[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today, Sept. 2013.]
This month thousands of parents across Catalonia will be almost cheering with relief, but most teachers will be feeling a mixture of dread and anticipation. The long summer break is now over and a new school year is beginning again, but what is education here all about?
As both a former secondary-school teacher and parent of a now 12 year-old boy, I think the system of education here has a number of very good points in its favour. Strangely though, these do not relate so much to the strictly academic side of schooling, but are more about the socialising of children and the habits of learning they generally acquire very well.
What strikes me most is how uplifting it is to to see older kids caring for younger ones and treating them well, and the fact that this is done naturally and informally (without any prefects, head boys or head girls -who usually do the opposite anyway.) While there is some bullying in schools here, the amount and severity of it is in real contrast to what I have often witnessed and had to deal with personally in Australia or the UK.
Another aspect of children's school life that provides emotional benefits for them is that their daily routine is structured in a predictable rhythm and there is typically little change among teaching staff. This means that in many public and semi-private concertada schools the kids know who will teach them in the following year and this is understood by the whole school community. This is just one way that students feel so secure at school here.
As I found when doing research for my book, “The Re-Made Parent,” surveys of mothers and fathers here have shown that a large majority of them feel that they are “welcome at school and that it is easy to contact the teachers...who are polite and respectful.” Equally, the food served to children at lunchtime is largely well-balanced in quality and variety, reflecting the outlook on good nutrition here, which is again not often the case in too many other nations.
In short, Catalonias schools play a crucial part in creating young people who in wider society are confident, well-behaved and usually polite, even if they are sometimes as loud as those from any other country. So, while the overall picture of schooling in Catalonia is a good one in some important areas, there are some points where it does not do so well.
A basic fact about education here is that it is both ccompulsory and free until the end of the fourth year of secondary school [ESO] and optional (but still free) for a further two years of Baccalaureate courses, or where 16 year old students can instead enter into a vocational “world of work” stream.
This means that, as with other European systems, parents and their kids are here being forced into deciding the future job paths they are obliged to take at a relatively very young age. I don't believe that there is enough maturity or self-knowledge in many15 year-old boys or girls to make such important judgements.
Also, as with most country's mainstream school systems, there is a very strong emphasis on exams being the best (and often only) way to determine a student's knowledge and understanding of topics. Here, the pressure of testing begins early in primary school and it goes along with large amounts of daily and weekly homework tasks in the “key” subjects.
Too often, these outside school “duties” are merely a repetition of classroom work and not an extension of learning or a development of learning. Teachers and students both know that homework tasks are typically meaningless but are compelled to follow this practise - big in quantity, rather than quality.
As well as this, old-fashioned teaching methods still largely dominate classroom activities. Rote-learning is still very common (though it is surely quite a useful skill in memory-development) and teacher 'chalk and talk' continues to take up the majority of time in most subjects.
I believe that teachers here are probably more friendly and personable with their students than in Japan for example, but too many precious hours are wasted every month when classes are very slow to start and classes are regularly left without the teacher actually present. This does only partly explain why secondary schools in general have a very poor academic record. 30 % of teenagers leave education with no qualifications at all. Other factors can include a high level of cheating in tests, sometimes accepted by teachers, student dis-engagement with the content and recently, rising class sizes (which leads to less individual teacher help for students, overall.)
However, competition to get into university is still a particularly strong feature of education here. This is one reason why after-school classes at logopèdias and academias are so popular, especially with Maths and English, but Catalan and Castellano are also standard subjects for further work.And it is here in the realm of languages where Catalonia is noteworthy.
Any article on education here cannot ignore the controversial (and at times emotive) question of Catalan in Catalonia's schools. By law, Catalan “will normally be used except in the study of other languages.” But when students have finished their compulsory education they are supposed to“know the two official languages and have a good knowledge of at least one foreign language” (in practise, this being usually English.)
Today, Catalonia faces the bizarre situation that the use of it's language in schools is under challenge from the current conservative Spanish national government. Change here is unlikely but some things will continue to alter. There has been a huge rise in the number of immigrant students since 1991, when it was less than 1%. Now kids from immigrant families are more than 15% of the population (including my own son!)
In the future, the challenges thrown up by “the crisis” (which I explore elsewhere in this month's magazine) will put new stresses on an education system that is both doing well, and not so well, by different measures.