No, Spain is not banning private schools

Spain's new education law is too much for conservatives to handle.

There is a platform in front of a fancy white building. Adults in masks holding orange balloons stand on the platform.
A Más Plurales rally in November 2020. Photo: @MasPlurales | Twitter.

On 19 January a new education law came into effect in Spain. And conservatives are not happy.

As the new law made its way through the Congress last November, thousands joined protests from their cars in at least 30 Spanish cities. They claimed that the new law would threaten the semi-private concertado education, impinge on parental rights to choose a school for their children, wipe out Special Education, and put an end to Spanish as the language of instruction.

Officially called the LOMLOE, the new law is less formally known as la ley Celaá (“the Celaá law”) after the Socialist Party (PSOE) Minister for Education, Isabel Celaá. Its purpose is to overturn the previous education law which was seen as “so regressive that not even the Government that passed it applied the law in full”. In December Celaá referred to that previous law – la ley Wert – as an “exclusionary, segregationist, and elitist law”. 

The LOMLOE brings in a number of changes to the Spanish education system, including a change that insists that religion will no longer be considered for GPA or university acceptance, that students should only repeat a year in exceptional circumstances, and that over the course of the next 10 years mainstream schools will be supported to integrate more students with special needs.

“It is not so much families in general who were protesting and certainly there is no popular groundswell as there was against the Ley Wert,” says Madrid-based journalist and translator Eoghan Gilmartin.

“Rather, the protests were organised by the platform Más Plurales, which represents most of the private organisations running the concertados, in particular those associated with the Catholic Church, as well as conservative Catholic school parents’ associations.

“Protestors claimed that the new law was seeking to put an end to the concertado education but in reality its ambitions are more limited to reversing the worst aspects of the Ley Wert, which had deepened social segregation in the education system. In this sense, while the law has been criticised from the left for its lack of ambition in terms of moving towards a singular public system, it does remove a series of privileges that the concertados had accrued.”

A Más Plurales rally in November 2020. Photo: @MasPlurales | Twitter.

A public-private partnership

The roots of the current system of public, private, and concertado schools stretch back to the 1980s, when the Socialist Party wanted to fund the right to education but lacked a network of public schools to make that right a reality.

The Government came to an agreement which allowed private schools to enter the public system on their own terms. In exchange for the State paying teacher salaries and certain other costs, the private schools would provide free ‘public’ education. Privately-owned but publicly-funded, concertados were to be a temporary solution.

The rights of (and funding for) concertados increased little by little over the following decades. Then in 2013 the Popular Party (PP) passed la ley Wert. Between neo-liberal reforms and the institution of Spanish as the language of instruction, the ley Wert brought in the concept of ‘social demand’ for concertado education.

In other words, families would have the ‘right’ to choose the type of education for their children. If the majority of families in a particular area wanted a concertado school, then the educational authorities must accept this ‘social demand’, never mind the number of such schools which already existed in the area.

The LOMLOE has eliminated ‘social demand’ as a reason to open a new school or increase places at an existing one. It also prohibits municipalities from giving public land for the construction of non-public educational centres, prohibits concertado schools from charging fees for ‘free’ education, and ends funding for schools that segregate by gender, as well as obliging concertado schools to increase the number of students who experience different disadvantages.

Social segregation

In the struggle to bring about a decent education system, are concertados fair game? Proponents say that not only do concertados allow for a plurality of educational settings, they are also cheaper than the State providing public education directly. 

Yet defenders of public education dispute this, countering that the ‘savings’ arise from not having to provide the same services as public schools. For example, not having to provide schools in rural areas with fewer pupils per class or supports for the most disadvantaged students.

While about a quarter of students at primary and secondary level attend either a concertado or private school, social class and background plays an important role in the ‘choice’ of available school.

A 2019 report by the newspaper El País found that in poorer areas nine out of ten schools were public but in richer areas 29% were private, 24% concertado and 46% were public. It is this social segregation that the LOMLOE is trying to end.

Gilmartin explains that “the protests were primarily about defending these privileges and forms of segregation that benefit concertados under the banner of parents’ freedom of choice.

“The protests were also backed by the three major right-wing parties in Spain, who used the law as an opportunity to mount a new front in Spain’s culture wars, concentrating particularly on the provision that removed Spanish as ‘the language of instruction’, something introduced under [the former Minister for Education] Wert despite Spain being a plurinational state.”

‘For Sale: Freedom’. Photo: @MasPlurales | Twitter.

Everyone’s a critic

Even though the LOMLOE has been passed and come into force, the right-wing parties are continuing their fight against it.

They are unlikely to find support within the vast majority of education workers, for whom the issue is that the LOMLOE does not go far enough. In November, Francisco García, the Secretary General of the Education Federation of Comisiones Obreras, Spain’s largest trade union explained his frustrations with the LOMLOE. According to García, the new law does not address issues around the role of the teacher, improve pupil-teacher ratios, or reverse attacks on the arts, philosophy, and languages. A world away from Más Plurales.

Moreover, the defence of public education also got a huge public boost over the last decade through the protests against the ley Wert.

“There is no comparison [between the protests]. The protests against the ley Wert were on another scale and came at the highpoint of the wave of social mobilisations that began with the Indignados movement. Bringing together teachers’ unions, students’ associations, and anti-austerity campaigners, millions were mobilised. There were two general education strikes for teachers, students and parents (from pre-school to university) and five student strikes,” says Gilmartin.

“The protests against the ley Celaá were not mass protests by Spanish standards. The largest involved protestors in 5,000 cars (due to Covid) on Madrid’s Castellana Avenue but received wall-to-wall coverage in conservative media outlets.”

This does not mean however, that Spain’s coalition government is in for an easy time from the culture-war obsessed opposition.

“Education is a largely regional competency and the hard-right Madrid regional government has said it will continue to prioritize concertado education and given the Madrid President’s political ambition, she [the PP’s Isabel Diaz Ayuso] would most likely welcome a standoff with the central government over the issue. The PP have also said it will bring the government to court over the question of Spanish as the language of instruction and so is looking to further stoke nationalist tensions over that. 

“But beyond that, it is now a question of implementation – with the government having to ensure compliance with the new law.”