‘Spain’s rote learning system needs scrapping’

This week The Local speaks to renowned Spain expert and former Times and Financial Times correspondent William Chislett about the real story behind youth unemployment figures, why labour reforms aren't having an impact and why Spain's recession could last another ten years.

'Spain's rote learning system needs scrapping'
William Chislett's latest book "Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know" will be released in August.

How did you end up living and working in Spain?

I first came here in 1974, actually for reasons of love, not journalism. My girlfriend, now wife, was teaching English here in Madrid.

We were planning on going back to Oxford where we’re both originally from. But Franco died in 1975, one thing led to another and at the tender age of 24 I found myself covering the Spanish transition for The Times until 1978 along with another correspondent.

When Murdoch bought The Times, my friends said: “Get out! this is a sinking ship!” I was soon poached by the Financial Times and worked as their correspondent in Mexico and parts of the Spanish Caribbean for six years.

I then went back to head office in London in 1984, was very bored and after 18 months, we came back to Madrid.

We felt happy here and wanted our kids to be bilingual.

I became self-employed and wrote a series of books on Latin American countries for Euromoney.

My bread and butter job, which I’ve had for all these years, is a translating contract I have with Santander bank.

I’m also one of the founding members of Elcano Royal Institute; they’ve published three books of mine on Spain.

Tell us a bit about your new book Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know.

I've looked to provide readers with the political and historical context for understanding Spain’s current state of affairs.

The legacy of the early Muslim presence, the influx of immigrants, the separatist Basque region, the creation of the welfare state, the causes of the banking crisis…A wide sweep overall to help understand Spain’s place in the world today.

What do you think is the real story behind youth unemployment in Spain? Why are the figures so different?

I recently wrote an article for El País on the matter called: “The enigma of the magnitude of youth unemployment”.  I received a flood of comments from readers who disagreed with my view that the figures for joblessness among young Spaniards were far lower than the 57 percent that’s usually cited.

I made a technical mistake, but there is reason for confusion when you consider that the EU’s barometer Eurostat has two ways of calculating the figures.

There’s the rate, or tasa in Spanish, which takes into account people in the 16 to 24 age group that are employed or are actively seeking work. That’s what gives the 57 percent youth unemployment rate which is so widely publicized.

And then there’s the unemployment ratio, which includes all young people in Spain, studying or working, and offers a much smaller 22 percent.

What I was trying to point out in my article, even if the real figures still remain unclear, was that it wasn't really fair to measure youth labour force when most 16 to 24 year olds in Spain are still studying.

Where do you stand on the idea that Spanish people lack entrepreneurial spirit?

There are plenty of successful niche elements that Spanish entrepreneurs and businesses are handling well.

In 2012, 130,000 Spanish companies were exporting abroad. It’s these exports that are keeping the Spanish economy afloat now that domestic business is down.

Can you give us an overview of Spain’s current labour reforms? Are these helping to get people back to work?

Labour reforms are having no real impact on unemployment or the economy and most Spaniards acknowledge this.

Back in 1984 when the Socialists were in power they introduced labour reforms and tried to create more temporary jobs to try to address the unemployment issue.

But all this did was create a dual job market for Spaniards: those with indefinite contracts and those with temporary ones who were excluded from any form of stable employment.

However liberal labour reforms are they’ll never address the real problem – the lack of diversity in Spain’s economy and the need for change in the country’s educational system.

It’ll take at least a decade before we see Spain recover, and that’s only if they change the model.

What changes should Spain’s educational system undergo?

Well for starters they have to try to encourage kids to stay on in school.

It’s far too easy to have to repeat a school year, and back when construction jobs were readily available, youngsters saw the chance to make money as far more tempting than continuing with their studies.

If the school dropout rate has fallen in recent years it’s only because the construction industry no longer acts as a magnet for these youths.

University degrees take far too long to complete as well. While students across Europe have a degree under their belts at 21, Spaniards continue studying until they’re in their mid-twenties.

The rote learning system has to be scrapped as well. The government can’t talk about having a knowledge-based economy if the educational system is outdated and not teaching young people to reason rather than to just learn everything off by heart.

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EXPLAINED: How Spain will make it easier for students to graduate

The Spanish government has passed a new decree which will allow secondary and sixth form students to graduate and receive their qualifications, even if they have failed some subjects.

Spain is changing its education rules
There will also be no re-sitting of exams at Spanish secondary schools. Photo: CESAR MANSO / AFP

The Spanish government approved on Tuesday, November 16th a new Royal Decree which gives instructions to teachers to change the way they grade their students for the rest of the school year of 2021/2022 and 2022/2023.

