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Another missed opportunity

Education Minister Wert pushes through his reforms without the promised consensus

In his investiture speech, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made a commitment to finding the widest possible consensus before drawing up a new education law, with the aim of bringing down Spain's high drop-out rate and low grades.

But the legislation that was drawn up by Education Minister José Ignacio Wert and was passed through Congress on Thursday, was voted through only with the support of the governing Popular Party (PP), and with the abstention of Foro Asturias and UPN.

The result is a failure. The new law does not enjoy the necessary support for it to last, and it already has an expiry date looming: the main opposition Socialist Party has announced that it will overturn the law as soon as possible.

The Wert law is the seventh reform to the education system since Spain's transition to democracy, and it is perhaps the bill that has raised the greatest amount of opposition. Neither two strikes — the last of which was supported by all sectors of the academic community — nor the intervention of the State Council advisory body has been enough to influence the dogged determination of the minister. The imposition of Castilian Spanish in classrooms is likely to spark more conflict in regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, something that could have been avoided.

Spain has lost a new opportunity to break with the disastrous dynamic that has ruled up until now: the inability of successive governments to agree on an educational model for the coming generations, one that is sufficiently solid so as to last and one that is sufficiently flexible so that its deficiencies can be addressed and corrected. The new law has far too much ideology and it lacks elasticity, all of which is grossly inappropriate given the demands of the public. Bringing back the system of final exams at the end of an academic year, and taking the decision to centralize study programs for the entire country, constitutes a return to an antiquated system in the context of the current climate.

It is true to say, as the objectives of the law state, that it is necessary to introduce changes that favor and promote a culture of hard work and improved grades. But the means to do so must not put social equality at risk. The law will be rolled out at a time when severe cutbacks are taking effect, with more students per class and fewer resources to attend to students with special educational needs. As such, the rigid barrier of final exams could well end up serving as a mechanism to marginalize the more disadvantaged students.

Depending on how it is implemented, early segregation of students could end up being a way to divert those with more difficulties from the stipulated courses. New training programs and resources could end up being a means for social exclusion rather than integration, depending on how they are introduced.

The latest OECD report on basic skills among adults reveals that the highest levels of reading ability are associated with higher salaries. This relies on the quality of the education system and of continuous training. A country does not just need well-trained elites. In order to prosper, all of its citizens need to receive the best education possible.

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