Why Spain is failing in maths and science teaching

The latest PISA results reveal Spain's education system to have a gaping north south divide.

Why Spain is failing in maths and science teaching
Photo: spaces/Depositphotos

Spain earned its worst ever result for science in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old students across the world.

According to the report published on Tuesday, Spanish students scored an average of 483 points in the science tests, plummeting 13 points since the last study in 2015 to score the lowest results since the PISA test began in 2000.

They didn’t fare much better in maths, dropping five points to score 481 and falling below the OECD average of 489 which puts the nation on  a par with Hungary and Lithuania.

The breakdown of scores reveals the huge north-south divide when it comes to educational standards across Spain. Students in the northern half of the peninsula scored much higher in mathematics and science, in the extreme cases showing students who studied in the north had proficiency of more than one school year above their peers in the south.

The OECD suggests a 30 point difference represents a year’s study but students in Navarra held a 43 point lead over those in the Canary Islands for Mathematics while in sciences top scoring Galicia held a 40 point lead over the Canary Islands.

The lead stretched to over three times when comparing top of the league Galicia and Navarra to lowest scoring communities of Ceuta and Melia which fell behind 92 points in maths and 95 points in Science – effectively indicating that students in the north are three school years ahead of their peers in Spain’s North African enclaves.

“Socio-economic status is a strong predictor of results in mathematics and science in all countries, and explains 12 percent of the variation in results in mathematics and 10 percent in science in Spain,” explained a spokesman from the Ministry of Education during the presentation of the 2018 PISA Report.

The results revealed that while boys in Spain performed better than girls in maths, they achieved the same results in science. 

Spain was not included at all on the reading literacy results after the OECD detected “anomalies” in the data collection. Madrid’s education board also requested that the science and maths results be omitted after concluding anomalies also appeared in the collection of those results.

Madrid dropped 29 points in science and 17 in maths compared to three years ago, while Catalonia saw a loss of 15 points in science and 10 in maths.   

Spanish newspaper 20 Minutos produced a map to compare all the regions across Spain.

El Pais explained the poor showing as the result of austerity cuts in education brought in under the conservative PP government of Mariano Rajoy.

While the head of PISA, Andreas Schleicher, recommended that Spain change its teaching methodology focusing less on rote learning and memorizing and more on critical thinking and analysis.

On a positive note, Spanish students expressed high than average satisfaction with their lives. Some 96 percent of students in Spain reported sometimes or always feeling happy and only about 4 percent of students reported always feeling sad.

Overall, Spain ranks among the top 13 in the list of 79 countries, a position that has not significantly changed.


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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.