Education in Spain is compulsory for all those from ages 6 to 16. The Spanish education system is made up of primary and secondary schools. Secondary school is referred to as ESO and students receive a Título de Graduado Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (Title of Graduation from Obligatory Secondary School Education). This is the last four years of compulsory education, up until age 16, and is similar to GCSEs in the UK.

After age 16, Spanish students can go on to study for the optional Bachillerato for the next two years up until age 18. This is equivalent to A-levels in the UK and is needed if the student wants to attend university. 

The new rules apply to the ESO and Bachillerato qualifications. In primary education, there were no specific qualifications or failure limits and this is the same in the new decree too. 

What is changing?

  • Before, students studying for the ESO were allowed to pass each year only if they did not have more than three failed subjects, but now with the new decree, there is no limit.
  • There will also be no re-sitting of exams in ESO.
  • In order to graduate with the ESO qualification at age 16, students could still graduate even if they had up to two failed subjects, however now there is no limit in the number of failed subjects allowed to graduate. 
  • In order to pass each year of the Bachillerato, students could still move on if they had up to two failed subjects. This will stay the same in the new decree too. 
  • In order to graduate with the Bachillerato qualification before, students had to pass all subjects and exams, but now one failed subject is allowed. 
  • Students will also be able to sit the Selectividad, which are the Spanish university admission tests if they have failed some of their Bachillerato (sixth form) school subjects.
  • For the first time in history, students with special needs who have had significant curricular adaptations and have not studied the minimum requirement for other students will also be able to receive their high school qualifications.

READ ALSO: Why Spain is failing in maths and science teaching

How will it be decided if students can graduate?

The text presented to the Council of Ministers by Pilar Alegría, the Spanish Minister of Education states that the decision on whether or not a student passes secondary education will be decided on by each board of the school or institution at the end of the school year.

It is the teaching team “who is given the ultimate responsibility for the decision on the promotion and qualification of students” she stated. It will be the teachers who have to make the decision after assessing whether the student “has reached the appropriate degree of acquisition of the corresponding skills”. 

This means that there will no longer be specific requirements to graduate high school and that the parameters for passing will be different for each institution.   

Why have the rules changed?

The new measures are designed to avoid students repeating years and improve graduation statistics.

According to the latest statistics, out of the countries in the EU in 2020, 79 percent of the population between 25 and 64 years old had graduated Secondary Education or higher and Spain is around 16.1 points below this average. 

Pilar Alegría said that 30 percent of 15-year-old students have repeated a year at least once and “dropout rates are increased by this percentage of students”. 

That is why we are committed to a system “based on trust in teachers”, “continuous evaluation” and “collaborative work by teaching teams”. She has assured that “the culture of effort does not run any risk with this new norm. An effort based on motivation is better than one based on punishment”.  

READ ALSO: Spain passes contested education bill

Are all regions on board with the new rules?

Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia, Castilla y León and Murcia strongly oppose the new rules because they “lower the requirement” and “unsettle the teachers”. 

The five regions complain that the royal decree changes the rules of the game in the middle of the course since the students have started the academic year with a particular curriculum and specific criteria in order to pass it. 


“Within our powers, while respecting the law, we are going to try to prevent the royal decree from being applied, as we consider that it is a direct attack on one of the pillars of the Madrid educational system, as is the merit and the effort of the students “, said sources from the Department of Education of the Community of Madrid.


The education authorities in Galicia said that they will also “explore any legal possibility that allows for preserving the culture of effort and quality as signs of identity”.

Castilla y León

The education departments in Castilla y León said that for their part, they “will make sure that the curricular development and the norms of promotion and qualification are the least harmful”.


“Although the norm establishes that the Baccalaureate degree can be obtained with a failed subject, we understand that it does not make sense because all subjects contribute to the acquisition of the necessary competencies,” said the education authorities in Andalusia.


Murcia is also not in favor of the royal decree and denounces “the improvisation of the Pedro Sánchez government and the lack of legal security for the decisions that have been taken”.   

Unions and Associations

Teachers’ unions such as Csif or Anpe or associations such as Concapa or Cofapa warn that more students are going to arrive less prepared for the next level of education, where the problem will explode. 

These regions argue that this new system will leave a lot of grey areas because teachers’ criteria can be very subjective. The elimination of make-up exams is also causing confusion because “they give another opportunity for students to pass based on their effort and ability”. 

The rest of the regions, on the other hand, were in favor of eliminating the need to re-sit exams because they believe that the evaluation should be “continuous” and the student should not risk everything for a single exam.