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Insatiable demands

Reinforcing religious content in high schools is another backward step in quality of education

Spain’s Episcopal Conference wants to cement the victory obtained in the “Wert law,” the reform put forward by the eponymous education minister. Having succeeded that Catholic religion should have an alternative course as a counterweight (rather than those opting out merely having free time), and count as a credit-bearing course like others, the bishops also want all schools to be forced to offer it as an optional subject at the baccalaureate high school level.

The demand is based on the fact that this requisite is mentioned in the Spanish state’s agreement with the Vatican, and was even included in the educational law passed under the Socialist government. Now, however, it has been left unmentioned in the text of the Law for Improved Educational Quality (LOMCE), which, having been approved by the Popular Party (PP) majority in Congress, is being debated by the Senate. It seems that this omission is a mere “technical error,” in the words of the PP’s Senate spokesman for education, Luis Peral, which the upper chamber will undertake to correct, thus giving satisfaction to the national synod.

The Episcopal Conference has already obtained certain changes it had been demanding from the present PP government for some years now: a greater recognition for the teaching of Catholic religious doctrine in public schools, in that this course, though still optional, has its counterweight in a course on ethical values — and not by the “prize” of an hour of recreation or discretional study — and that it is also credit-bearing. So that, for example, a good grade in religion might be of value in obtaining a grant. To explicitly extend the same principle to the two-year baccalaureate amounts to another step along the mistaken road of regression to the past, when Church and state were one and the same body — something that, at least in theory, ceased to be the case in our country 35 years ago.

Recent budget cuts have wrought havoc in the education system and increased the rate of students per classroom

This is a road that has little to do with the “improved educational system” so much needed in Spain in the light of international reports, whose results are echoed in the very title of the “Wert law.” This reform has been presented without any adjoining economic analysis, and the minister himself admits that its implementation will be expensive. The proposal to introduce uniform nationwide university entrance exams, a novelty that is controversial though essentially sound, will involve a cost that has been left uncalculated.

Recent budget cuts have wrought havoc in the system and increased the rate of students per classroom. In this context, the change to be introduced in response to ecclesiastical demand is likely to make the system even more expensive. Predictably, the obligatory character of offering a high school religion course will further increase the bill the state already pays for maintaining religion teachers, which runs to between 500 and 700 million euros annually.

In the jump from junior high school to the baccalaureate level, the percentage of pupils who choose religion as an option drops sharply to 23.3 percent. This may now change thanks to the new credit-bearing status of this subject, if the proposed amendment is confirmed. Students may consider religion to be an easy option to boost their overall grade. This favors a sort of teaching that should not form part of the school curriculum, and which distracts attention from the essential problems revealed by the reports: severe shortcomings in reading comprehension and mathematical knowledge, both of these being basic to a competitive education.

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