The Catalan Government has recently decided to withdraw the subsidies to all private schools in Catalonia that segregate students based on their sex (1), as they do not fulfill the principle of coeducation. These schools, most of which belong to conservative religious institutions, have been publicly subsidised for decades. However, public funds may cease in the academic year 2021–2022 following the decision of the Catalan government.
In the Spanish context, publicly subsidised private schools—known as ‘escuelas concertadas’—appeared as a state-wide phenomenon between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, in the post Francoist dictatorship (1939–1975) context. After decades of no support for public education, the first democratic government following the dictatorship period faced the important challenge of improving the education system (Verger, Fontdevila, & Zancajo, 2016). Together with issues such as high levels of education inequality, teachers’ inadequate training and low salaries, one of the main challenges was the urgent need to expand public education. Considering the prominent role that the private sector—especially the Catholic Church—had historically played providing for and influencing the Spanish education system and the short-term economic possibilities of the state, the first democratic government developed a transitory solution for expanding public education. The solution was to subsidise private schools—including Catholic ones—for some years, while the state progressively deployed an extended public-school network. The subsidies came with conditions, including that subsidised private schools must teach the national curriculum, must follow the same admission rules as public schools, must not charge fees to families and could not be profit-oriented. These requirements intended to ensure—although only temporarily—the public role of the subsidized private schools. However, this ‘transitory’ solution became permanent: as a cheaper option for the state than building a new public infrastructure, subsidizing private schools to expand education turned into a chronic measure. The subsidies have continued until today and subsidized private schools have become an important sector for the provision of education. In fact, last academic year, in the Catalan region, subsidized private schools provided schooling to around 31.8% of all students in the compulsory education levels (Ministerio de Educación y Formación Profesional, 2020), which indicates their high relevance to the education system. Moreover, the chronification of the measure has created a vicious circle: nowadays, the Catalan Department of Education depends in the short- and mid-term on these schools to ensure the universal provision of—supposedly—public inclusive education, since the public schools alone cannot meet demand.Nevertheless, although one should consider the heterogeneity of schools included in this sector, it is widely known and accepted that subsidized private schools bring problems regarding education equity, as they generally provide schooling to a socioeconomically privileged population. Despite the conditions attached to the subsidies, in practice, most schools charge fees to families and some even deploy subtle or explicit mechanisms for student selection. Moreover, some subsidized private schools—due to their high fees, among other aspects—can be directly considered ‘elite schools’. Within this group, there are currently 11 religious schools in Catalonia which segregate students based on their sex, justified by supposed differences in learning styles and students’ social experiences. According to them, boys and girls benefit from being separated in schools, so single-sex education is the best option for both. However, these are false claims; in practice, single-sex schools mostly base their educational practices on gender stereotypes and go directly against the principles of Catalan public education, which is defined as inclusive and coeducational. This failure to offer inclusive coeducation is precisely the reason why the Catalan government has decided to withdraw subsidies to these schools: although private, they are expected to develop a public education role—equal to public schools—, since they receive public funds. Although this may revive the tension between the principles of Catalan public education and the right of families to choose an education for their children according to their beliefs, the key issue is that private interests cannot be placed before the public mandates of inclusive coeducation. Therefore, if subsidized private schools are a supposedly necessary option, the government should ensure they fulfill the conditions of the subsidy and should fight against any kind of practice that goes against the principles of equality, inclusion and coeducation.
(1) Because we focus here on legal issues, we use the language of the legal system by referring to ‘sex’ instead of ‘gender’. We only use ‘gender’ in relation to gender stereotypes, since these refer to traits and behaviors culturally associated with males and females.