom Writers graduated from high school, which is a major achievement. Most of them went to college, graduated with a degree and some even have more advanced degrees.

“It´s a remarkable story of how a teacher can have a tremendous impact on students”[7]

Carl Cohn

Over the years, Gruwell´s impact on her students has materialized and it has become more and more notable. Nevertheless, she also likes to draw attention to the impact that the students have had on her.

“I learn from them every day, and, in this way, I have also become their student”[8]

Erin Gruwell


[1] For more information about the movie, see, for example, here

[2] Ibid

[3] Brian Addison, ‘Erin Gruwell, the Freedom Writers, and Their Undeclared War’, The Hi-Lo (2912), <https://lbpost.com/hi-lo/erin-gruwell-the-freedom-writers-and-their-undeclared-war/>

[4] Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960). See here and here

[5] The movie takes place in 1994, in the immediate aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. For more information, see, for example, here

[6] Quote from Sue Ellen Alpizar, former student of Woodrow Wilson High School, found in Rich Archbold, ‘Long Beach´s Freedom Writers 20 years later – where are they?’, Press-Telegram (2017), <https://www.presstelegram.com/2017/10/30/long-beachs-freedom-writers-20-years-later-where-are-they/>

[7] Quote from Carl Cohn, Executive Director for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, who at the time was the Superintendent. Ibid n(10)

[8] Quote from Erin Gruwell. Ibid n(10)