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The following OECD assessment and recommendations summarise chapter 3 of the Economic survey of Spain published on 19 November 2008.
Education reforms could boost productivity and employment outcomes
Improving education outcomes needs to be a vital part of Spain’s strategy to catch up with the living standards in more advanced OECD countries. Education system reforms can also reduce inequality, by breaking the intergenerational transmission of low attainment. While progress has been impressive over the past 30 years in both early childhood education and tertiary attainment, more can be done:
The early school dropout rate is unusually elevated for a high income country, constraining access to upper secondary education, where the graduation rate in the vocational stream is low. Dropouts are regrettably strongly correlated with socio economic background.
Learning outcomes in compulsory schooling, as measured by PISA scores, are somewhat below the OECD average, notably in reading.
At the tertiary level, students’ incentives are biased towards the vocational pathway, where returns are lower than in university education. Furthermore, Spanish universities have hardly emerged among the top internationally renowned institutions.
The number of early drop outs must be lowered and learning outcomes raised in compulsory education
The high school drop out rate is closely related to the very high grade repetition rate, resulting in many pupils leaving school at the age limit of compulsory schooling (16 years) before having completed lower secondary education. Grade repetition entails high social costs and little educational benefit. Reducing the number of early drop outs has figured prominently among the government’s reform priorities. Legislation passed in 2006 (Ley orgánica de educación, LOE) tightened qualification requirements for new teachers substantially. This should help future teachers to cope with diversity in the classroom. Giving existing teachers incentives to acquire similar qualifications as those required of newly hired staff should be considered. The LOE also strengthened schools’ capacity to identify pupils’ learning difficulties early. However, formal grade advancement criteria give equal weight to all subjects, and graduation from lower secondary education requires a pass mark in all subjects. Curricula in the comprehensive secondary school system allow limited room for vocational subjects, although the LOE widened the choice of optional subjects to some extent. Curricula and grade advancement criteria are likely to discourage vocationally interested pupils. Grade advancement and access conditions to upper secondary education should be limited to those skills that are required in order to benefit from any type of upper secondary education, and room for optional subjects, especially of a vocational nature, should be widened.
Repetition rates in lower secondary education across OECD countries¹
1. School principals were asked what percentage of students in their school repeated a grade at the levels of lower secondary education (ISCED 2) in the previous year of schooling.
Source: OECD, PISA 2006.
While some regional governments have introduced regular centralised testing procedures, and the LOE provides for samples of schools to be regularly tested, nation wide testing has not yet been utilised to benchmark regional education policies. The new law gives public schools some albeit limited influence in the decisions to hire teachers and to set curricular content. It is important that measures to strengthen school autonomy be conditional on progress with regard to accountability so as to ensure incentives are in place for schools to make good use of their enhanced autonomy. Nation wide sample based evaluations of education outcomes should be used to assess the differential impact of regional educational policies to help determine best practice. External testing of all schools should be extended to all regions and should be used to benchmark performance against targets and identify priorities for improving performance. Consideration should be given to complementing these with centralised exams at secondary level. Indeed, the international evidence shows that external examinations reduce grade repetition considerably, reinforcing teachers’ incentives to improve learning outcomes of all pupils. Autonomy of schools, notably with respect to hiring decisions of teaching staff and curricular content, should also be widened further.
To reap the benefits of improved accountability and autonomy, schools’ managerial capacity needs to be well developed and teacher career advancement linked to performance. While specific qualification requirements for the selection of public school head teachers have been introduced, their selection is in the first instance limited to the teachers of the school in question. Also, head teachers are paid little more than classroom teachers. The pool of candidates among whom head teachers can be hired should be widened and their pay raised. Teachers enjoy a high degree of job protection and a good level of pay in international comparison but face weak incentives from promotion prospects and the pay structure. Opportunities for promotion or other rewards for teaching staff and management should be enhanced.
Means tested grants are available for families with children in secondary education; indeed, they have been raised in recent years. However, take up, which requires an application, is low, and most funds are directed to upper secondary education and so cannot address the lower secondary drop out problem. Support for low income families whose children attend secondary education should be increased. One option would be to raise child benefits, linked to a means tested in work benefit (see above), and to make continued eligibility for child benefits beyond the age of 16 conditional on secondary school attendance.
Vocational training can be made more attractive
Schools providing vocational education are closely integrated with non vocational schools, suggesting that their accountability and autonomy can likewise be raised. Schools offering vocational teaching should be evaluated with respect to their success in the transition of graduates to qualified jobs and results published. Employers have argued that a larger role for professional practitioners in vocational teaching would be beneficial, but there are barriers to their assuming teaching positions. The teaching profession should be more widely opened to practitioners. Employers have also complained of graduates’ weakness in general competencies, such as written expression and foreign languages. More emphasis on general skills within vocational pathways could also help sustain graduates’ employability at more advanced age, strengthening their capacity to acquire new skills. The attractiveness of upper secondary vocational education is also hampered by limited scope for transition into tertiary education. Opportunities for transferring from upper secondary vocational to tertiary education should be improved.
Funding arrangements in tertiary education need to be reformed
Government sponsored loans are not available for most tertiary courses. At the same time, universities charge fees, whereas none are charged for tertiary vocational courses. While a means tested student grant system is in place for students with low income parents, access to university remains constrained. Indeed, these policy settings limit talented students’ access to university and bias students’ education decisions towards tertiary vocational courses, where study duration is much shorter than in universities but where returns have been lower. A loan scheme could address students’ funding needs at a lower budgetary cost. Loans with income contingent repayments should be introduced for all tertiary students, including those in the vocational stream. Fees should then be introduced for tertiary vocational courses and raised elsewhere. Many of the autonomous regions have not yet moved to outcome oriented elements in universities’ funding, and their autonomy is still limited with regard to working conditions and pay of academic staff. University funding should be more closely linked to outcomes. Further strengthening their independence, notably with regard to the setting of contract conditions and pay, would be beneficial. Finally, reliance on regional funding, notably for universities, diminishes incentives to provide centres of teaching excellence of national standing and to create university departments capable of attracting students from throughout the country. Indeed, while their graduates would be attractive to employers located elsewhere, providing regions would not reap the full benefits of their actions. Thus, consideration should be given to creating a nation wide funding scheme, supplementing existing regional funding, to reward the creation of centres of excellence in university teaching.
Estimated impact of easing liquidity constraints on tertiary graduation ratios¹
2006, percentage points
1. Effect of an alignment of the ratio of investment costs to financing resources on the minimum in the sample, Sweden.
Source: Oliveira Martins. J., R. Boarini, H. Strauss, C. de la Maisonneuve and C. Saadi (2007),”The policy determinants of investment in tertiary education”, OECD Economics Department Working Paper No 576.
How to obtain this publication
The Policy Brief (pdf format) can be downloaded in English. It contains the OECD assessment and recommendations.The complete edition of the Economic survey of Spain 2008 is available from:
For further information please contact the Spain Desk at the OECD Economics Department at firstname.lastname@example.org. The OECD Secretariat's report was prepared by Andrès Fuentes and Eduardo Camero under the supervision of Peter Jarrett. Research assistance was provided by Sylvie Foucher-Hantala.