ESL situation in Spain

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Manja Veldin , Maša Vidmar

Spain once had the highest ESL rate among the EU-28 countries, but the rate has fallen considerably in the last few years. Spain is one of very few European countries with a comprehensive strategy in place to reduce ESL. Multi-professional teams are both a legal obligation and a well-established practice.

Countries : Spain 

In Spain, ESL was already recognised as a pressing issue back in 1985, although reducing ESL was only acknowledged as a specific objective in an educational law in 2006. Indeed, Spain has a relatively high share of ESLers, one that is constantly above the EU average. According to the latest Eurostat data, the ESL rate in Spain was 19% in 2016, higher than the Europe 2020 target of 10%, but has been showing a steady decline in recent years. Spain is currently on the right path to reach the national target of 15% by 2020. However, large discrepancies remain between regions, male versus females and native versus foreign-born. Spain is one of very few countries with a comprehensive national strategy to tackle ESL; the strategy’s main goal is to reduce factors that lead to ESL and promote the return to education by students who have left education (regardless of whether they are employed or not). Another goal is to conduct special actions in areas with high ESL rates and develop measures and prevention programmes for students experiencing difficulties in compulsory education. In addition, some territorial strategies are being implemented by the autonomous regions, while an ongoing reform of the education system is also expected to help lower ESL rates. Spain also has in place education and career guidance in primary and secondary education and numerous other measures (prevention, intervention and compensation strategies) that address the problem. In this context, multi-professional teams operate in schools and are both a legal obligation and a well-established practice.


In Spain, ESL is a well-known problem that is studied by institutions dealing with it and academics from several disciplines (Enguita, Martínez, & Gómez, 2010). ESL was already recognised as a pressing issue back in 1985, although reducing ESL was only acknowledged as a specific objective in an educational law in 2006. In October 2016, a new government was formed in Spain that made tackling ESL and school failure some of the main objectives as part of its encouragement for the National Pact for Education (Eurydice, n.d.). This aim of the article is to describe the state of affairs and recent trends regarding ESL in Spain. Some characteristics of the Spanish education system relevant to ESL are presented at the beginning (length of compulsory education, transitions, streaming, recent reforms, grade retention etc.), followed by ESL statistics in Spain and some insights into redressing ESL in the country.


We draw information for this article from European documents (European Commission – EC, Eurydice), Eurostat, ministerial documents on ESL and other documents and reports available online (prepared by Spanish local governments or institutions). A search for scientific articles was conducted using the key words “early school leaving”, “early school leaver”, “drop-out” and “Spain” in the EBSCOhost database. A search was also conducted using the backward procedure.

Some relevant characteristics of Spain’s education system

The Spanish education system is decentralised. Educational powers are shared between the State General Authority (Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport) and the authorities of the Autonomous Communities (Regional Ministries or Departments for Education). In certain autonomous cities (Ceuta, Melilla), the Ministry of Education alone exercises the educational powers. While the central education administration executes the government’s general guidelines on education policy and regulates basic elements of the system, it is the regional education authorities that develop the regional regulations and hold the executive and administrative competencies for managing the education system in their own territory (Eurydice, n.d.).

Education in Spain is compulsory and free in publicly-funded schools for children aged 6 to 16 (Eurydice, 2016). The length of compulsory education was extended (as a prevention measure against ESL) in 2006, from 14 to 16 years of age (Nevala et al., 2011). Several transitions between education levels may pose a risk factor for ESL (e.g. Eccles, 2004). Compulsory education occurs in two stages, primary education (Educación Primaria, 6–12 years of age) that transitions into compulsory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, 12–16 years of age). Streaming begins at the age of 15 (diagnostic test) when students can apply for basic vocational training (Formación Profesional Básica, 15–17 years of age) or successfully complete the compulsory secondary education and continue studying in upper secondary education (Bachillerato, 16–18 years of age) (Eurydice, 2016). They also have Specialised Education (Artistic, Sport and Language education) that has its own organisation (Eurydice, n.d.).

