Spanish Schools Improving According to PISA Results

Spanish education is 'at last beginning to leave mediocrity behind'. This is El Periodico's interpretation of the latest annual education report and league tables by PISA - the Programme for International School Asessment.

Based on results in sciences, maths and reading comprehension among 15 year olds, OECD's league tables suggest Spain's schools are improving considerably despite controversial spending cuts in recent years

It is the first time Spanish schools have broken into the top half of the world table, leading a happy Education Minister Iñigo Mendez de Vigo to declare that 'we're talking about a good education system, one that perhaps could do better, but that has achieved satisfactory results'. This comes after 15 years of poor showings, in which Spain's schools were to be found in the lower part of the PISA tables. He went on to lay the credit firmly at the feet of Spain's teachers, who had achieved improved results despite having to deal with diminished funding.

Regardless of the Education Minister's positive spin, there's a long way to go for Spain to be actually considered amongst the highest achievers. Spain still only comes just three points above the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average - and 25th out of 70 - in its strongest field, reading comprehension; meanwhile it fares averagely in sciences and is below average in Maths.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, with seven of the top 10 countries, Asia sweeps up at the summit of the education league table; mighty Singapore comes first in each of the three subjects, closely followed by fellow high-fliers Japan and Hong Kong. Scandinavia's finest, Finland, with its highly regarded and innovatory system (no inspectors, no school league tables, big emphasis on teacher-pupil chemistry) also does well across the board. An honorary mention for the Baltic state of Estonia, which gets in to the top ten in all three fields, and Macao, which does so in two.

Highest ranked among English-speaking nations are Canada and New Zealand, while the United States languishes in midtable in all fields. The UK, traditionally considered an academic powerhouse, has a highest placing at 15th in sciences, but fails to get into the top 20 in the two other fields.

On a Spanish regional level, there is a clear north-south divide. While Castilla y Leon and Madrid achieved the best results, Catalonia performed only a little better than a bit above average (both on a national and European scale) and the southern regions of Andalusia, Murcia and Canarias suffered the poorest results, all falling well below the international average.

One area in which Spain hopes to improve markedly is that of avoiding creating alumnos repetidores. According to PISA, approximately 30% of Spanish students aged 15 are forced to repeat a year. That's one in three fifteen year olds, 16% more than the European average.

Space for improvement then. One way to improve teaching standards is by adapting the so-called MIR (Medico Interno Residente) method, with teachers taking four or five years of specialization and a vigorous examination to ensure only excellent candidates make it into the classroom - in essence, the preparations a medic must undergo. This was put forward by PSOE during Alfredo Rubalcaba's candidacy in the lead up to the 2011 elections. Since then, however, the idea has been put on the backburner. Spain's regional educational authorities can take heart from words by the eminent Economics professor Jorge Calero, who commented: 'perhaps it is wiser to view the evolution of education systems as a geological process, as opposed to a Formula One race.' For the moment Spain appears to be slowly eroding its education system into shape, as opposed to making tectonic advances.