Reorganizing the school network to provide better facilities and new opportunities
Portugal's weak results in the 2000 PISA tests spotlighted major shortcomings in the nation's education system. In rural areas, many primary schools were small and isolated. In towns and cities, schools were often so crowded that they had to operate a double shift. Students, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, frequently had to repeat grades. Many eventually dropped out of school.
A national debate on education led to wide-ranging reforms. One of the most significant was a decision to reorganize the school network by creating "school clusters" bringing together several schools in a single educational project. A typical cluster may consist of five to 10 pre-school units and primary schools feeding into a single lower secondary school. Each cluster is led by a director who is appointed by a council of teachers, parents, students, municipal leaders and other relevant community and institutional representatives.
The Ministry of Education and municipalities work together to create clusters, deciding on the construction of new schools on the basis of numbers of students and schools, geographical factors and demographic indicators. Thanks to their broader range of staff and better facilities, these clusters help to improve work organisation and teacher collaboration, thereby providing better and more extensive services for students.
In parallel, Portugal has raised teachers' salaries, to the point where they are now around 19 percent higher than those of many workers with similar tertiary education in other sectors. Working hours have also been extended. Teachers spent 875 hours teaching in class in primary school in 2009 against 855 hours in 2008 and only 783 hours in 1996, and 770 hours in lower secondary school against 752 hours in 2008 and 644 in 1996.
More effective use is being made of ICT and e-learning, supported by investment in ICT infrastructure. Full-time school and extra-curricular activities have become generalized, in parallel with in-service training for teachers of mathematics, Portuguese language, science and ICT. New systems have been introduced for evaluating teachers and schools, and a National Plan has been launched to improve students' reading proficiency and foster good reading habits. All students in 4th, 6th and 9th grades are now subject to annual assessments in Portuguese and mathematics. In August 2009, Portugal raised the school leaving age to 18.
Coupled with rising education levels among the population as a whole, in turn leading to rising expectations on the part of parents, the reforms are helping to raise student performance. The proportion of pupils that have to repeat a grade at primary or lower secondary level has fallen sharply, to 12.8 percent in the case of ninth-grade pupils in 2009, down from 21.5 percent in 2005.
In the 2009 PISA tests, Portuguese students, while still performing below the OECD average, showed improvements in all areas. Results also showed a reduction in the impact on students' learning outcomes of their socio-economic background, signifying a more equitable schooling system overall.