Free market teaching
Beyond the debate over financial models of education, teachers’ unions draw attention to the social model this supposes. Defenders of the private sector call for the right to ‘freedom of choice’ for families, while its detractors point out the principle of equal opportunities is then sacrificed.
This idea is perfectly illustrated by the new assessment system, which uses academic performance as the only valid criteria. In January, the Ministry of Education announced its intention to implement systematic testing of academic achievement that will lead to the creation of a ranking system among schools.
It is still not clear if those results will be published. But they will be sent to each family to help them in their choice of school. Furthermore, the ‘best’ schools will receive incentives, imposing the free market principle of competitiveness on schools.
In Catalonia, an independent entity has been created with full legal capacity8 to direct the assessment process, able to receive donations from public and private companies. “These conditions shed serious doubt on whether their actions will be in response to political and private interests or to the needs of the school system,” the USTEC-STEs union stated.
In the Valencia region, the head of education, José Císcar, announced in January that the so-called school-business model will be introduced, with the aim of aligning both higher and vocational education “directly with the business world.” Nonetheless, for this to succeed, it would be necessary to have a training model in place in Spanish companies, something currently lacking that would require a significant investment.
In short, the importance of profitability and productivity are being stressed in education which, as in many other sectors, is now driven by market demands.
“The general trend is to dismantle the public university as a place for critical thought and social creativity,” said A. Méndez Rubio, a professor at the University of Valencia, referring to his own experience of teaching. “To survive, we need to do all we can to overcome our fear and pull ourselves out of it. It’s not that nothing can be done, it’s that everything is at stake.”
According to a report by the research department of the teaching union FECCOO1, the amount invested per student in Spain will be cut by 15 per cent over the next three years. This is due to simultaneous cutbacks and an increase in the number of students, made up mostly of young people who, faced with a lack of employment opportunities, are taking up their studies again.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)3 estimates that 44 per cent of the country’s students can be categorised as ‘vulnerable’. That is, coming from low- income families with a lack of educational attainment, or from first or second-generation immigrant families. The vast majority are enrolled in state schools.
For teachers’ unions, an egalitarian education system would aim to strengthen the individualised attention these students need. However, the most devastating cutbacks in education have been to those programmes aimed at students requiring special attention, as well as diversity programmes.
One of the main complaints of teacher unions, which are organising massive opposition to education cutbacks, is state education spending is being cut while private education is receiving public benefits. Nevertheless, it is difficult to speak of a uniform trend as education standards are set by autonomous regional authorities and the situation can vary greatly from one region to another.
A disconcerting agreement
Compulsory education in Spain is dominated by so called educación concertada, that is, government-subsidised private education. The Roman Catholic Church manages two-thirds of these schools.
The current government proposes to extend this model to pre-university education which, up until now, has been mostly State-run. Juan Martínez, from the research department of FECCOO, warned this would mean at least “a 10 per cent increase of teaching workload, clashing with the current cutbacks and the freeze on the number of teaching posts”. Nevertheless, deregulation and the lack of collective bargaining in the subsidised-private sector allows for the hiring of under-qualified teaching staff, willing to work more hours for less pay.
At least four autonomous regions4 have increased funding to this sector at the expense of State schools in the last two years, by providing funds to create new subsidised- private schools. There is currently a legal loophole in the subsidised private sector. The existing legal framework is determined by the Royal Decree of Educational Agreements, a set of guidelines that dates back to 1985 and has never been reformed, which gives governments a lot of room to manoeuvre.
“Why is it that, in a time of crisis, public land is leased to build subsidised private schools and no more State schools are being built?” asks one exasperated teacher in response to the leaseback of a public plot, valued at ¤15 million, to Opus Dei, a Catholic institution, for the construction of a subsidised private school in the Madrid region in 2011.
The President of that region, Esperanza Aguirre, also leased public land to two private companies5, for a period of over 50-60 years, at a price of ¤5,000-6,000 per year. The media has suggested that the government found a way out of the property crisis by allowing private companies access to schools.
Eduardo Sabina, of the FETE-UGT union branch in Madrid, explains how this practice is becoming good business for some: “They let you the land - almost for free-, they give you the clients - thanks to the residences recently built in the surrounding area - and they pay the teaching staff with public funds. The companies run the schools and charge families fees so that the business is profitable. It is a perverse model.”
Another worry for the union is the tax deduction available to these families. In regions such as Madrid, such deductions have been applied since 2009 and they are on the increase7, to the benefit of those with the highest incomes.
In any case, subsidised private education has not survived the economic crisis unscathed. The overall balance of its budget has been in the negative numbers since 2010, and many of these schools are going through hard economic times.