Another important aspect of the education system related to ESL is grade retention (risk factor). Regulations governing grade retention in Spain state that a pupil can only be retained once in their primary education and, if a pupil’s grades are not satisfactory, other criteria are taken into account in the final decision on the pupil’s progression, and they may be given the opportunity to conditionally progress to the next year (EACEA P9 Eurydice, 2011). According to 2009 PISA data, Spain has one of the highest shares of repeaters at primary school (12.2%) (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). The percentage of students repeating a grade in primary, lower secondary or upper secondary school was 35%, and later dropped to 31.3% (OECD, 2015). In Spain, it is more likely to repeat a grade at secondary education level than in primary education (Ikeda & García, 2014). Students enrolled at disadvantaged schools (46%) are more likely to repeat a grade than students at advantaged schools (12%) (OECD, 2015). Authors (Enguita, Martínez, & Gómez, 2010) have identified two factors seen among students who drop out: repeating an academic year (88%) and absenteeism with unjustified absences (91%).

In relation to early childhood education and care (a system-level protective factor against ESL), pre-primary education in Spain lasts up to 6 years of age. The second cycle (3–6 years of age) is free of charge but not compulsory and is attended by 96.6% of 3-year-olds and up to 99.9% of 5-year-olds (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Eurostat, 2014), well above the EU average (ET Monitor Spain, 2016b).

Recent relevant reforms

The Spanish education system has been experiencing reform since the Act on the Improvement of the Quality of Education was passed in 2013 (thus amending the 2006 Education Act). As part of this education system reform, one secondary vocational school programme (PCPI-Programas de Cualificación Profesional Inicial, 16–18 year) was phased out in 2014/15 (Eurydice, 2014). In the future, compulsory secondary education will be organised in cycles (1st cycle: 13–15 years; 2nd cycle: 15–16 years) and external assessment will be conducted at the end of compulsory secondary education. The assessment will have academic validity, besides the average of the grades that will be weighted when awarding the certificate (Graduado en Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, the first academic certificate obtained after finishing Basic Compulsory Education), which will provide access to Bachillerato, intermediate vocational training, intermediate Plastic Arts and Design Education ‘training cycles’, Sports Education, and to the world of work. Students not obtaining this certificate will be awarded with another (Certificado oficial de estudios obligatorios), whose aim is to prove their schooling years and the academic competencies achieved therein (Eurydice, n.d.).

ESL statistics in Spain

In Spain, the national definition of ESL corresponds with Eurostat’s: young people aged between 18 and 24 who have not completed upper secondary education and are no longer in education and training (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Spain has a declining trend in the ESL rate. According to Eurostat data (2016), in 2009 the rate stood at 31.2%, having fallen to 23.6% in 2013. Nevertheless, this remained one of the highest ESL rates among the EU-28 and Spain additionally aimed to cut the ESL rate to 23.0% by 2015 (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Spain already achieved this in 2014 when its ESL rate was 21.9% (EU average 11.1%) and even more in 2016 when the ESL rate was 19% (EU average 10.7%) (Eurostat, 2016). The country’s national target for ESL by 2020 is 15% (10% in the EU) (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Figure 1 presents Eurostat’s ESL rate in Spain for the last 14 years. A noticeable declining trend in the rate can be observed, yet it is constantly above the EU average and there were also a few breaks in the time series (in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2014), making the data not fully comparable.

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Figure 1. Spain: time trend of share of the population aged 18-24 with at most a lower secondary education and not in further education or training (Eurostat, 2016)
Note: The indicator is defined as the percentage of the population aged 18-24 with at most lower secondary education and who were not in further education or training during the last 4 weeks preceding the survey. Lower secondary education refers to ISCED (International Standard Classification of Education) 2011 level 0-2 for data from 2014 onwards and to ISCED 1997 level 0-3C short for data up to 2013. The indicator is based on the EU Labour Force Survey.

The trends in EU-28 countries show that the share of early leavers is higher for foreign-born versus native-born (EU: 19.7% versus 9.8% in 2016) and for male versus female (EU: 12.2% versus 9.2% in 2016). This is also typical for Spain (32.9% versus 16.1%, and 22.7% versus 15.1%). Foreign-born living in Spain had the highest level of ESL (38.3%) in EU countries in 2013. According to IVIE (2013), being a female in Spain reduces the probability of ESL by 12%, while being a foreigner increases it by 16%.

