Financial Times

December 7, 2012 12:49 pm

Madrid reignites Catalan fury

By Julius Purcell in Barcelona

Plans by Spain’s central government to introduce more Spanish into Catalonia’s schools have reignited the debate over whether the region should seek independence from Spain.

The push for a plebiscite on secession lost momentum when the ruling Catalan nationalists lost seats in a snap regional election last month.

Catalonia’s education minister stormed out of a meeting with Mr Wert, saying the current model – under which the curriculum in state schools is taught in Catalan – “is not up for negotiation”.But this week José Ignacio Wert, Spain’s education minister, galvanised nationalist sentiment when he proposed an education law that would “establish parity” between Spanish and the country’s other official languages, including Catalan.

The use of Catalan in education is a highly emotive issue in this north-eastern region of Spain. For Anna Ruiz, a mother of two children at the Alexandre Galí state primary school in Barcelona, plans to force Catalan schools to teach more in Spanish would cross a red line.

“The whole idea is mad,” Mrs Ruiz, a graphic designer, said at the school gate on Wednesday morning. “I want my daughters to speak and write correctly in Catalan.”

Like many Catalans, Mrs Ruiz was quick to see links with the current educational stand-off and the Catalan government’s determination to hold a referendum on independence from Spain.

“When they threaten us like this from Madrid, is it any wonder it’s making people here even more in favour of independence?”, she asked.

Under the current “immersion” programme used in Catalonia, all core subjects are taught in Catalan. Primary schoolchildren study Spanish for three hours a week, similar to the time dedicated to a foreign language, such as English.

Under Mr Wert’s plans, any region that cannot satisfy the wish of parents who want their children taught core subjects in Spanish, would have to meet the costs of that child being educated privately.

“The bill neither reduces the use of Catalan, nor in any way undervalues the use of Catalan in teaching,” Mr Wert insisted.

For Artur Mas, the Catalan president, Madrid’s proposed education reforms are a welcome rallying cry after his snap election setback. He called for the region’s parties to unite at a summit next week to defend the predominance of Catalan in schools.

The timing of Madrid’s move could not be better for Mr Mas who is seeking to form a coalition government committed to a referendum on independence, which the central government says would be unconstitutional.

Mr Mas’ likely coalition partner is Esquerra Republicana (ERC), a radical leftwing secessionist group. Oriol Junqueras, ERC leader, seized on the education bill as proof “that we must separate from Spain”.

Linguistic sensitivity has deep historic roots in Catalonia. During Spain’s dictatorship under General Franco, Spanish was exclusively used in all areas of public life here. Children speaking Catalan were often told to “speak like a Christian”.

Spanish conservatives say the current model of Catalan “immersion” is divisive and politically motivated. Its defenders say that, in addition to ensuring the language survives, it has proved a vital means of integration after Catalonia experienced mass immigration in the 1990s.

For some parents, like Mrs Ruiz, the Wert reform poses a threat to the Catalan language itself.

“If they go ahead with this, I fear Catalan will stop being used. We’ll end up speaking it only at home,” she said.

But not all parents standing outside the Alexandre Galí school agree. For Susana Benito, a documentary film producer, the sole use of Catalan in schools is limiting and anti-educational.

“The fact that my eight-year old son has never learnt a single song at school in Spanish is incredibly sad for me,” she said.

Mrs Benito, however, disapproved of Madrid’s plan. “It offends me that both sides are using the language that our children speak as weapons in an ideological battle,” she said.

Mercè Vilarrubias, an educationalist and author of a recent book on bilingualism, agreed.

“Wert speaks about ‘Hispanicising’. The Catalan education minister has also talked approvingly of a ‘Catalanized’ school system . . . . The debate is highly politicised, and has little to do with education”.

Mrs Vilarrubias considered the obligatory use of only Catalan in schools as divisive: “Children who speak Spanish at home feel their language doesn’t count, and this in turn leads them to reject Catalan. It’s counterproductive.”

“The function of schools is not to change sociolinguistic reality,” she added, “but to reflect that reality, by means of a properly bilingual education system.”