December 5, 2023

The energetic reduction of repeating students that occurred two years ago has ended up being a mirage. The problems that students had to follow the classes during the pandemic led educational managers to relax the evaluation rules. And this resulted, in the 2020-2021 academic year, in a historic halving of the repetition rate, which brought Spain closer to European standards, where repetition is considered an ineffective tool and has been falling into disuse. The data just published by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training reflect, however, that after the exceptionality of the coronavirus, the levels are rising again strongly. Last year the rate went from 1.2% to 2.1% in primary; in ESO, from 4.2% to 7.6%, and in high school, from 3.4% to 6.9%. In other words, they grew in percentages ranging between 75% and 103% depending on the educational stage.

The rebound occurred despite the fact that the new education law, the Lomloe, which came into force in 2021, establishes that repetition must be an exceptional resource and separates promotion from the fact of having passed a certain number of subjects. Around half of the autonomous communities recovered levels quite similar to those they had before the covid. In Murcia they even increased; that is, more students repeated than before the Lomloe was approved.

In nine autonomous regions, the repetition rates returned in the 2021-2022 academic year to levels not far removed from those they had in the last academic year that was not affected by the pandemic, 2018-2019. In reality, except for Murcia, in that period they all experienced decreases, but they were less than one point in the case of ESO (students from 13 to 16 years old), and it is therefore worth registering them in the slow decrease in repetitions that has been taking place in the country as a whole for 15 years, a dynamic unrelated, therefore, to the changes in educational legislation that have been approved in this legislature. This article takes ESO as a reference, considering it the most representative stage in the matter; in primary (students from 6 to 12 years old) the repetition rates have been low for some time, and the baccalaureate (17 and 18 years old) is not a compulsory stage and has much fewer students.

Special cases

The analysis requires, in any case, nuances. The most important is that among those nine territories there are two that already had low levels of repetition before the pandemic, and had less room to continue reducing them. These are Navarra, where the 5.9% they had in ESO in 2019 has gone to 5.6% in 2022. And the Basque Country, where the evolution has been from 5.8% to 5.1%. Catalonia demonstrates, even so, that it is possible to continue drastically reducing repetition despite starting from low levels: before the covid the Catalan rate stood at 4.4% and last year it reduced it to 2.7%. “I think it is a cultural and also a political issue,” says Eduard Cirera, director of the Neus Català public institute, in Cornellà del Llobregat (Barcelona). “Here there has been a clear line for a long time that repetition does not provide great benefits. It is better for students to promote and work with an individualized plan and a more personalized attention to diversity”.

Among the nine communities that have returned to levels similar to those before the pandemic are four of the five governed by the PP (Murcia, Madrid, Andalusia and Castilla y León, the exception is Galicia). Both these autonomies and two others governed by the PSOE, Aragón and Castilla-La Mancha, which have had a similar evolution, approved regulations last year that largely distorted the Lomloe mandate to turn repetition into something truly exceptional.

In these territories, instead of leaving the decision on whether a student should be promoted and graduated to the teaching teams, guided by what the teaching staff considers most beneficial for their academic career, as provided by law, the regional executives introduced additional requirements. In general, they consisted of demanding reinforced majorities of two thirds in the teaching team so that a student can pass the course with more than two failures. An extra condition that has favored in many centers the maintenance of the criterion that has traditionally worked in Spain, whereby if a student has more than two failures, they cannot pass and must repeat all the subjects.

The Ministry of Education has tried to get the autonomies to withdraw these limitations through negotiation, but it has taken two of them, Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha, to court due to their refusal to do so. The Castilian-Manchegan Board has already agreed to modify it. And so did Murcia, which in December approved a new decree adjusted to Lomloe. The results of this course will tell if this regulatory turn translates into a change in the trend in their repetition rates. The region has the highest levels in primary (4.9%) and ESO (11.7%), and in baccalaureate (10.3%) it is only surpassed by Castilla y León (11.6%).

The autonomous communities that have applied the law without tricks have, in general, experienced greater decreases in repetition rates compared to the pre-covid stage. This has happened, for example, in the Canary Islands, where the repetition rate in ESO has been reduced by 2.5%, to 6.5%. Or in the Valencian Community, where it has fallen by 2.4%, but since it started from such a high level it continues to be above the average, with a rate of 8.1% of repeaters in compulsory secondary education.

Spain now has a regulation “similar to that of other countries where there is hardly any repetition, such as Denmark,” says José Saturnino Martínez, director of the Canarian Agency for University Quality and Educational Evaluation. The sociologist specialized in education believes, however, that overcoming the resistance of the tendency to repeat in Spain will take time, because there is a strong “cultural inertia that comes from very old”. And he makes that, according to the latest PISA report (a somewhat old photograph, because it is from 2018), 29% of 15-year-old Spanish students have repeated, almost triple the OECD average. Martínez mentions two reasons that help to understand it. “One is the vision of repetition as a punishment. A threat that serves to discipline students and address the attitude problems that some show in the classroom. And another is the idea that all the problems come from the fact that the student is either clumsy or does not make an effort, that there is no room for many more interventions, and that it is best to leave it there, to see if with the little he did one year and little that the next one does goes forward. The problem with this conception, which we could call educational brutalism, is that it is shared not only by part of the teaching staff, but also by families and the entire educational community”.

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