As we see in Figure 2, Spain also has great regional disparities with the ESL rate in 2016 varying from 12.9% in Noreste to 23.6% in Sur (Eurostat database, n.d.). Many northern regions have a high level of investment in education and a heavy industrial profile, encouraging participation in VET. Both lead to less ESL. On the other hand, many southern regions have very different cultural, social and economic conditions that contribute to higher ESL levels (Nevala et al., 2011). A few autonomous communities have ESL levels above 20%, while others have rates lower than the 10% European average (ET Monitor Spain, 2016b). Disparities in the rate of ESL coincide with indicators showing the income and general economic development of a region (Nevala et al., 2011). While the country is still far from the EU ESL target that remains a major challenge in education, gaps in this area were substantially reduced in 2015 and 2016 (EC, 2017).

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Figure 2. NUTS statistical regions of Spain: time trend of share of the population aged 18-24 with at most a lower secondary education and not in further education or training (Eurostat, 2016)
Note: The indicator is defined as the percentage of the population aged 18-24 with at most lower secondary education and who were not in further education or training during the last four weeks preceding the survey. Lower secondary education refers to ISCED (International Standard Classification of Education) 2011 level 0-2 for data from 2014 onwards and to ISCED 1997 level 0-3C short for data up to 2013. The indicator is based on the EU Labour Force Survey.

The ESL rate in Spain increases with age and the educational levels of both parents are relevant (IVIE, 2013). The parents of about 80% of ESLers in Spain have a low level of education, regarded as one of the biggest factors that influence ESL (Lastra-Bravo, Tolón-Becerra & Salinas-Andújar, 2013). As Merino and Garcia (2011) state by way of summary of their chapter, factors helping to explain school failure in Spain include the »supply-side« characteristics of individuals and their families, the »demand-side« characteristics of labour markets and the ‘institutional’ factor, namely what schools are able to and in fact do to increase or reduce ESL. Two authors (Vallejo & Dooly, 2013) combined the results of studies in Spain that analysed the structural and social causes of the country’s high levels of ESL. They present them in two groups; exogenous factors: those affecting the education system but with origins in the social context (socio-economic conditions, ethnic origin, the cultural capital of families, geographical variations in ESL ratios); and endogenous factors: those depending on the educational norms and regulations (subjective evaluation procedures to obtain final certificates, which are set to change under the recent reform, curriculum contents and their relationship to the number of years required for each cycle).

Insight into tackling the ESL issue in Spain

Reducing ESL was identified as a specific objective in 2006 in the Organic Law on Education (Ley Organica de Educacion, LOE). Called the Organic Act for the Improvement of the Quality of Education (Ley Orgánica para la Mejora de la Calidad Educativa LOMCE), the 2013 version of the document acknowledges the high level of ESL as one of the reform’s main drivers (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Spain has a clear understanding that tackling ESL requires a partnership approach, which includes the education community in its broader sense (Nevala et al., 2011). The Ministry of Education has created specific units to implement, coordinate and monitor policies regarding ESL (EC, 2013). It is adapting strategies to the varying socio-economic circumstances or the disparities in ESL rates in regions or localities across the country (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014).

In 2008, the Ministry of Education and the Education Administrations of the Autonomous Communities agreed on the “Plan to reduce ESL”. It contains a clear framework for policies, projects, proposals and a general strategy for tackling ESL (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). The Plan states the educational authorities should implement special action plans in areas with high ESL rates (identified as those with large immigrant or Roma populations and economically deprived areas) (Nevala et al., 2011). The Plan was followed by the “Programme to reduce ESL in education and training” (Programa para la reducción del abandono temprano de la educación y la formación), put into practice by the Autonomous Communities with the Ministry of Education’s collaboration (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Related to the plan and the programme’s framework, Spain has taken different actions to tackle ESL, including work on prevention, intervention and compensation measures (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014; Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2015). The 2013–2016 Strategy for Entrepreneurship and Youth Employment also states that cutting ESL levels is one of its main objectives, which includes giving financial aid to early leavers to return to education (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Still, Spain spends less on education at all levels than the EU-27 (in GDP terms) and the differences are much higher in secondary education (it spends 26% less) than in primary education (5% less) (Fernández-Macías, Antón, Braña, & De Bustillo, 2013).

