Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A Hundred Thousand Strong: Balearics teachers strike

The exact figure doesn't really matter. The mass of protestors that took to Palma's streets on Sunday evening (augmented in spirit by protestors in the other islands) was impressive. The regional government said, as I knew full well it would, that this mass was representative of only a small percentage of Mallorca's population (less than 10%, depending on which figure one goes with). You can read all sorts of things into the size of a protest, both for the cause and indifferent to or against it, but protests of Sunday's size are rare; so much so that the Palma demonstration is said to be the largest ever staged in Mallorca.

One does, though, have to make certain qualifications about the protest. As with many a public display of opposition, there were causes other than trilingual teaching that were being given an airing. But then, the teachers strike has never been only about trilingual teaching. As I have said before, if the issue were only trilingualism, there would be no strike. Politics, those to do with the Catalan language and with Catalanism, invaded the protest as surely as they have invaded the motives for the strike.

Regardless of these motives, however, there is a situation in which schoolchildren are being deprived of their education. The strike now in its third week can only cause damage. It has to end. But it cannot end in the way that the government might wish it to, namely the unions buckling to TIL being voluntary in secondary schools (one of the government's main concessions). It has to end by TIL being postponed for this school year at all levels.

Inevitably with such disputes there is dissembling from both sides and propaganda that muddies opinion. The government has attempted to argue that TIL was a manifesto pledge, when it was not, and that there was training and preparation being offered before TIL was passed into law. There may indeed have been some talk of special training in English, but the fact is that TIL was not on the agenda until January this year. It was then that the government first proposed it; the bill was passed three months later.

In January, the government said that there would be training and also ongoing "activities" to assist in bringing teachers' levels of English up to something like the required level. There had been no formal statement of training before this. But whether there was training or not, the government was naïve if it believed that teachers could be certain of having acquired the requisite level of language competence.

Initially, and before the bill was passed, TIL was only to come in at primary level. When the bill was enacted, I was amazed to see secondary level included as well and to also see which subjects were included - maths, natural and social sciences. It's why I have referred to TIL as revolution and not evolution. Disregarding similar schemes elsewhere, the government was intent on introducing a system that should, in order to operate effectively, be planned to be implemented over more or less the length of a child's time in school. It wouldn't necessarily have to be so long but it certainly couldn't just be brought in and brought in for older age groups.

But of course TIL has only so much to do with education. Both sides have made the issue political, but it was the government which made it political and made it worse because of its absurd time frame, its sacking of school directors and its disregard of the high court.

How long might this strike go on for? It could all be over very quickly, it could drag on. For it to end to the unions' dissatisfaction would be the worst scenario. If teachers were to return to work harbouring grievances, morale in schools and classrooms would be poor. But however it ends, there is a wider social dimension that needs to be considered. Children, in particular those at secondary level, have been exposed to a strike that lays bare the divisions over Catalan. They have teachers defending Catalan, parents defending Catalan. They themselves have been protesting against the government. The radicalisation of Mallorca's children grows. This strike, this TIL is storing up potentially greater problems in the future.

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