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Education strike highlights Spain’s teaching problem

The unprecedented, across-the-board strike staged on May 22 by teachers, lecturers and students was aimed at government spending cuts. But the Spanish education system already had plenty of other issues to resolve.


Spain's education strike.

A bleak future is in store for Spanish education.

Tuesday’s nationwide education strike included representatives from all levels of the sector, marking the first time such an action had been staged in Spain.

The strike was propelled by the austerity measures affecting the sector. These include up to €3 billion cuts in spending, the addition of two hours to teachers’ weekly classroom timetable and an increase in the pupil-classroom maximum ratio, currently at 25 in primary level and 30 in secondary.

Early reports suggested a good level of support among teaching staff. However, while unions claimed an 80-percent turnout, as expected, government figures were decidedly lower.

A more pressing question to ask about Tuesday’s action, however, is the extent to which striking teachers can count on the backing of the general public. Protests about cuts in education in Valencia have been staged since 2010 and parents and students have already taken to the streets there earlier this year. But this is unsurprising when you consider that primary school children were left without chalk, lighting and even heating in the middle of winter.

The situation in the rest of Spain’s regions has not yet reached such drastic levels. So parents, or those not employed in education may well be inclined to wonder why – in the middle of an economic crisis – teachers are complaining about a measly two additional hours in their working week when much of the population is out of a job.

But the discontent should not just be about the latest cuts. For many years now there has been something fundamentally wrong at the heart of Spain’s education system.

The civil service stigma

During the current recession, Spain’s civil servants, have, perhaps unsurprisingly, come under fire. One of the most privileged (at least on paper) sections of the working population, of which they form an arguably bloated five percent, their recent complaints about cuts to their wages have been met with disdain by many, who compare their own increasingly uncertain futures with the holy grail of permanency which these government workers have been granted.

The possible cloud hanging over Tuesday’s strike is that teachers (at least those who have passed the infamous oposiciones exams and have permanent jobs) risk being held in the same contempt.

The fact that teachers in Spain come under the same umbrella as other civil servants, and are hence employed in the same manner, creates an absurd paradox in the education sector which undermines teachers and ultimately cripples the profession.

On the one hand, conscientious teachers are frequently frustrated in their attempts to strive for quality by a system that is heavily bureaucratic; and on the other, the profession has an image as an ‘easy number’ which offers great hours, long vacations and lifelong job-security that inclines those who are less vocation-driven to sign up.

From my experience in both the Spanish public and private school systems, there have been few teachers who fit the latter profile. There is no lack of talented and motivated teachers in Spain, driven by the same ideals as those everywhere. But the current system of recruiting teachers in Spain neither encourages contenders to see their career as vocational nor nurtures those that do. There is an over-dependence on the work ethic of individuals rather than the sense of a combined will to ensure the success of future generations.

It is decidedly odd that teachers, medical and welfare staff, people that carry out some of the country’s most important jobs – and in such direct service to the public – are lumped under the same umbrella as those who are, in effect, administrators.

Too much box ticking

As part of their government role, teachers are also required to fulfil certain requirements that often have less to do with professional development than simply ticking boxes. Secondary school teachers are obliged to receive 35 hours of extra ‘training’ per school year. This is a great idea in theory. Teaching is a job in which you never stop learning. Except that the reality is often classrooms of teachers whose time would be better spent elsewhere –  they are complying with government rules but not developing.

Given the potential pressures of the job and the amount of extra-curricular work and stress involved in teaching, ‘down-time’ is crucial if those who do it are expected to do a good job.

Given Spain’s current situation and the urgent need to pull the country up by its bootstraps, it is more important than ever to invest in education. But Minister of Education José Ignacio Wert’s decision to increase the teacher-pupil ratio, to a potential 35 in secondary, makes me question whether he has ever stepped into a classroom in his life.

Tuesday’s strike was not just about teachers. It was about a much broader issue that affects this country’s next generation, the forthcoming potential of its economy and, ultimately, the future of all of us who hope desperately to build our lives here.

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Published: May 23 2012
Category: Featured, Politics, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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