Due to decentralisation, measures may vary in each Autonomous Community, although measures that have proven to be most effective spread quickly and each Community has emphasised measures that address the (educational, social and economic) circumstances with the greatest influence on ESL within their territory (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Some progress came when implementing the new educational schemes that aim to increase the quality of primary and secondary education and cut ESL rates in the process. But only limited progress has been recorded in the area of enhancing the guidance given to groups at risk of ESL (EC, 2015).

As a preventive measure, Spain the length of compulsory schooling, reformed the curricula, and implemented new types of study pathways and changes in teaching methods (Nevala et al., 2011). According to ET Monitor (2013), measures to counter ESL at the national and regional level have been put in place in recent years, including the “Plan to fight ESL” (preventive and intervention measures such as analysis, awareness raising, follow up of ESLers to support their reintegration into the education and training system), PROA (a guidance and support programme) and PCPI (an initial professional qualification programme). The Ministry of Education has been evaluating these measures. The national programmes referred to above have not been funded by the regions since 2012, and also are not included in the 2013 national budget (ET Monitor Spain, 2013). One of the most significant actions is the assigning of monitoring duties related to ESL actions to the Sectoral Committee for Education (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014).

The Programme for Reinforcement, Guidance and Support – PROA (Programas de Refuerzo, Orientación y Apoyo) has been running since the 2004–2005 academic year and is to be replaced by other measures and initiatives, suggesting a deep structural reform of the education system within the framework of the Law for the Improvement of Quality in Education. PROA aimed to address inequalities in education, prevent social exclusion and give educational establishments extra resources. It worked together with pupils, families and the local environment and provided extra support for individual pupils facing difficulties as well as targeted support for primary and secondary schools hosting large numbers of pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds (EC, 2013).

Measurers that offer routes to re-enter the education system are also available in Spain (curricular diversification programmes, PCPI etc.) (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Developments were expected when implementing a 2-year initial vocational training programme that would add flexibility to educational pathways and upgrade the quality of basic vocational education and training (EC, 2015). So one of the Spanish plan’s recommendations to reduce ESL and reintegrate participants into the education system is to increase enrolment levels in the PCPI, especially in sectors where there are greater employment opportunities. PCPI (Programas de Cualificación Profesional Inicial – Initial Vocational Qualification Programmes) gives students unable to progress at the end of the third year of ESO a choice between repeating the year or pursuing the PCPI which like the traditional Bachillerato leads to a secondary education qualification. It is also an option for young people aged 16 and over who left school early, so it acts like a mechanism helping to bring ESLers into the labour market (Nevala et al., 2011). Only nine regions have so far developed the relevant legislation, leading to far fewer students enrolling than the government expected (EC, 2015).

Education and career guidance are other explicit measures for combatting ESL in Spain. Such measures recognise that guidance plays a central role in improving academic performance and clearly state that one of the objectives of guidance is to provide support and advice to those who left education or training early without qualifications (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Some regional administrators have effectively addressed their specific root causes of ESL through local projects and policies, yet there are not many evidence-based analyses available, which hinders national policies’ attempts to address the complexity of the problem (ET Monitor Spain, 2016b). Spain has teacher training reforms that directly seek to reduce ESL (Nevala at al., 2011). As a measure to prevent ESL, they give teachers some training in education and career guidance (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014) and their National Action Plan states that teacher training should aim to raise awareness of the ESL problem (Nevala et al., 2011). The Plan also promotes the practice of competent authorities validating non-formal learning (Nevala et al., 2011).

