Nation's bright sparks get left behind

7th December 2007, Comments 0 comments

They can be found in any school throughout Spain: the two three, or four pupils who, according to their teachers, "are ahead of the pack." They may be the brightest, but are they getting short changed by the education system?

Until now, Spain's Education Ministry has mainly focused on measures to ensure equal opportunities in schooling, but aware of its mediocre results at an international level – especially after the OECD’s third PISA report - it is finally turning its attention to that smaller percentage of high performers. The Education Ministry says that the changes to the education system introduced over the last three years are partly aimed at helping brighter children. But, say experts, no specific measures beyond a couple of EU pilot projects and a few teachers' own initiatives have been implemented.

Take Sofía Pérez and David Matesanz: two students studying their first year of bachillerato - the two-year preparatory studies for university - in the Madrid dormitory town of Getafe. According to their tutor, Ildefonso Maza, they are gifted. They are also clever, so they tend not to ask for extra work, even though they are clearly bored by their lessons.

"Perhaps the classes need to be a bit more fun," suggests Sofía. David, who programs computers in his spare time, would like to see more lessons related to new technology. Maza says that the two need to "be guided" and that their motivation and talent will dwindle if not nurtured.

PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, is an internationally standardised, three-yearly assessment developed in 2000. The latest report for 2006 evaluated 400,000 high school students in 56 countries including 20,000 in Spain. In this most recent report, the assessment of the reading skills of Spanish 15-year-olds dropped sharply from the previous survey three years ago to below average, putting the country in 35th place of the 56 countries surveyed, behind Luxembourg, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia. Moreover, Spanish students have also failed to improve in math and science, leaving them in 32nd and 31st places, respectively.

In response to the previous survey, when Spain’s ranking was higher, 20th out of 31 countries in maths, the Socialist government commented that the system was clearly "mediocre in terms of excellence, but very strong in terms of equity." Equity refers to the elimination of socio-economic differences between students, as reflected in results.

The state's secretary general for education, Alejandro Tiana, accepts that the world's eighth-largest economy needs an education system to match.

"We have completed a series of basic objectives, but I think that the next step is to improve our results," says Tiana. But can excellence and equity go together? The opposition Popular Party has criticised the equity approach. "The left has always thought that the school is a revolutionary instrument for bringing about social change. This is why it has insisted on an egalitarian system that will do away with the intellectual elites that all countries need and which will condemn several generations of Spaniards to mediocrity," it says in a report published by its leading think-tank, FAES.

Psychologist María José Lera runs the EU's Golden 5 project in Spain. This consists of training teachers in five European countries and Palestine to improve the educational standards in schools for all. Central to the program is allowing teachers to adjust education to the needs of individuals in the classroom.

This involves giving a class exercises of varying difficulty, with pupils able to work in groups or individually, with the help of the teacher or other students who may be more advanced in a particular area. Achievers at both ends of the scale have something in common aside from boredom with their lessons: the stigmatism of standing out. "I don't like being asked what grades I have been given," says Sofía Pérez. Golden 5 requires schools to evaluate students' performance privately. Other schools encourage gifted students to work on their own. "These pupils can be very independent. They need to be given the right material, minimal instruction, and left alone to work," says World Bank consultant Juan Manuel Moreno.

Education experts at several Spanish universities have already recommended in a report published last year that the state provide the funding and grants to make sure that not only exceptional students have the support they need, but that regional governments can provide university scholarships to ensure that no gifted student slips through the net for a lack of financial support. But for many a budding genius, the challenge of university comes too late, after years of mediocre classroom schooling have taken their toll.

[Copyright EL PAÍS, SL./ J. A. AUNIÓN 2007]

Subject: Spanish news

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