Executive summary

This report for Portugal forms part of the OECD Review of Policies to Improve the Effectiveness of Resource Use in Schools. The purpose of the review is to explore how school resources can be governed, distributed, utilised and managed to improve the quality, equity and efficiency of school education. The analysis presented in the report refers to the situation faced by the education system in January 2018, when the review team visited Portugal. The most recent educational data used in this report reflects the situation during the 2015/16 school year.

The Portuguese school system has witnessed historic improvements in access, attainment and performance over the past 20 years. Portugal is fast approaching near universal enrolment for school-aged children since the extension of compulsory schooling to 18 in 2009. Enrolment rates of students between 3 and 5 years old in pre-primary education increased to 88% in 2014, with a goal of universal access by 2019. Between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of youth under 25 years of age who had graduated from secondary schooling jumped from half to four-fifths of young people, by far the largest increase among OECD countries. Furthermore, 15-year-old students in Portugal saw the greatest improvements in their science abilities of any OECD country as measured by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) between 2006 and 2015. Simultaneously the proportion of 15-year-old students scoring below baseline proficiency declined precipitously. These improvements in students’ scientific skills were accompanied by similar substantial improvements in 15-year-olds’ reading and mathematics skills. Likewise, Portuguese children in their fourth year of primary school have improved their mathematics skills tremendously over the past 20 years as evidenced by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

Despite these impressive accomplishments, Portugal faces significant challenges to achieve an excellent and equitable system of schools. Important differences in student outcomes persist for students from under-served backgrounds, including students from low-income families, families with low levels of parental education, immigrant students and others. The share of 25-64 year-olds who had completed at least upper secondary education, despite recent increases, is still far below the OECD average. The share of early school leavers is substantial and many of those fail to pursue additional training; 13 out of 100 18-24 year-olds have not completed secondary education and are not enrolled in any type of further training or education. Student repetition rates are also high. In Portugal, about 34% of 15-year-old students have repeated a school year at least once, almost 3 times as frequently as the OECD average. Additionally, significant performance gaps persist based on students’ backgrounds, the schools they attend and the regions in which they live. The odds of a disadvantaged student being a low performer on the PISA assessment are seven times higher than the odds of an advantaged student, a worse rate than all but one other OECD country. Further, students in socio-economically disadvantaged schools in Portugal perform worse on PISA assessments, even after accounting for their own socio-economic background. Finally, regional performance differences persist.

Based on the review’s analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Portuguese school system, the review team makes the following recommendations to improve the effectiveness of resource use in Portugal.

Increase transparency, accountability and evaluation of the funding of school education

The Portuguese school system benefits from high levels of financial investment from public sources. It devotes 5.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on school education, a proportion higher than both the OECD average and its Southern European peers. Despite the comparatively strong financial commitment to education given the size of its economy, Portugal could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of how it uses these funds. Portugal sets the resources each school receives every year on the basis of a combination of factors, including the number of enrolled students, application-based targeted funding programmes, and a non-public algorithm for non-salary operational expenses. As a result, the criteria and decisions underlying school budgets are opaque to many stakeholders at different levels of the system. Furthermore, despite a wide range of data on students and schools and emerging systems for programmatic evaluation, Portugal does not consistently review the effectiveness of its resource expenditures nor make difficult decisions to shift resources away from less effective and towards more effective initiatives. There are rarely course corrections when project goals are unmet. Some programmes persist and are extended nationally, in some instances in the absence of clear knowledge about their impact or effectiveness. This can result in a series of overlapping and coincident projects.

