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Why there's still faith in the Spanish education system

Updated Wednesday, 23 September 2015
God judges you solely on the content of your heart, it's said. In Spain, some students are tested on the ability to pray. It's just one reason why some Spaniards are hoping 2015's electoral cycle could change education in the country forever. Liz Green explains.

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Normally, with the summer officially over and Spain waking up from its self-induced prolonged siesta, protected from anything remotely political, the first notable event is “la vuelta al cole”: millions of youngsters returning to school, or for some at the age of three, suffering their first experience of classrooms and education. The costs of providing returning and new students with the texts they will need to complete the 2016 curricula in the public and other state assisted schools preoccupies the Spanish electorate at the start of each new school year.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, painted on a tabernacle door in New York Now just another Mary?

Even this year in late August and early September, with the elections in Catalunya imminent and the plight of the political refugees trying to reach Europe dominating the media, the return to school claimed its usual central position in the lives of many Spaniards. The latest new Law on Education, known as LOMCE, requires that students must obtain new editions of many school texts although there are few changes in the material, year on year. Publishers have jumped on the bandwagon by withdrawing earlier editions of a number of texts.

On at least one course the subject matter has been revised. The Catholic Church has for years been responsible for the obligatory provision of a course on religion, in not only its own schools, but also in the public school system. Parents will not however have to buy new editions of the Bible, to their relief perhaps and to the chagrin of the publishers, as the 2016 curriculum for the course on Religion, by and large backs existing versions of the Bible. It re-states the “fact” that the cosmos was created by divine inspiration. Amongst a number of novelties related to the new course, students will be marked on their ability to pray and will need to accept that it is not possible to be happy without God’s help. The course although not compulsory will count towards final marks and will be necessary in order to claim a grant. The new curriculum has however, according to a digital newspaper based in Andalucia, dropped the title “virgin” when referring to Mary, the “mother” of God. She becomes as they report, “just another Mary”.

The Conservative Government of the Partido Poplular (PP) published this latest offering of the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church, the ruling Catholic body in Spain, in an official State Bulletin, (BOE) in February this year. It seems that in the 21st century the Spanish Government approves that students are to be taught to steer clear of scientific explanations of the creation of the universe and accept the existence of God and “his works” without argument or debate; there is no debate built into the way in which subjects are taught in schools and colleges in Spain. Not unlike the practice of some Islamic states, making no pretence to being non-confessional, who indoctrinate their citizens in certain beliefs.

It is worth bearing in mind that the 1978 Spanish Constitution makes it clear that Spain is a non-confessional State. In the small print however, in Article 16, is the statement that the “State must bear in mind the prevailing religious beliefs of the Spanish people and maintain a close continuing relationship with the Catholic Church”. In 2015 Adam and Eve would seem to be still seriously in business, with the support of the Conservative party and the Constitution.

The teaching of religion in Spanish schools has been a source of conflict for many years. The Second Republic of 1931 to 39, blown to pieces by the Civil War which started with the military coup in 36, was partly torn apart by the opposing stances on religion in society and even more specifically in the public education system. Although the church going population has dropped since then to near zero proportions, with fewer and fewer people defining themselves as Catholic, these changes have not been reflected in the school curricula from primary to senior level. This apparent refusal to curb the power of the Catholic Church in the formation of the minds of the young has been, and still is, one of Spain’s major political issues.

But the problems of the education system in Spain do not stop there. A recent report for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which evaluated 85,000 15 year olds from 44 countries, found that Spanish youngsters were less able to use what they had learnt than young people from other countries. They scored 23 points below the OECD average for problem solving. The earlier OECD report in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012 defined problem solving as: “the capacity to engage in cognitive processing to understand and resolve problem situations where a method of solution is not immediately obvious. It includes the willingness to engage with such situations in order to achieve one’s potential as a constructive and reflective citizen.” In seems that Spanish students have not been taught to think to the same level as have their European counterparts.

In an editorial last year in the English edition of El País, the dire consequences of continuing to ignore the PISA results were underlined. The then state secretary for Education, Monserrat Gomendio, was quoted in an associated article on the presentation of the report; she said that what Spain needed was a “radical change in teaching methodology,” to move beyond “old-fashioned” models based solely on memorizing content. Her remarks were almost word for word those of a 1969 whitepaper on education, “el Libro Blanco 1969” which was published 45 years ago and on which the Spanish 1970 Education Act was based, referring to the need to move on from out-dated teaching methodology based on memorizing texts.

The national competitive exams for the civil service, “las oposiciones” set up under Franco and still of considerable importance, are also dependent on the student’s ability to regurgitate course material. Judges, for example, are chosen for their ability to recite details of selected laws. Courses are unsurprisingly frequently repeated by a student keen to join the ranks of the “funcionarios” (civil servants), who are better paid and have longer contracts, some for life, than many other people in professional careers. There are today over 2.5 million Spanish employed in both state and autonomous community jobs, paid for by public resources and selected through these exams. Teachers normally come from the ranks of these civil servants.

It would seem that hardly a step has been taken to improve the situation and the antiquated methods have become deeply entrenched in all seventeen autonomous regions, including Catalunya, and at all levels of the provision of State education. It will be an enormous task to remodel a system based on mainly rote learning, frequent testing and regular repetition of the same course, which has remained in place for over a century.

2015 is the year of two crucial elections that could change Spanish politics forever, it is claimed. Regional elections in Catalunya, to be held on September 27th, are being presented as a definitive plebiscite on the issue of independence from Spain. The results will have repercussions all over the country. The latest Centre for Sociological Investigation (CIS) report suggests that the independence movement may win an absolute majority by one seat in the Generalitat (the Catalan Parliament.) The interpretation of these results by the CIS is already being questioned and the elections look set to become a battleground of numbers. 

By the end of the year the whole of Spain will be called to the polls to pick the national Government for the next 4 years. For the first time since the beginnings of the new democracy in the 70’s, the electorate is expected to put an end to the bi-partisan control of Government which since 1996 has seen the conservative PP alternating with the socialist PSOE, preceded by 14 years of unbroken government by the PSOE. The rise and rise of support for the new parties on both the right, Ciudadanos, and the left, Podemos, suggests the electorate is looking for major change.

Whether finally this presages a much-needed re-construction of major institutions in this country and a break at last with Francoist and earlier models, for example of education, is difficult to predict. It is unlikely to be a priority if the past is anything to go by. Currently it seems more likely that Catalunya will be an independent state, separated from the rest of Spain, long before the serious problems of a national, antiquated and damaging educational system are resolved. 

This article was originally published on under a CC-BY-NC licence


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