In 2016 I was in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a socially deprived north-west suburb of Barcelona, on a staff development programme. The area has unemployment running at rate of 30-35% depending on who you talk to whilst the official percentage in the city as a whole is something between 24-26%.
I was visiting Institut Puig Castellar, an old high school built in 1968 as part of the Erasmus programme to see how we could develop a mutually beneficial relationship for both our students.
The instruction is in Catalonian and schools comprise of experienced and dedicated groups of staff who speak English pretty well. IT and decent computers are in a number of classrooms.
However, the schools are littered with blackboards and antiquated wooden desks. Security in the schools is (worryingly) relaxed where almost anyone can walk-in as long as they buzz through intercom. In terms of ergonomics, students still sit in rows for all lessons and little has been done to preserve the old physical structures due to lack of funding. Textbook centred learning is the norm and there is only basic provision for immigrant students. They are merely expected to fit in with the curriculum as best they can. As for administration, formal auditing and inspection of staff are seldom carried out. Roger, our Catalonian coordinator, for instance, has not been inspected for over 15 years. So it’s clear that the authorities have not invested a great deal of time, effort or money in state education.
Given that, and coupled with the volatile context in which these schools exit, you get a feeling that the authorities’ inertia might lead to the puncturing of harmony and social equilibrium.
For instance, the schools in this district have students from relatively poor families working on minimum wages (with the equivalent of UK’s working credit) or are living on social welfare and/or unemployment benefit. Sadly there are only a few training and educational opportunities for youngsters. I only saw one community arts project in the area sponsored, like my visit, by European funding. It’s run by a very affable, enthusiastic young man, Lorenzo, who himself is from Italy. He tells me the project is designed to provide local youngsters with arts activities that might (hopefully) lead to travel, further training and/or education. There’s no doubt a strong need for such initiatives. Lack of government investment in the area has led to a concoction of social problems of youth unemployment, drug addiction and bad housing. I’m told that international students of city planning visit the area, as an example of how not to build a town. It’s crowed, congested and in terms of building rather incongruous to the hilly landscape. Coupled with increasing migration within the country, international migration from Syria and immigration from Pakistan, India, north Africa and South America, the area is experiencing a flux, a challenge for communal cohesion and social engineering.
Like many other European countries, Spain in the 21st century is transforming into a multicultural economy and that, of course, will have repercussions on its education and society at large. I was particularly intrigued to see what model of multicultural education the Catalonian people and their government are going to introduce. I wondered, for instance, whether they would look to Britain’s recent history of immigration and multiculturalism. Would they adopt an assimilationist approach Britain took in 1960s where state intervention was minimalistic or the intergrationalist approach I grew up with in the 1970s – where directives from central government compelled schools and organisations to act (state multiculturalism) in the interest of immigrant pupils. Or would they be looking at USA’s cultural pluralism or France’s enforced secularism – which requires all groups to conform to its values and identity – as an appropriate model.
With this in mind, my visit to the ministry of education turned out to be quite revealing. It’s housed in a very plush building in central Barcelona and comes with very tight, airport-like security where bags are checked and identity verified in the form of ID or passport. With air-conditioning, display plants, up-to-date computers, marble floors and walls, and toilets equivalent of 5-star hotels, one could be forgiven for questioning the politics of education – who does the government prioritize, the schools or its administrative body?
I gathered when talking to the director of education that there is little thinking about multiculturalism and diversity in education. It seems the ministry is pursuing a non-interventionist approach. For instance, I’m told that schools are left to their own devices – they decide for themselves what form of educational integration programme they want to use and the degree to which they want to apply it. This may seem a sensible option for individual schools and the ministry. Decentralisation of power, autonomy, and accountability gives schools more flexibility. But the absence of a clear distinct leadership in the form of a head teacher is leaving this key feature of social and communal cohesiveness unsatisfactory. Head teachers in Spain, I’m told, are little more than clerks or administrators; they do not have to possess a vision or leadership skills; they exist purely to coordinate the running of the curriculum and classes. In other words, they are not head teachers as we understand them – personalities who shape, define and enforce standards, ethos and a certain set of values amongst the pupils and staff. In Spain, it seems they are merely servants of the system doing a tedious, thankless job – like glorified secretaries. They along with their schools exit in a social bubble, disenfranchised from the cut and thrust of modernity.
This worries me. It has, for instance, been evidenced in various countries – including Britain – that a lethal combination of social deprivation, poverty, unemployment and immigration is likely to see the fuelling of segregation, communal suspicion, racism, lack of educational achievement and opportunities.
It is now – not in a decade or so – that Spain should be investing in training staff in the politics of multiculturalism and multicultural education. Adopting a laissez affair belief and half-hearted attitude to social cohesion will lead to ghettoisation. It will exacerbate the disparity between rich and poor; between the indigenous white Spanish community and the newly settling ethnic and immigrant groups. The experience in Britain has shown that the training and platform for designing a multicultural society stems from multicultural education. It is in school that we can start changing attitudes and values of fairness, equality and diversity. Outside the perimeters of the school wall we are merely trying to get by without much in the way of guidance. Equality really begins when the government recognises a need for social and communal cohesion, that you can’t just bury your head in the sand and just hope everything will be alright. It really doesn’t work like that. To create a balanced, sensitive platform for difference and integration to sit in cooperation with one another, you have to start planning today. Not wait until it’s too late.