When I was a boy my father used to tell it something like this, “When I was your age, I had to walk 5 miles to school, uphill both ways, dodging wild animals through 4 feet of snow and all that with no shoes!” True, we lived in north-western Canada and while the part about the bears and snow was painfully believable, I couldn't imagine my grandmother letting him out of the house without proper footwear.
Years later and a continent away, I can foresee the day when my daughter starts to question things as family history repeats itself and I start telling her similar jokes. In fact, the 1970s world that saw me through school might seem even more fantastic to her in the future than her grandfather's slog uphill in both directions.
Exactly what will the post-crisis school systems across Europe look like when she has her big first day in about four year's time?
Here in Spain, the once sacred cows of certain officials' cars have gone to slaughter and even the ostentatious catering budgets have been dealt mortal blows. In the mad rush to find the supposed silver bullet that will, if not slay the insatiable beast called the market, those crafty politicians are desperately inventing ways to divert this beast's devouring attention towards the next Ministry down the hall.
For the past few weeks, you haven't been able to open a paper without reading about the imperative need to reduce spending whatever the sacrifice (just think of those poor well-dressed people without their official cars riding the Metro or heaven forbid, balanced on top of a self-powered, two-wheeled vehicle). Next in line for the chopping block: Education. The always loquacious President of the community of Madrid has perhaps been the most vocal in her attacks on the public school system but she hasn't been the only one adhering to the rallying cry for the need to cut spending on Education.
Teachers who were already working more hours than the majority of their EU counterparts were being told that they, unlike Mr. Rajoy's blessed 'savers', will need to take an even greater share of the burden to pull the country out of the hard times facing the nation. Their 5-10% paycut decreed by Mr. Zapatero simply didn't go far enough, more hours for the same salary has become the PP's contagious leitmotiv in Madrid.
But if we look beyond the blatant neoliberal-tinged rhetoric ringing out from the Republican halls in Washington and Mr. Cameron's 'free' schools in the U.K, both echoing in Esperanza's ever increasing hand outs to mostly-Catholic private schools and we will see that there is indeed room for criticism and reflection.
Spain continues to fester at the bottom of the international PISA test standings. No matter how you look at it, there is definitely a lot of room for improvement. Socialists will quickly blame the near 40 years of dictatorship for this lacklustre performance, while the right wing will drone on about the need for more discipline and a return to the days when memorizing the 10 Commandments along with the rivers of Spain was the panacea of pedagogy.
But perhaps it's time to ask about the elephant in the room. That huge beast that always seems to sit in the corner and avoids all mention in any debate on the subject. Tempers can rage about the ubiquitous crucifixes in public classrooms, the supposedly Stalinesque Citizenship Education that was recently introduced or the admittedly terrible drop out rate, yet no one seems to bother to reflect on the Finnish Education Minister's advice when asked about the secret to their ongoing success. He had just three words: Teachers, Teachers and Teachers.
But what the Minister, whose students consistently score at the top of PISA test, was referring to wasn't necessarily hours worked, nor the uniforms of the students, but what is probably the most important aspect of all when talking about education; the way teachers are formed and the importance of ongoing training and support throughout their careers.
Here in Spain, the only way to get on with the public school system, once you get your Education degree (where in some public universities, it's possible to fail a course up to eight times, each heavily subsidised, but that's another spending gorilla in the corner...) is by taking what is called an oposicion. Anyone who's been in Spain long enough has surely heard about these exams but the sheer cultural weight that this term entails is often lost on most foreigners.
A look down the list of the possible translations of the word makes it, if not clearer, at least less opaque. We start to see (public) competitive examination and on another page competitive public examination for employment in the civil service, education, legal system etc, or perhaps the most precise, Oposiciones are exams that applicants for lifetime public-sector jobs must pass (more at link). All plausible translations at a literal level but completely lacking the utter panic that this nine letter word can provoke in your average Spaniard.
The test itself for those wanting to teach the language in which you are reading, at least out in the community where I live, consists of the applicants, or opositores, attempting to memorize 25 temas or topics. These topics range from phonetics to the extremely useful (when you keep in mind that these teachers will be teaching words like dog, cat, rain and run) history of the United States and its structure of government.
During the test, three of the topics are chosen at random and the candidates are then given two hours to regurgitate the information that they were most likely given at a private academy. They are then called to read aloud what they have written at a later date. At the end of which, no questions are asked about the content of their essay. They are then asked to present a year's syllabus and depending on the amount of times the candidate has taken the exam, they must then present a unit. Once again at the end of their presentation, there is no questioning in regards to the reasoning behind each stage in the lesson plan.
The tribunals judging these would-be-teachers are made up of teachers. The sole examining criteria they are given to mark each candidate with is a sheet of paper with a few vague guidelines, regardless of which of the 25 topics is chosen. Clearly assuming that the jury remembers enough of the information that each topic should contain. That's it.
Once a teacher does get their position, their classrooms become tiny feudal states where few can penetrate. More than thirty years after the catholic theocracy fell, you can still walk by state funded classrooms and hear students forced to recite the lord’s prayer every morning, Moroccan, Yiddish and non-believer dialects included in melody. There are no teacher observations and no periodic checks to see that the curriculum is being followed, no weekly lesson plans to hand in and no generalized testing at the end of each year. Each teacher is literally on their own.
Few countries can boast more overhauls of their education systems than Spain has experienced in such a short time. So many acronyms have been thrown out that most parents, and even some teachers, don’t even know what the current system is called. Since Franco slipped away in his sleep, six different systems have tried to bring together views so opposite as biology classes that would teach that women came from Adam’s rib to ethics classes where same sex couples are single parent families are seen as acceptable. Kids now study under a program called LOE, a few years before it was LOCE, before that LOPEG, LOGSE and LODE.
With all of these changes, you might think that the curriculum would be a mess, but if you take the time to read the Spanish education laws on language, it’s fantastic reading. Cutting edge stuff for the new millennium. The only problem is, who’s listening and more importantly who is prepared to put this brilliant theory into practice? Without the proper formation and ongoing training, only the most motivated teachers even bother to consult with the curriculum to see what and more importantly how they are actually supposed to be teaching.
Cuts in education is not the silver bullet to the crisis the bankers, speculators and generalized corruption have put us in. What we need to do is spend more money, more wisely, investing in this generation who will be the next in charge. Neither Socialist fairy tales of a laptop for every child, nor Popular returns to the rod will save the day. What is needed is a real and concerted effort to better the teachers available and to make sure that their replacements are the best, full stop.
If nothing is done however and the cuts continue, perhaps the joke I tell my little girl will go something like this. 'When I was your age, there were only 22 kids per class, the teachers had training centers loaded with extra material and even specific days where they would go to workshops, assistants helped integrate students with special needs...and all of this for free!'
I can just see my daughter's eyes rolling now.