It’s not yet a year since he’s been in the job but José Ignacio Wert has succeeded in diverting the public’s attention from the real problems facing the country’s educational system — a school dropout rate that stands at 26.5 percent, and poor international evaluations in reading, mathematics and science by Spanish students, who rank lower in comparison to many of their European counterparts.
The education minister has been one of the most controversial members of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government. He ignited nationalist tensions in Catalonia when in October he told parliament that his goal was to ensure that teachers in the region used more Spanish than Catalan in their classrooms. “We have to Hispanicize all students in Catalonia,” he said in Congress, comments that prompted criticism from King Juan Carlos.
The 62-year-old Wert, a multi-lingual lawyer and sociologist, has an answer for just about every question. On sensitive issues, however, he looks for a response from a nearby aide or commonly uses an “off-the-record” comment to free himself from yet more controversy.
Question. Is there any agreement over the use of Catalan in the classroom in the proposed national education law?
Answer. There is no issue regarding Catalan included in the bill. There are only measures like the use of co-official languages. I find it strange that there hasn’t been any controversy over this in the Basque Country, Galicia, Valencia, or even in the Balearics.
Q. But the education systems are different there.
A. Well maybe, then, this is something everyone should look at.
Q. The announcement last week by the Catalan government that it will file an appeal with the Constitutional Court could be interpreted as the Catalans not believing your arguments \[about the bill\].
A. I love it when they say they are going to the Constitutional Court because that would mean they are going to obey whatever the court rules on language usage in the classroom. That would mean they would be taking a very important new direction; something that hasn’t occurred yet.
Q. Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría has said that the bill will “guarantee that parents can choose the type of education they want for their children.” Let’s say for instance that a Basque moves to Madrid and wants their children to be taught in the Basque language. Will they be offered such guarantees?
A. Of course not, because the constitutional framework regarding language is very clear. Co-official languages, other than Spanish, pertain only to the respective regions.
Q. In other words, we are going to deny this right to a parent because they were born in a different region?
A. That has not been determined. What has been defined as co-official is only limited in the different regions.
Q. How much say have the Catholic bishops had in this reform?
A. The bishops have not influenced us at all. They have their interests, but the decisions they will make will be determined after they get to know the positions of those who have more interests in this sector.
Q. What have you accepted or rejected from those sectors?
A. That is a closely guarded secret.
Q. Do you think that it is wise to cut spending on education when there’s a 26.5-percent national dropout rate?
A. In 2000, when the PISA \[Program for International Student Assessment\] evaluation was applied, educational spending was listed at 27 billion euros. In 2009, that figure jumped to 53 billion — almost double — and Spain’s PISA ranking was worse. Let me say this: there are indicators that say that Spain is above the OECD \[Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development\] average when it comes to spending per student. On another front, in the years that spending was cut, school dropout rates in Spain dropped by four points.