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Basques reinvent themselves as education power

By Sean Coughlan
Global education, editor

image captionThe Basque government has invested heavily in science and research

Whenever there are discussions about the international superpowers in education it's not long before you hear about Shanghai, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong or Finland.

And then there are the rapid climbers such as Vietnam and Poland.

But what about the Basque education system as the next rising star? It has the hallmarks of many high achievers - with a strong sense of identity and ambition, emerging from conflict and with a need to compete with much bigger neighbours.

The Basque government, with a high degree of autonomy from the Spanish central government, has invested heavily in education.

If the Basque region were ranked as a country, only Denmark and Austria would have higher levels of per-pupil spending in Europe.

image captionEducation minister Cristina Uriarte sees schools as vital to promoting Basque culture

Almost 48% of the working-age population has a degree-level qualification, similar to the levels in Finland and Norway. An unusually high proportion of these graduates, almost half, have studied science, maths and engineering.

In terms of the percentage of the population engaged in research and development, it is up at the top with Finland and Denmark.

In many ways, the educational profile feels more like a pocket of Scandinavia rather than southern Europe.

And Swedish experts, who have seen their own school system slipping down the international rankings, have been visiting Basque schools to learn lessons.

So what could they find out?

The Basque government's education minister Cristina Uriarte says the commitment to education is strongly linked to national identity.

"Education is the key to keeping our culture," she says.

image copyrightThinkstock

There is a big push for schools to teach in the Basque language and to instil a sense of cultural identity.

Under Franco's dictatorship the Basque language was suppressed.

The Basque government, seeking to escape this long shadow, has used its devolved powers to build an education system to protect its language and build economic self-sufficiency.

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They have outspent most of Europe on school budgets and poured money into research and development to develop hi-tech industries.

And this approach has seen the Basque region avoid the levels of youth unemployment afflicting much of Spain.

The minister says they have tried to find out what has worked from high-performing education systems, making links with Finland, South Korea and Estonia.

They have also experimented with different types of school.

image captionGuillermo Dorronsoro says investing in research has turned around dying industries around Bilbao

About half of Basque schools are a mixture of public and private, where the state pays most of the funding, but parents are also expected to contribute.

Maritere Ojanguren is head of such an institution, Lauaxeta Ikastola, a school about 15 miles outside Bilbao. It is owned by a co-operative, with parents as members, and receives about 60% of its funding from the government, with the rest coming from fees paid by parents.

image captionMaritere Ojanguren says parents who help pay towards the costs of education are "more engaged" in school life

Parents have to pay fees of about 1,200 euros (£950) per year, with support for those who cannot afford the cost.

Ms Ojanguren says this shared payment system makes parents much more engaged in the running of the school - and such schools have to make sure that they can offer more than non-fee paying schools.

Such schemes are controversial, with opposition from the left who see this mixed financing as socially divisive.

But it also reflects on the entrepreneurialism of Basque culture.

image captionLauaxeta school teaches pupils from the age of two until they leave at 18

In terms of international news headlines, for decades the Basque region was associated with the terror campaign waged in support of independence from the Spanish government.

But what this overshadowed is that the Basque region is a very prosperous part of Europe. Only Luxembourg and Austria have a higher per-capita income.

Guillermo Dorronsoro, dean of the business school at Deusto University in Bilbao, says the Basque country has some of the key factors that help to drive a successful education system.

image captionDeusto University in Bilbao: The Basque region has high levels of graduates in its workforce

He says "there is a strong sense of identity" which helps to create a common sense of purpose and collective commitment, from schools, families and policymakers.

And he says the Basques have an underlying "story" which can help to mobilise public support - in the galvanising legacy of the struggles under Franco and the cause of defending their language.

"When democracy arrived, all of those feelings were channelled into these ideas and investments."

But Prof Dorronsoro says without adopting this education strategy, the Basque country would be in a much tougher place.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was built on the site of declining dockland industries

Bilbao, the region's biggest city, might now be a tourist destination, with visitors coming to see the shimmering architecture of the Guggenheim Museum.

But it had been a city of declining industries and derelict docklands.

The Basque approach to regeneration combined such cultural showcases with support for new industries connected to university-level science research.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's director of education, says the Basque education system compares well with other Spanish regions.

The Basque country has been a big investor in education. But he says that part of this has been the "huge investment" in the political project of promoting the Basque language.

Mr Schleicher says the Basque education policies have been about "distinguishing themselves from other regions in Spain" and measuring themselves against international as well as regional standards.

Prof Dorronsoro says education has to be linked to a collective sense of a shared purpose. "Education is a long-term investment, it needs an identity. If you don't feel any identity, you don't make an effort."

Related Topics

  • Spain