Cuts? What cuts? Education in the Balearics is supposedly being attacked with a governmental knife, but you wouldn't think so. Not when the government can afford to employ around 100 new teachers at a cost of three million euros.
This was the figure that was bandied around when the regional government's education minister, Rafael Bosch, was announcing the rolling-out of "free selection" of teaching language. A hundred doesn't sound that many when you consider what this free selection is going to amount to.
From the start of the next school year, parents will be able to opt for their children to be taught, as the main language of education, in either Castellano or Catalan. The government had created some confusion with previous announcements as to the extent of this language selection. Originally, it had excluded secondary education, then it included it (though not for the baccalaureate), but only from 2013. Whether selection at secondary level is indeed introduced next year is questionable, but for now - or rather from this September - the free selection will be confined to infant schools and the junior primary level.
What this means is that there will be separate classes, those conducted in Castellano and those in Catalan. It will not mean separate schools, for which the taxpayer should be immensely grateful. But the taxpayer is going to have to foot the bill for all the additional teachers that will be needed, of which there will need to be even more, as and when free selection is extended upward.
At a time of financial constraint, it seems perverse that the government should be embarking on an expansion of parts of the education system, while slashing budgets from others, e.g. the university. It is reasonable to argue that education is an investment in the future, but is it really wise to be doing this right now? In fact, is it wise to be doing it at all?
The government was committed to formalising free selection. Ideologically wedded to being pro-Castellano and anti-Catalan (or at least less pro-Catalan than pro-Castellano), a promise would have been broken had it not now gone ahead. But there are serious questions that arise from free selection, and not just ones of cost.
Firstly, the endless argument over Castellano or Catalan skirts around a more important issue in terms of the investment in the future, which is that of introducing English as a language of instruction and of cementing a system of trilingualism. Bosch and President Bauzá recently visited Switzerland to see how multilingualism operates in the school environment, something for which they copped some flak, unfairly in my view.
Trilingualism would require a far greater additional investment, but the benefit from such an investment could be immense. The Castellano-Catalan argument also helps to obscure the fact that the public education system in the Balearics is rotten. Performance levels are below the Spanish average and well below most European countries. Trilingualism wouldn't alone transform the system, but it might go some way to doing so. Fundamentally though, the government should be addressing the standard of education as a priority and not whether kids are taught in Castellano or Catalan.
Secondly, free selection means a system of educational apartheid, one that could have consequences for the normal functioning of schools as social organisms. Infant and primary children might not be aware of the politics that are involved, but they will be aware that other children are "different". "Why does little Juany go to that class, mummy?" Extend the system upwards to secondary level, and bolshie teenagers, very much aware of the politics and of tribalism, could see this apartheid as an excuse for all manner of rivalry. It's a system that could end up creating trouble within schools and fomenting even more the tensions between Castellano and Catalan outside of schools.
Thirdly, the Partido Popular may have won the last election and may have had a mandate for free selection, but support for free selection among the people of the Balearics, including therefore parents, resides with a minority. A general survey of opinion has shown there to be majority opposition to free selection and more specific research has shown that a majority of parents do not wish to switch or intend to switch from Catalan to Castellano as the language for their children's education.
Apart from costing more money, avoiding the key issue of educational standards, potentially creating social division and enjoying less than majority appeal, free selection is a brilliant idea. Or so the government would argue. But it is free selection predicated not on educational principles but on political dogma.
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