José Ignacio Wert has only partly fulfilled the mandate that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy issued on the day of his investiture, in late 2011: "We cannot afford to reconsider our education model with each government change; thus, we will seek the broadest possible consensus to address the changes required by the current situation."
The resulting reform, known popularly as "the Wert law" after the controversial minister, has now prospered in Congress. But the only consensus the Popular Party (PP) government has achieved is a solid opposition from other political groups, educators, some regional authorities and a large part of society. Formally designed to reduce high dropout rates and low achievement levels, the law incorporates contentious aspects such as a bigger role for religion and state funding for schools that segregate students by gender.
Opposition parties are threatening to repeal the law once congressional majorities change and through appeals to the Constitutional Court; the education community has collected a million signatures against it and has called a strike for October 24; the regional governments of Catalonia and the Basque Country are rebelling against the law; and the State Council advisory body has expressed serious misgivings about the ability to fund the law following education cuts of more than 6.4 billion euros. Even Wert himself admits that his brainchild is coming to this world with more ambition than money.
Question. Two years later, the Law to Improve the Quality of Education (Lomce) only enjoys one-sided consensus. What has failed?
Answer. It is obvious that consensus was not reached. But frankly, it wasn't through lack of trying. A state pact requires an agreement by both main political forces, notwithstanding the fact that the greater diversity, the better. The Socialist Party told us right from the start that there was a red line, that the LOE [education law currently in force] should not be touched. We decided to partially reform it. I believed then as I do now that on the core issues the distances are not so great.
Q. Do you feel it is a failure?
A. I feel it is a lost opportunity.
Q. Why the rush to get the bill approved with the opposition and the education sector against you?
A. We started discussing this law six weeks after reaching power, and it has undergone an extremely careful dialogue and drafting process.
Q. Will the uncertainty caused by the threats of regional rebellion and lack of resources result in an improvement to the education system?
A. I hope nobody takes this personally, but I don't lose sleep over the threats of rebellion or the appeals to the Constitutional Court.
Q. Is it more of a Wert law or a PP law?
A. The Wert law is not at all a Wert law; I categorically reject that attribution. It is the Organic Law to Improve the Quality of Education. It is the result of the work of a lot of very diverse people.
Q. But isn't the part about religion, or Catholicism rather, a personal contribution of yours?
A. The word Catholicism does not once show up. The system that the laws have contemplated most of the time includes the Catholic, Muslim, Evangelical and Jewish religions, and an alternative. It is the prevailing model in the EU.
Q. Will students' grades in religion count towards obtaining certain scholarships?
A. The only effect it could have is on non-university scholarships...
Q. Is it more important for kids to learn religion or to learn sexual education or about the need to shower after doing sports?
A. What I honestly don't see there is the comparison. In the education system there are things that are more important to some people than to others.
Q. But what are you more concerned about?
A. Those would be the last two things I would worry about when establishing priorities.
Q. Hygiene is not important?
A. No, it's just that I don't see why both things are antithetical.
Q. Why protect state funding for centers that segregate by gender?
A. There was a matter of interpretation whether the LOE's admission criteria prevented those centers from receiving state funding. We reminded everyone that there is a UNESCO document subscribed to by Spain saying that as long as neither gender has an unjustified advantage over the other, then there is no discrimination.
Q. Do you feel that public money is there to educate children in an unreal world?
A. If you put it that way, public money is there to educate them in the real world. What's not quite clear to me is whether the condition of reality or unreality depends on whether the school is co-ed or gender-segregated.
Q. Aspects of the law like religion, Catalan or these segregated centers have focused the debate, leaving out the fundamental problems of the education system. What are they?
A. The basic one is excessive rigidity. There was no real alternative until the end of mandatory schooling, and all the studies show that this monolithic character is largely responsible for early dropout rates. I would like to stress that public investment in non-university education has doubled in nominal terms between 2000 and 2009.
Q. Dropout rates have improved.
A. Early dropout rates have improved a lot more than graduation rates. That has a lot to do with the lack of job opportunities for youths, compared with the real estate boom years. Another major problem with the system is that at age 15, nearly 40 percent of students had repeated at least one grade. That has educational consequences, but also very clear economic ones.
Q. How does the law address this?
A. Early detection of learning problems is favored, as well as measures to improve performance. We feel that a system of evaluations is an essential aspect of the law. The OECD insists that repeating a grade is the least efficient of all resources.
Q. You said that early detection is vital. How will you do that if supporting teacher programs have been eliminated?
A. We are going through a situation in which a few savings had to be made, which no government agency would have liked to make.
Q. How would you explain to the parents of a child with learning problems that you are taking away his teacher in order to be more efficient?
A. If there is something we have tried to maintain, that is the programs for kids with special education needs and the entire support network for students with learning disabilities. I know that some cuts have been made in specific cases... To those who are affected, it is painful. I understand and accept this.
Q. What limits have you set for yourself?
A. Me, I'm like Toy Story: "To infinity and beyond..."