Spanish 18-year-olds will have to pass an oral exam in a foreign language to obtain their bachillerato, education minister Pilar del Castillo has announced.
Giving details of the new external revalida examinations, which final year students will have to pass to obtain the bachillerato and progress to university from 2005, Ms del Castillo said it was "essential" that Spanish students' ability in foreign languages improved in order to keep up with the rest of Europe.
She said the new oral exams will "increase the motivation of the students to learn the power of expression in a foreign language". But she also confirmed that Spanish children would start learning a foreign language at age six instead of eight.
The move is one of the few forward-thinking elements in the raft of educational reforms which the government of Jose Maria Aznar has introduced in its recent Education Act.
However, the Students' Union, which represents the country's schoolchildren, has threatened strike action next year, saying that the new measures "would increase both the nervousness of students and the number of failures".
The union said it was "Utopian" to think that students would be able to achieve oral fluency without investment in language labs or native-speaker teachers, neither of which are currently available in state schools.
Final-year students are currently internally marked entirely on their coursework, and need to achieve four out of 10 to pass the bachillerato.
From 20056, 60 per cent of their final mark will come from coursework, and 40 per cent from the new external exams. They will need to achieve an average five in these exams to pass.
Union spokesman Miguel Recio estimates that this will lead to a 20 per cent higher failure rate - much of it due to an inability to cope with the oral foreign language exams.