Why Spain is failing in maths and science teaching

The latest PISA results reveal Spain's education system to have a gaping north south divide.

Why Spain is failing in maths and science teaching
Photo: spaces/Depositphotos

Spain earned its worst ever result for science in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old students across the world.

According to the report published on Tuesday, Spanish students scored an average of 483 points in the science tests, plummeting 13 points since the last study in 2015 to score the lowest results since the PISA test began in 2000.

They didn’t fare much better in maths, dropping five points to score 481 and falling below the OECD average of 489 which puts the nation on  a par with Hungary and Lithuania.

The breakdown of scores reveals the huge north-south divide when it comes to educational standards across Spain. Students in the northern half of the peninsula scored much higher in mathematics and science, in the extreme cases showing students who studied in the north had proficiency of more than one school year above their peers in the south.

The OECD suggests a 30 point difference represents a year’s study but students in Navarra held a 43 point lead over those in the Canary Islands for Mathematics while in sciences top scoring Galicia held a 40 point lead over the Canary Islands.

The lead stretched to over three times when comparing top of the league Galicia and Navarra to lowest scoring communities of Ceuta and Melia which fell behind 92 points in maths and 95 points in Science – effectively indicating that students in the north are three school years ahead of their peers in Spain’s North African enclaves.

“Socio-economic status is a strong predictor of results in mathematics and science in all countries, and explains 12 percent of the variation in results in mathematics and 10 percent in science in Spain,” explained a spokesman from the Ministry of Education during the presentation of the 2018 PISA Report.

The results revealed that while boys in Spain performed better than girls in maths, they achieved the same results in science. 

Spain was not included at all on the reading literacy results after the OECD detected “anomalies” in the data collection. Madrid’s education board also requested that the science and maths results be omitted after concluding anomalies also appeared in the collection of those results.

Madrid dropped 29 points in science and 17 in maths compared to three years ago, while Catalonia saw a loss of 15 points in science and 10 in maths.   

Spanish newspaper 20 Minutos produced a map to compare all the regions across Spain.

El Pais explained the poor showing as the result of austerity cuts in education brought in under the conservative PP government of Mariano Rajoy.

While the head of PISA, Andreas Schleicher, recommended that Spain change its teaching methodology focusing less on rote learning and memorizing and more on critical thinking and analysis.

On a positive note, Spanish students expressed high than average satisfaction with their lives. Some 96 percent of students in Spain reported sometimes or always feeling happy and only about 4 percent of students reported always feeling sad.

Overall, Spain ranks among the top 13 in the list of 79 countries, a position that has not significantly changed.


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Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

Children between ages 6-9 years should be allowed admittance to after-school recreation centers free of charge, according to a report submitted to Sweden’s Minister of Education Lotta Edholm (L).

Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

“If this reform is implemented, after-school recreation centers will be accessible to the children who may have the greatest need for the activities,” said Kerstin Andersson, who was appointed to lead a government inquiry into expanding access to after-school recreation by the former Social Democrat government. 

More than half a million primary- and middle-school-aged children spend a large part of their school days and holidays in after-school centres.

But the right to after-school care is not freely available to all children. In most municipalities, it is conditional on the parent’s occupational status of working or studying. Thus, attendance varies and is significantly lower in areas where unemployment is high and family finances weak.

In this context, the previous government formally began to inquire into expanding rights to leisure. The report was recently handed over to Sweden’s education minister, Lotta Edholm, on Monday.

Andersson proposed that after-school activities should be made available free of charge to all children between the ages of six and nine in the same way that preschool has been for children between the ages of three and five. This would mean that children whose parents are unemployed, on parental leave or long-term sick leave will no longer be excluded. 

“The biggest benefit is that after-school recreation centres will be made available to all children,” Andersson said. “Today, participation is highest in areas with very good conditions, while it is lower in sparsely populated areas and in areas with socio-economic challenges.” 

Enforcing this proposal could cause a need for about 10,200 more places in after-school centre, would cost the state just over half a billion kronor a year, and would require more adults to work in after-school centres. 

Andersson recommends recruiting staff more broadly, and not insisting that so many staff are specialised after-school activities teachers, or fritidspedagod

“The Education Act states that qualified teachers are responsible for teaching, but that other staff may participate,” Andersson said. “This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that other staff may be used, but preferably not’. We propose that recognition be given to so-called ‘other staff’, and that they should be given a clear role in the work.”

She suggested that people who have studied in the “children’s teaching and recreational programmes” at gymnasium level,  people who have studied recreational training, and social educators might be used. 

“People trained to work with children can contribute with many different skills. Right now, it might be an uncertain work situation for many who work for a few months while the employer is looking for qualified teachers”, Andersson said.