Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Educating Mallorca: It's Not Just Language

The Balearic government is the first regional authority in Spain to lodge a challenge to the implementation of provisions under Madrid's law for the improvement of the quality of education (Lomce). Specifically for aspects as they apply at secondary and Baccalaureate levels, the regional education minister, Martí March, has described the curriculum as "highly elitist, segregating and taking us back to Franco's times".

One of the main objections that March has is to the introduction of external testing. While not opposed to tests as such, he fears that they will undermine and marginalise a greater emphasis on continuous assessment and thus be sole determinants of a pupil's progress. He isn't the only education minister to query the use of testing. For example in Castile and Leon, where the government is run by the Partido Popular, its minister has voiced concerns.

March believes that Lomce and its tests do not answer the needs of current-day society, and he may well be right in believing this, but the problem he has is in convincing society in the Balearics that he has a better solution to the problems that exist in the islands' system of public education. If he has, he might begin by establishing what the "needs" actually are.

Education, fundamental though it is, is an issue which is usually too dry to attract a great deal of public attention. Debates over curriculum can seem too removed. When educational affairs become more explosive, as happened with the trilingual teaching rumpus and the subsequent teachers' strike, they come firmly into the public domain. Otherwise, parents and society in general issue a collective sigh that expresses their ennui with the issue and with politicians endlessly kicking it around.

So even when March alludes to "needs", a constant enough word in any politician's lexicon, the reaction is firmly in neutral. No one much listens because no one is much interested. What might these needs be? Good education? Better education? As a teacher might request - define and discuss. And more to the point, seek to quantify. Increased percentages for this or that. Defined higher numbers going to university. Defined lower numbers dropping out. Defined higher numbers attaining higher scores in languages, maths and science. Target-setting, in other words, and performance measures - pupils, teachers and schools - plus testing. Where have we heard all that before?

People should of course listen and should of course be interested, and not only parents. And of these parents, in Mallorca there are significant numbers who are foreign. Not all can afford private schooling, so the kids go to the public schools and into a public education system that has constantly underperformed. It does perform in other regions of Spain, but the Balearics is one of the worst.

Might there be mitigating circumstances for the repeatedly low attainment in core skills and subjects, and might one of them be the foreign pupil quotient? The Balearics as a whole has the highest foreign population percentage among all the Spanish regions. It also has the highest percentage of foreign pupils, albeit this is not evenly distributed. According to data for 2012, foreign pupils accounted for 11.9% of the primary school population but 18.7% at secondary level, which is where international comparisons are made that indicate the underperformance in key areas.

But what these figures don't reveal is how many of these pupils are Spanish (and/or Catalan) speakers or the age at which they entered the local education system. (The greatest numbers of foreign pupils across the country are of Moroccan and Romanian origin.) Intuitively one has to accept that the age of entrance and native language may prove disadvantageous (and that almost seven per cent difference between primary and secondary might be considered to be very revealing). However, even allowing for this there is now information from the Balearic government itself which reveals failings in key areas, one of them being language.

The government's own institute for education system quality assessment reports that four out of ten 13-year-olds fail to reach required levels in both Catalan and Castellano. Moreover, this situation has been getting worse. For maths, the figure climbs to almost 60%. Such underachievement cannot possibly be explained by a foreign-pupil population.

The inabilities when it comes to the two official languages should be very concerning for March and his ministry. In other regions with two languages, such as the Basque Country where educational performance is vastly superior, there aren't weaknesses.

It might be tempting to consider government policies on language and the way they change to be at the heart of Balearic underperformance, but even these cannot provide a full explanation. The question, therefore, is what does. March can attack Lomce and may be right in doing so, but that, as was also the case with the trilingual teaching row, shouldn't divert attention from an underlying malaise, its identification and remedy. Those are the needs.

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