Spain’s schools are failing immigrants: OECD

Spain's results in future PISA tests will be much better if more is done to help students from immigrant backgrounds, experts have said in the wake of the country's poor showing in a recent PISA problem-solving exam.

Spain's schools are failing immigrants: OECD
File photo: Bart Everson

First the bad news: Spanish school students with an immigrant background performed significantly worse than their 'native' peers in the recent PISA test.

In fact, there was a 39-point difference in the OECD exam which assesses practical life skills like how to operate a remote control or buy train tickets.

Spanish students as a whole performed poorly in the test coming 29th of the 44 countries looked at by the OECD. 

But there is a bright side. The results also show that the children of immigrants in Spain performed much better than might be expected, given previous form. 

The difference between immigrant children and their Spanish peers was smaller in the problem-solving PISA test than in a 2013 PISA test looking at students' performance in traditional subject areas like mathematics.

For the recent problem-solving test the gap between the two groups was 39 points while those divides in the 2013 test were 57 points for maths and 53 for reading comprehension.

In other words, immigrant children are underperforming, and the OECD thinks Spanish schools are at fault.

"The Spanish system isn't making the most of immigrants' aptitudes," OECD analyst Pablo Zoido told Spain's El País newspaper.

"The fact that they (immigrant children) are getting better results than Spaniards with similar marks in traditional tests shows the system is failing them," he added.

He puts the high marks of immigrant children down to their "personal experience".

"Because of what they've lived through they are more open in terms of dealing with new situations or taking risks and taking the initiative," he said.

For Laura Espinosa, director of studies at a school in Madrid's Vallecas district, the reasons are also obvious. 

"They are more independent than (students) from here. They go home by themselves, they make food and look after their younger siblings," explained.   

But barriers remain for these children, with language being a chief factor.

Long Xi, a 14-year-old student at a public school in Madrid with a Chinese background, said he sometimes failed exams because he didn't "know the Spanish words". That's despite him scoring and 8 out of 10 in recent school maths tests.

Cuts to Spain's education sector are hurting as well.

"In my centre we used to have two extra teachers for students with difficult family backgrounds — many of whom are immigrants. That was already a small number but now we don't have anyone," said Isabel Rodríguez, a maths teacher in Madrid.

It's a key problem because the OECD believes Spain's overall PISA scores would go up if the education system could make the most of the talents of these immigrant children.

"In other countries like England and Canada they have made a huge effort to reduce the barriers to learning for immigrants, such as language," Zoido from the OECD said.

"They have turned things around. The result is they have managed to eliminate the academic differences between (the two groups). 

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Meet the Brit behind the app that is changing the way Spaniards learn English

Madrid-based English teacher Simon Sternberg hit upon a revolutionary idea to improve Spaniards’ grasp of English.

Meet the Brit behind the app that is changing the way Spaniards learn English
Simon Sternberg is the Brit behind Wannalisn. Photo by Zoe Sternberg

After more than a decade teaching English to Spanish students in the capital, Sternberg came up with an idea to help them understand the fast English of native speakers that so often proves to be an obstacle for listening comprehension.

“I realised that there were certain combinations of English words that were just very hard for non-native English people to grasp,” he told The Local.

“I looked at different studies and identified that there are around 50 words that represent about 50 percent of spoken English, and that are very difficult to break down and understand when said quickly”, he explained.

“These so-called clusters represent the difference between the spoken and written forms of the language, and without mastering them it’s very difficult to understand first language English speakers,” he said.

Phrases such as “but it was” and “and I didn’t want to” sound like “badih woz” and “ana din’ wanna” in everyday informal speech.

Sternberg teamed up with entrepreneur Luis Morgado and lead developer Ramiro Blazquez to come up with “Wannalisn”, an app that offers free interactive listening and vocabulary exercises using short clips from movies and television series in a game format they call “edutainment”.


“It’s designed to help you train your ear to understand English as it is spoken in the real world ,” and is proving hugely popular.

“It encourages people to become comfortable and familiar with the fast natural English of native speakers that we hear in movies, TV series, and, of course, in real life.”

The app was launched in May, and is now operational in over 100 countries with 80.000 users worldwide.

And it is already a tool that English teachers in Spain are recommending to their students.

Its popularity comes at a time when Spanish learners of the English language seemingly need all the help that they can get. 

A new ranking places the Spanish as the worst in the EU at speaking English, below even the notoriously bad-at-English French and Italians. 

Unlike their neighbours in Portugal who rank among the best, thanks in part to the custom there of not dubbing over all foreign television and film productions.  

“Watching films and TV can be a very valuable way to learn a language and especially hone listening skills, but watching with subtitles does almost nothing to help that skill,” argues Sternberg. “However, watching the short clips and then engaging with the interactive exercises is hugely helpful and also lots of fun.”

For more about Wannalisn and to try out the app for free CLICK HERE.