How Spain is changing its ESO secondary education system

The Spanish government has announced major changes to the country's secondary education system, with the overall aim of encouraging critical thinking instead of learning by rote as has traditionally been the case. Here's what you need to know.

Changes to high school in Spain
New curriculum in Spain. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

Spain’s Council of Ministers has approved this Tuesday the Royal Decree detailing changes to its Compulsory Secondary Education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, ESO), from ages 12 to 16. 

These changes will be implemented in the 2022-2023 academic year for the first and third years of ESO and in the 2023-2024 academic year for the 2nd and 4th years.

What are the overall changes? 

One of the main changes to the curriculum is that the Spanish government wants to promote reasoning and critical thinking over learning by rote, which has been traditionally been favoured in Spanish classrooms.

Students will learn how to apply their knowledge to real-world situations instead of just reading about subjects and copying notes. 

They also aim to prevent students from having to repeat subjects and failing. 

Reading comprehension, oral and written expression, digital competence, critical thinking, emotional values, and peace and creativity will be taught throughout the curriculum.

New educational concepts will also be introduced such as health education, sex education, gender equality and learning mutual respect as well as cooperation with other students.  

Special attention will be given to language, writing and mathematics, and extra time will also be dedicated to reading in all subjects.

New changes will also be made to how students are graded and evaluated, which the government hopes will lead to fewer failures.

How will school subjects be evaluated?

The new grading system will establish objectives and competencies which the students will have to pass. Students will only be allowed to repeat a subject once, with a maximum of two repetitions allowed over the whole time in ESO.  

Instead of repeating a subject, which has an “ineffective and regressive character” according to the new educational law (LOMLOE), methods for early detection, adaptation and student monitoring will be promoted. 

In each case, it will be up to the teachers whether a student passes or fails. Teachers will use the following grades: Insufficient (IN, equal to a D grade), Sufficient (SU, equal to a C- grade), Good (BI, equal to a C grade), Notable (NT, equal to a B grade), or Outstanding (SB, equal to an A grade).

In the case of subjects that integrate different topics of study, they will be marked with a single grade. 

Decisions on whether students should move up from one year to another will be made by a teaching team, based on the achievement of objectives and skills. If the students have acquired these competencies, they will obtain the title of Graduated in ESO. 

students in Spain

Students will be taught reasoning and critical thinking. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

Will there be any new subjects? 

Yes, there will be changes to the existing subjects, as well as the addition of new subjects.

Subjects studied in the first three years of ESO will be Biology and Geology; Physical Education; Visual and Audiovisual Arts; Physics and Chemistry; Geography and History; Spanish Language and Literature; Foreign Languages; Maths; Music; and Technology and Digitisation. 

The two new subjects of Technology and Digital Studies must be taken in the first three years of ESO, while in the fourth year, there will be another subject on just Digital Studies, which will be optional. According to Spain’s new LOMLOE law, these subjects are aimed at “the development of certain skills of a cognitive and procedural nature”. 

Economics and Entrepreneurship is another addition, which will be optional in the fourth year. The purpose of this subject will be “to promote the entrepreneurial spirit”, “to help students understand that entrepreneurs must make their way in a global context”; and finally, that the students “transfer their knowledge to practical situations by developing an entrepreneurial project”.

Religious studies will be optional and Spain’s regions will also have the choice of incorporating Spanish sign language into the 4th year of ESO.   

The additions mean that a couple of subjects have been eliminated from the curriculum, including Philosophy and the chronological teaching of History.

For the first time, the main historical facts will not be taught. Instead, events will be grouped into thematic blocks such as “marginalisation and segregation, control and submission in the history of mankind.” Events such as the Conquest of America and the French Revolution are not mentioned in the new curriculum.  

In the 4th year of ESO, another new guidance course will also be introduced, which will prepare students for further studies or working life.

Gender roles and progressive ideas 

According to LOMLOE law, education will have a clear “gender perspective”. Courses in Civic and Ethical Values will also be introduced and will replace Education for Citizenship studies. 

The new law states that students will “become aware of the struggle for effective gender equality, and of the problem of violence and exploitation of women, through the analysis of the various waves of feminism, inequality issues, violence and discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and LGBTQI+ rights”.

Language and literature subjects will look at issues such as equal rights as well as the “recognition of the linguistic and dialectal diversity of Spain and of the world, combating linguistic prejudices and stereotypes and stimulating linguistic reflection”.

Personal and cultural identity, ethics, and the environment will also play central roles across the subjects. 

How many hours will each subject be taught for?

Hourly schedules will also be changed under the new law, meaning that different subjects will be granted more or less time. 

The most number of hours will be dedicated to Spanish Language and Literature at 325 hours for the first three years and 115 hours in the fourth year of ESO. 

The new subject of Technology and Digitisation, which will be taught in the first three years, will be the second highest with 140 hours, more hours than Biology and Geology, which will be allotted 105 hours. 

105 hours will also be allotted to Religion, Music, Physical Education, Visual and Audio Visual Arts, Physics and Chemistry, while Education in Ethical and Civic Values will be allocated 65 hours. 

In the 4th year of ESO, all subjects will be taught for 65 hours, with the exception of Spanish Language and Literature, Foreign Language and Maths, which will be assigned 100 to 115 hours. Physical Education and Religion will only be taught for 35 hours during the entire school year.

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How Barcelona’s ‘bike bus’ scheme for schoolkids is getting noticed worldwide

In a chic Barcelona neighbourhood, a convoy of kid cyclists glides down a car-free street as part of the city's "bicibus" scheme to encourage green transport and physical exercise.

How Barcelona's 'bike bus' scheme for schoolkids is getting noticed worldwide
Around 140 children use the two "bicibus" routes that currently operate in the Eixample neighbourhood of Barcelona. Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP

The children take to the streets every Friday in the city’s Eixample neighbourhood, picking up other kids along the circuit and dropping them off at their schools, as a traditional bus route would work.

The roads are closed to traffic to make sure the young riders are safe, and parents often join in, sometimes carrying younger children in bike seats.

The programme, which was rolled out in September, has been so popular that other neighbourhoods are hoping to replicate it — and interest has been piqued internationally as well.

“In several months, there will be other routes in other neighbourhoods,” said Genis Domínguez, 40, whose children go to school in Eixample, home to wide avenues and stylish shops.

Barcelona already boasts a network of bicycle lanes, but they are not necessarily safe for kids, Domínguez said. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

“They are very close to the streets where cars go too fast and motorcycles get too close,” he told AFP.

Municipal police are available to escort the children, with officers on bicycles or motorcycles travelling in the front, back or next to the group.

Barcelona’s city hall said the goal of the scheme is to “promote a change toward a more sustainable and active mobility”.

Around 140 children use the two “bicibus” routes that currently operate in Eixample, but parents from 35 schools across Barcelona took part in a recent meeting to learn how to set them up in their neighbourhoods, said Dominguez.

Similar projects already exist in other cities such as Dublin, but a viral video of Barcelona’s “bicibus” has sparked interest in the scheme around the world, including from Buenos Aires and San Francisco.

So far, it’s proven popular among the pint-sized participants.

“Parents tell us that Friday is the day when they have the least difficulty to wake up their children,” said Domínguez.