Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ideology Before Education: Spain and the Balearics

The national government's new education bill is making its way through its parliamentary process. Known as Wert's Law after the education minister, the new bill is intended to rectify weaknesses in the education system, such as the very high dropout rate at age sixteen. The bill is not being greeted with universal acclaim. The main opposition party, PSOE, has said that it will repeal it were it to take power after the next election.

The opposition's threat nationally echoes its threat locally in the Balearics. PSOE would undo the trilingual teaching decree. Neither nationally nor regionally is there consensus on education.

Both national and regional Balearic governments have to do something to address the standards of education. The report issued this week by the OECD which shows poor levels of performance in mathematics and reading comprehension reinforces the findings of repeated PISA studies. From these, it is understood that the Balearics is one of the worst-performing regions. The variance in performance across the different regions of Spain is marked - some do really quite well when compared with high-achieving nations such as Finland - but the Spanish average performance is dragged down by those regions which do not do well, and the Balearics is one of them.

Important though it is for governments at different levels to tackle this underperformance, doing so with any sense of agreement or consensus appears beyond the capacities of politicians. Education, in terms of policy-making, always has the potential to divide political and social opinion, more so perhaps than any other policy; it is the one area of policy that politicians and public have very much in common in terms of experience - they have all been through an educational system.

Division should though be based on conflicting views as to what is best for children's education, best for preparing them for their adult lives and so best to equip them with the skills to contribute most effectively as a resource to the well-being of the nation. Attaining consensus is not easy, and no one would suggest that it is, but a form of consensus can be attained or might be attained if the prime motives for reforming education were those cited above. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Ideology intervenes, thus impeding consensus or anything which approximates to it.

Wert's Law has been criticised for going backwards rather than forwards. One of its more contentious elements is the weight it will give to religious studies at secondary level. It is a move that not even most Partido Popular churchgoers agree with. Apart from its nod in the direction to a time past when religious studies were key to the educational system, if there is a genuine desire to reduce the high dropout rate, then granting religion greater weight is not a way to go about this.

Nevertheless, and in defence of Sr. Wert, he is at least coming at the issue from the point of view of attempting to improve the system. He may not be doing this in the best way and he may be too influenced by political and societal factors that would be best being kept out of the education debate, but the remit is still one of looking at the education system as a whole and of seeking remedies.

This is not what has been happening in the Balearics. The arguments over trilingualism have obscured what should be the real arguments: those to do with standards of education and not the languages that are used. Teaching in English can most definitely raise these standards and also meet the criteria I listed above, but TIL is not about educational standards per se. If it really was, then there would have been what has been so lacking: genuine discussion and debate about how most effectively to implement it within a broader framework of the whole of the education system in the Balearics.

At worst, TIL is a piece of ideology to combat a failed policy (that of free selection of teaching language between Castellano and Catalan). At best, it is a policy which might derive some benefit many, many years down the line. But what it also is, is a short-term palliative and political fix that obscures the pain of a badly underperforming educational system that the regional government has shown little ability to tackle. This, the system's performance, is what should matter. Instead, ideology has intervened (as a way of undermining Catalan), while any pure educational debate has been lost because TIL does not answer the fundamental questions regarding standards and performance.

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