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'Spain's rote learning system needs scrapping'

Alex Dunham · 23 May 2013, 17:49

Published: 23 May 2013 17:49 GMT+02:00

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How did you end up living and working in Spain?

I first came here in 1974, actually for reasons of love, not journalism. My girlfriend, now wife, was teaching English here in Madrid.

We were planning on going back to Oxford where we’re both originally from. But Franco died in 1975, one thing led to another and at the tender age of 24 I found myself covering the Spanish transition for The Times until 1978 along with another correspondent.

When Murdoch bought The Times, my friends said: “Get out! this is a sinking ship!” I was soon poached by the Financial Times and worked as their correspondent in Mexico and parts of the Spanish Caribbean for six years.

I then went back to head office in London in 1984, was very bored and after 18 months, we came back to Madrid.

We felt happy here and wanted our kids to be bilingual.

I became self-employed and wrote a series of books on Latin American countries for Euromoney.

My bread and butter job, which I’ve had for all these years, is a translating contract I have with Santander bank.

I’m also one of the founding members of Elcano Royal Institute; they’ve published three books of mine on Spain.

Tell us a bit about your new book Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know.

I've looked to provide readers with the political and historical context for understanding Spain’s current state of affairs.

The legacy of the early Muslim presence, the influx of immigrants, the separatist Basque region, the creation of the welfare state, the causes of the banking crisis…A wide sweep overall to help understand Spain’s place in the world today.

What do you think is the real story behind youth unemployment in Spain? Why are the figures so different?

I recently wrote an article for El País on the matter called: “The enigma of the magnitude of youth unemployment”.  I received a flood of comments from readers who disagreed with my view that the figures for joblessness among young Spaniards were far lower than the 57 percent that’s usually cited.

I made a technical mistake, but there is reason for confusion when you consider that the EU’s barometer Eurostat has two ways of calculating the figures.

There’s the rate, or tasa in Spanish, which takes into account people in the 16 to 24 age group that are employed or are actively seeking work. That’s what gives the 57 percent youth unemployment rate which is so widely publicized.

And then there’s the unemployment ratio, which includes all young people in Spain, studying or working, and offers a much smaller 22 percent.

What I was trying to point out in my article, even if the real figures still remain unclear, was that it wasn't really fair to measure youth labour force when most 16 to 24 year olds in Spain are still studying.

Where do you stand on the idea that Spanish people lack entrepreneurial spirit?

There are plenty of successful niche elements that Spanish entrepreneurs and businesses are handling well.

In 2012, 130,000 Spanish companies were exporting abroad. It’s these exports that are keeping the Spanish economy afloat now that domestic business is down.

Can you give us an overview of Spain’s current labour reforms? Are these helping to get people back to work?

Labour reforms are having no real impact on unemployment or the economy and most Spaniards acknowledge this.

Back in 1984 when the Socialists were in power they introduced labour reforms and tried to create more temporary jobs to try to address the unemployment issue.

But all this did was create a dual job market for Spaniards: those with indefinite contracts and those with temporary ones who were excluded from any form of stable employment.

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However liberal labour reforms are they’ll never address the real problem – the lack of diversity in Spain’s economy and the need for change in the country’s educational system.

It’ll take at least a decade before we see Spain recover, and that’s only if they change the model.

What changes should Spain’s educational system undergo?

Well for starters they have to try to encourage kids to stay on in school.

It’s far too easy to have to repeat a school year, and back when construction jobs were readily available, youngsters saw the chance to make money as far more tempting than continuing with their studies.

If the school dropout rate has fallen in recent years it’s only because the construction industry no longer acts as a magnet for these youths.

University degrees take far too long to complete as well. While students across Europe have a degree under their belts at 21, Spaniards continue studying until they’re in their mid-twenties.

The rote learning system has to be scrapped as well. The government can’t talk about having a knowledge-based economy if the educational system is outdated and not teaching young people to reason rather than to just learn everything off by heart.

Alex Dunham (alex.dunham@thelocal.com)

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