Portugal should consider a shift away from its complex and obscure budgeting process by shifting gradually to a transparent, publicly-debated weighted student funding formula. This formula should be based on the true costs of school provision and equity considerations. Portuguese central authorities should also consider re-establishing a division within the Ministry of Education with planning and evaluation responsibilities. This unit could co-ordinate the formulation of a shared strategic medium- and long-term vision and estimate resource needs to achieve this vision. It might then prepare a medium-term expenditure framework to guide each annual budget process. Broad-based discussions should be initiated involving multiple stakeholders to identify measurable outcomes for the system: performance targets, metrics and progress monitoring processes. Critically, a culture change this significant will require building national and local staff’s capacity to use outcome-based approaches to guide their work. Over the long-term, Portugal could consider a gradual shift to outcome-based budgeting procedures that increase funding for successful initiatives and cut those that are unsuccessful.

Ensure key priorities such as equality of educational opportunity receive sufficient financial support from stable sources of national funds

Portugal has developed a series of programmes intended to combat inequality for under-resourced communities and vulnerable students. Means-tested social support exists for all students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds alongside specific programmes, instructional supports and additional resources for students struggling in school as well as schools facing concentrations of student need. Despite the existence of these programmes, concerns persist about whether their funding levels are sufficient and more broadly about whether they are effective. Targeted funding for equity purposes in Portugal remains small – flagship programmes constitute only 1.4% of the educational budget – both by comparative standards and judged against levels estimated necessary to overcome opportunity gaps. As a consequence, schools serving high-needs communities receive relatively meagre additional resources, either human or otherwise. Further, within-system evidence suggests that these funding streams are not always targeted towards schools that have the greatest levels of need. Additionally, significant core activities of the educational system, including its equity strategies, rely heavily on international funds. Given the inherent unpredictability of international funds over the long term, key priorities for the Portuguese system are subject to changing international conditions.

Portugal should consider shifting away from addressing inequality of opportunity through a series of application-based, categorical funding initiatives that lack an overall strategy towards a comprehensive strategy for equity funding. In the near-term Portuguese authorities could consider developing a process to include a broad cross-section of educational stakeholders to develop a comprehensive equity policy that ensured programmes did not duplicate efforts and were adequately funded. This approach would be facilitated by an estimation of the true costs required to provide equal educational opportunities and would require a shift of resources away from current priorities such as universal reductions in class size and towards targeted support for students from under-resourced communities and who face learning obstacles. In the longer term, the most straightforward way to improve equity funding is through the development of a weighted student formula. In order to ensure that its existent and future supports for vulnerable students and communities are immune to fluctuations in international funds, Portugal should consider gradually absorbing equity funding priorities into the national budget.

Integrate decentralisation in education management with the promotion of school autonomy into a comprehensive strategy for effective governance of the education system

The current Portuguese government has clearly articulated the school functions which it hopes to transfer over to local control: the construction and maintenance of school buildings, the hiring and employment of non-teaching staff and after-school activities. Alongside these decentralisation efforts that allocate powers and responsibilities across governmental levels, Portugal is also undertaking efforts to promote school autonomy. However, some areas are not under consideration for devolving to local control, such as hiring and placement of instructional staff and the organisation of the school network. Autonomy for curriculum development has been broadened but it is still somewhat constrained. School autonomy, as conceptualised by Portuguese authorities, does not include broader types of school autonomy such as local responsibility for financial or human resources. Together, these patterns create a risk that both municipalities and school-level actors will understand their key autonomies to be primarily related to the operational and management side of educational endeavours. The decentralisation processes may also lead to undesired effects with respect to equity in education as a result of different capacity levels in schools across the country, if not accompanied by structures to support and monitor the process.

Portugal should consider integrating its current decentralisation goals in education into a comprehensive strategy for effective governance and embrace the challenge to shift its current legalistic approach to a more systemic approach focusing on processes and governance culture. Portugal could explore various alternative governance structures. One sensible division would be to assign municipalities responsibility for all operational matters, including non-teaching staff responsible for operational management. Schools would then be granted further control over all resources (financial and human) which contribute directly towards student learning and development. The central government role could be to support municipalities and schools with capacity building efforts, with a particular eye towards assisting schools and communities in which weak governance and leadership skills exist. Some schools in Portugal have taken full advantage of their granted autonomies to develop a clear vision of effective teaching and learning and an overarching strategy for promoting innovative learning environments for their students. Portugal can invest in leadership development to promote the spread of these practices that break away from the predominant legalistic and bureaucratic approach towards educationally-focused school governance and leadership.

