Spanish government plans to end “Catalan-only” school language policy

The region’s controversial system could be altered by Madrid as part of its takeover of regional self-rule

Under the plans, parents would be able to request that their children be taught in Spanish.
Under the plans, parents would be able to request that their children be taught in Spanish.CONSUELO BAUTISTA

Catalan separatists’ inability to form a government following the December 21 election is prolonging Madrid’s control over regional affairs, a situation that began after the Catalan parliament declared unilateral independence in late October.

This increases the possibility that the central government – which now oversees everything from the Catalan public healthcare system to its firefighting contingency plans – will end up making changes to the region’s controversial education policies.

We are sensitive to the problem and we will soon announce a decision

Marcial Marín, State Secretary for Education

For years, these policies – which favor the use of Catalan at school over Castilian Spanish – have attracted criticism from non-nationalist parents, some of whom went to court to demand their right to choose. Despite winning their cases, the Catalan government has always refused to offer this option.

While the topic had been mostly taboo at the political level, Ciudadanos, the pro-unity party that won the most votes at the December election in Catalonia, is now openly demanding changes to correct what it views as a pro-independence bias in regional education guidelines.

Now, Spain’s education minister, Iñigo Méndez de Vigo – who is temporarily acting as Catalan education chief – is analyzing formulas that would allow families residing in Catalonia to choose Spanish as the main language of learning for their children.

At a press conference following the Friday Cabinet meeting, Méndez de Vigo said that the Spanish executive is committed to guaranteeing parents’ right to school their children in Spanish to the extent provided for by legal resolutions in Catalonia. But he did not provide any details of how this will be accomplished.

“There will be no changes to a linguistic model that was approved by a parliament; the government cannot modify a law that was approved by the regional chamber,” he said.

Student enrollment normally takes place in late March and early April. If no government is formed in Catalonia by then, Madrid will be in charge of managing this process.

An old debate

The news triggered an immediate reaction by separatist parties. The group headed by ousted Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) expressed confidence that they will soon reach a governing deal that will prevent these kinds of changes from taking place.

We ask that education not be used as a weapon in the political battle

Ramon Font, teacher

The issue of language at Catalan schools had already been cause for debate long before the independence drive got underway. In 2012, the education minister at the time, José Ignacio Wert – also remembered for having the lowest popularity ratings of any minister in Spain’s democratic history – made a controversial statement about his plans to “hispanicize Catalan students” and make them “just as proud to be Spanish as to be Catalan.”

One option on Méndez de Vigo’s table is to include a new checkbox in student-enrollment documents letting parents choose the main language of learning for their children.

“We’re working on it,” said Marcial Marín, secretary of state for education, at a Thursday press conference where he was asked about the matter. “We are sensitive to the problem and we will soon announce a decision.”

But Ciudadanos, which began life as a Catalan non-nationalist party before making the jump to national politics, says that this measure falls short.

“This box must exist but it is not enough, we can’t make an aesthetic change and leave it at that,” said Marta Martín, a congresswoman for Ciudadanos.

“I hope that what PM Rajoy did not do in six years, and what neither the Popular Party nor the Socialist Party did for decades, will finally be done now. We are asking the government to introduce trilingualism in the 2018-2019 school year,” tweeted Ciudadanos party leader Albert Rivera, alluding to the use of Catalan, Spanish and English in the schoolrooms.

Bad news

But the plans were not well received in separatist circles.

“If the government uses Article 155 to blow up linguistic immersion, it will be evident that it wishes to continue hurting Catalonia. It will also evidence our own irresponsibility in failing to form a government,” said Joan Tardà, an ERC leader who sits in Spain’s national Congress in Madrid.

“It is urgent to have a government in the coming weeks,” added Jordi Xuclà, another congressman who represents the separatist European Democratic Party of Catalonia (PDeCAT).

How the system works

In Catalonia, Catalan is the main working language at school. Spanish language is taught for two hours a week in elementary school, three hours a week in secondary school and two hours a week at the pre-university level. As for the other subjects, teachers may choose which language to use in the classroom.

Families wishing to educate their children in Spanish have to go through a complicated administrative procedure that involves requesting a subsidy to enroll in a private school. According to Catalan education department data, there were 560 requests made in the last three school years, and 50 were approved.

A 2000 ruling by the Constitutional Court said that Spanish should also be considered a working language, but it did not define how many hours of classroom use this entails. It was former minister Wert who first suggested a 25% figure as the “bare minimum.” The Catalan regional High Court has supported this figure in at least five cases, and civic associations such as Societat Civil Catalana (SCC) have made it a recurring demand.

The Catalan Socialists, while siding with the unionist camp on most issues, defend the current linguistic model in Catalonia. “It is a positive element that produces social cohesion,” said Congresswoman Meritxell Batet.

Catalonia’s education community also says it will defend the existing model.

“We ask that education not be used as a weapon in the political battle,” said Ramon Font, spokesman for USTEC, the largest primary school teachers’ union.

English version by Susana Urra.

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