In Spain, the involvement of different professionals in tackling ESL is well established. The 2006 Organic Law on Education established that the responsibility for cutting ESL is held by all professionals working in schools, and the Programme to Reduce Early School Leaving from Education and Training established specific measures requiring the collaboration of several professionals. There are also well-established multi-agency partnerships within some regional coordinating bodies. Professionals involved at schools and in the community in 2013/14 included school heads, teachers, education and career counsellors, psychologists, social workers and youth workers. Guidance counsellors (orientadores, who must hold a bachelor’s degree in pedagogy, psychology or psycho-pedagogy and must also have undertaken an initial education course, or a master’s degree), belong to the secondary education body and specialising in educational guidance, are in charge of the guidance given in schools. They provide support, counselling and guidance to students, collaborate with schools and teachers in organising activities, tutoring (for details, see Nouwen, Van Praag, Van Caudenberg, Clycq, & Timmerman, 2016) and education and career guidance sessions (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). This education and career guidance structure is a permanent structure of the school and plays a central role in improving academic performances, and preventing and reducing ESL, favouring the students’ opportunities for social and labour integration, and transition to adult life. The involvement of all the different professionals within the school and in this structure is both legally compulsory and well-established. Moreover, the abovementioned professionals, together with other professionals (e.g., municipal social workers, members of municipal psycho-pedagogical cabinets, labour counsellors in public employment services, staff of non-profit associations etc.) participate in specific measures to reduce ESL, and these measures can take place either within or outside of schools. The measures vary across the different Autonomous Communities and, depending on the specific measure, the professionals are partnered up in different ways, i.e. not all professionals are involved in all measures.

Spain also has specific programmes targeting particularly disadvantaged areas and groups of students (immigrants, ethnic minorities, students with behavioural problems, emotional disorders, lack of motivation etc.) experiencing higher ESL rates. These programmes foster cooperation and coordination with different bodies and local and regional authorities (EC/EACEA/Eurydice/Cedefop, 2014). Some of the decrease in ESL levels can be attributed to the effectiveness of certain regional programmes (EC, 2015). For example, in the Autonomous Community of Galacia the problem was tackled with the “Project to prevent truancy and ESL” that had encouraging results (Nevala et al., 2011). As an example of a reintegration measure, many cities in Spain have established “Second-chance schools” that serve as a transition resource, tend to motivate young people and may be used as a pedagogical resource for addressing other issues before they reintegrate into education or the labour market. A virtual platform allowing distance learning and providing guidance for vocational modules that can lead to qualification was also created (Nevala et al., 2011). The Open Classroom, a curricular adaptation group, is also designed to cope with school failure and prevent ESL (Nouwen, Van Praag, Van Caudenberg, Clycq, & Timmerman, 2016).

In addition, in collaboration with the Spanish Ministry of Education a well-established and broad Spanish online platform for professional development called Aula Mentor offered a course focusing on ESL (developed within the TITA project). Aula Mentor assists all adults seeking professional development in different areas and certain courses specifically target educators and their professional development; Aula Mentor, n.d.). Educating professionals working in schools on the topic of ESL aims to raise awareness and competencies for ESL prevention and working with (potential) ESLers.


Spain is one of the few EU member states in which ESL was already recognised as an important issue prior to Europe’s attention to ESL within the Education & Training frameworks of 2010 (European Commission, 2002) and 2020 (Council of the EU, 2009). Indeed, ESL rates in Spain are some of the highest in Europe and, despite relative progress made since 2000, the rates remain far above the European target of 10%. Yet Spain reached the national target for 2015 already in 2014 and is thus on the right path to achieve the national target for 2020 of 15%. However, the large discrepancies between regions, males and females, and native and foreign-born remain a challenge.

Spain is also one of the few countries with a comprehensive national strategy in place to tackle ESL which may be translated as the ‘Plan to reduce ESL’ and the ‘Programme to reduce ESL in education and training’, with both providing a clear framework for policies, projects, proposals, regional plans, actions and measures. For example, the two documents establish that all professionals working in schools are responsible for preventing ESL and require the collaboration of different professionals. The involvement of various professionals in multi-professional teams within the school and the education and career guidance structures is thus legally compulsory and well-established. Moreover, the school structure has further links with professionals from other institutions (inter-agency partnerships). Hence, while several actions and recommendations for cutting ESL levels exists in Spain, the need remains to increase investment in education and national research on ESL, better acknowledge and manage diversity as an intrinsic trait of quality education, make school timetables more flexible so as to allow part-time jobs and smaller class ratios to enable more personalised attention etc. (for details, see Vallejo & Dooly, 2013). To conclude, despite the long way Spain has come in tackling ESL, it is necessary to continue the efforts and focus to ensure further progress.

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