Increase learning and career development opportunities for teachers and school leaders and make the allocation of teachers more efficient and equitable

Portuguese school children benefit from an experienced, highly-qualified teaching staff. Portuguese teachers’ salaries, adjusted for international differences in prices and income, are higher than the OECD and EU-22 averages. Even when compared within their country, Portuguese teachers can expect to earn 1.3 times as much as other tertiary-educated Portuguese workers. Portuguese teachers benefit from many policy, practice and classroom features that create the potential for the development of strong instructional and leadership skills within schools. Multiple formal positions, with dedicated work time, exist for teachers to guide the instructional and strategic directions of the school. Additionally, there is a mandated school governance structure in place that requires teacher consultation for all school decisions. However, while all of the above factors could contribute in theory to an environment of professional development and learning in schools, in practice many Portuguese teachers never participate in such activities as co-teaching or peer observation. Portuguese teachers rarely benefit from formal induction programmes, few cost-free opportunities exist for ongoing professional development activities and almost no classroom observations of teaching practice occur. Similarly, Portuguese school leaders have access to minimal ongoing professional development for the purposes of developing their instructional leadership capacities. They collaborate with other school leaders and participate in training at rates far behind peer countries. Some of these issues are being addressed by recently launched development programmes such as Autonomy and Curricular Flexibility Project (PFAC) and National Programme to Promote School Success (PNPSE).

Relatedly, while transparent standards exist at the national level for selecting and assigning teachers to schools, schools have limited ability to express their preferences for a specific candidate and teachers for a school profile. This may result in a mismatch between the needs of schools and teachers’ interests and skills. This constrained-choice teacher assignment policy creates conditions in which some teachers are dissatisfied with the school in which they work, and this appears to disproportionately affect low-income and low-achieving students. In addition to the general mismatches between school needs and teacher interest, the temporary-contract teacher placement process results in frequent movement of teachers across schools and the delayed placement of teachers in schools. This leads to instability in the teaching force in schools, especially in high-needs areas, and creates an insider-outsider staffing structure.

Portuguese schools are not currently sites where adults engage in significant collective learning activities. Portugal’s education sector should consider four levers for instructional improvement. First, Portugal should create formal induction and coaching supports for new and struggling teachers. Second, Portugal should work to establish professional learning communities in schools through capacity development and use of non-teaching time in educator teams. Third, Portugal can consider incremental steps to open up the classroom door to promote the sharing of strong practices and the development of pedagogical skills. As a first step, Portugal should develop the capacity of departmental co-ordinators and class heads to observe and provide regular feedback to teachers. Finally, Portugal should move incrementally towards providing meaningful feedback and appraisal for teachers. Portugal should consider investing in ongoing training in teacher evaluation for its school leaders. The initial goal of these appraisals should be primarily developmental in nature. Thus, the emphasis can be on ensuring the quality of the feedback is high, rather than on assigning a certain proportion of teachers to particular rating levels.

Given political concerns and cultural norms, Portugal could consider short- and long-term solutions to improve the mechanisms by which it allocates teachers to schools. In the short term, Portugal should develop a force of high-skill and high-motivation teachers who have priority placement in the most challenging school contexts and receive additional support and compensation as a result. Teaching candidates would apply to a simultaneous national placement process that would be used to assign teachers to high-needs schools. In the longer term, Portugal can explore a system-wide reform to its teacher placement process. Portugal should consider creating regional or local hiring competitions that use multiple screens and actors to preserve impartiality while requiring school and teacher to mutually agree on the final placement of a teacher in a school.

End of the section – Back to iLibrary publication page