Yesterday saw the latest in a series of strikes by teachers in Madrid. The teachers, those who work in the public sector schools, are protesting over cutbacks implemented by Esperanza Aguirre's regional government. If you were to believe the Aguirre propaganda machine, then you would think that the strikers are just a bunch of lazy teachers unwilling to accept an increase in teaching hours from 18 to 20 a week. At the beginning of the dispute several weeks ago Aguirre was even trying to suggest that 18 hours was all the work a teacher did in a week, although she later had to retract that claim.
In the background to this confrontation is the model of ideologically motivated cutbacks which we may well have to get used to if Mariano Rajoy comes to power in Sunday's elections. It's a model similar to that already implemented in the UK where the government regrets having to do cuts at all, but then uses the crisis as an excuse for doing things which they would like to do anyway. Later ministers go off to the US to boast about what they can get away with. The change to working hours for teachers in Madrid is a direct result of Aguirre's administration firing teachers who were 'interinos', those teachers who have passed the exams but without a high enough mark to guarantee a fixed teaching place.
Despite this supposedly interim status, schools in Madrid were employing a lot of interinos and many schools estimated that 10-15% of their staff were disappearing at a stroke with the cutbacks. Such a sharp decrease was leading schools to have to use teachers specialising in one subject to teach others which they were not qualified to teach. Aguirre has denied this is happening, but several teachers have spoken to the press about being forced into this position. For contradicting the Lideresa, some have since been disciplined. Aguirre is determined to sit out the strike without dialogue. Some think she adopts this position because of her permanent desire for attention, others because it had the potential to make Mariano Rajoy a bit uncomfortable as he attempted to put the election campaign to sleep. The woman responsible for education in Madrid, Lucía Figar, is seen as a Rajoy loyalist and even a potential successor to Aguirre.
So where does ideology enter into this? Well, the total saving claimed by the Madrid government for these cutbacks is €80 million. The cuts only affect schools that are 100% public, no sacrifice of any kind is required from the publicly funded concertados that are mostly run by the church or associated religious sects. Aguirre's government has worked overtime in the last few years to increase the amount of money and resources available to the concertados, at the expense of course of the truly public education sector. Madrid is the only region in the country that has seen such a significant shift towards public subsidy of private schools in recent years, although of course there are other areas where concertados are important. There is a video circulating of Figar addressing a catholic meeting in Italy where she boasts of this policy of handing public resources to private religious schools, including the gift of land on which to build them.
Then there is the €90 million worth of tax breaks in Madrid that go to those who educate their children privately. There is no alternative? I think not, why should we subsidise the generally better off who choose to educate their children privately at the expense of the vast majority who rely on the public education system? The education system in Madrid was already two-tier before the cutbacks started, testimony to this is the very low percentage of immigrant children who get a place in the concertados. But now with the crisis being used as a pretext for swinging the axe only on the public, the gap between the tiers can be expected to grow. Welcome to the future, any resemblance to the past is more than coincidental.