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'We need to fight Spain's school drop-out rate'

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'We need to fight Spain's school drop-out rate'
Spain's Minister for Education, Culture and Sport José Ignacio Wert is no stranger to controversy. File Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP
10:50 CEST+02:00
The Local's latest Spanish Face of the Week is Education and Culture minister José Ignacio Wert, whose controversy-courting statements and unapologetic attitude have won him legions of both admirers and enemies.

Who is José Ignacio Wert and why might I have heard of him?

This Madrid-born politician with Spain's governing Popular Party (PP) has rarely been out of the headlines since becoming Minister of Education, Culture and Sport in late 2011.

He is perhaps best-known for his 2012 declaration, at the height of the Catalan independence debate, that "our goal is to Hispanicize Catalan schoolchildren", while announcing plans to change the region's policy on language use in education.

This inflamed tensions so much that even King Juan Carlos of Spain was moved to scold Wert, telling Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy: “That (comment) about Hispanicizing the Catalans of poor Wert — I told him that what he had done was very bad.”  

Was he forced to apologize?

That's not really Wert's style.

"I am very proud of what I said," he replied to the King's comments.

He's not one for making U-turns then?

Despite his public image as Rajoy's lightning rod, immune to criticism and deployed to take the flak for unpopular policies, Wert is a complex character.

He actually began his political career in the now defunct Democratic Left party at university,

He qualified in Law and went on to earn a Masters in Political Sociology and a crop of academic prizes.

Unlike many other politicians, he has also had a career outside politics. After setting a market research company, he eventually became Director of Corporate Relations for Spain's BBVA bank.

Is he still secretly a bit of a left-wing politician?

Not exactly. His main remit as Education Minister has been to push through a number of reforms included in the PP's 2011 election manifesto.

The changes were designed to cut spending costs, and help Spain reach deficit targets set by the European Union.

The cuts were pushed through parliament in May 2012 with the PP the only party to back the move.

This was done with "with suffering and sorrow", said Wert at the time.

He called the cost-saving measures "temporary" and "not part of our programme".

Despite having a democratic mandate, the ruling PP's cost-saving measures inflamed left-wing commentators, political parties and trade unions.

Just days after the cuts were approved in parliament, Spain saw its first full-scale of the education sector, with everyone from primary school teachers to university professors downing tools.

Wert then went on to cause a stir when he said a 20 percent increase in school class sizes was actually a good thing for children.

"You have to keep in mind that in addition to learning, children in school also socialize, communicate with other children and have distinct formative experiences, all of which are very difficult if the (class) size is low," he said at the time.

Similarly, he dismissed claims from families that they could not afford an increase in university fees.

"What family can't afford to pay these fees?" he asked.

"Obviously, there might be some cases, but to not be able to afford it, I ask again, what does that mean?"

"That they don't want to spend money on it if that means losing out on the possibility of spending that money on other things."

On June 4th, a group of students receiving end of degree prizes refused to shake Wert's hand during an awards ceremony, a move that many applauded and others rejected.

The Secretary of State for Education, Montserrat Gomendio, said the students' protest would have meant more if they had rejected the prize or the €3,000 that went with it.  

Wert's replaced the socialist-backed Citizenship subject in schools — which dealt with controvertial areas including social inequalities, homophobia and gender violence — with the Catholic church-inspired Civil and Constitutional Education.

The new subject, which avoids mention of those areas but promotes the importance of wealth creation, has also sparked a great deal of debate.

On the question of the study of religion in schools, Wert defended himself in May by saying, "I am not a servant of the Bishops Conference."

"Nobody has to study religion. The choice is down to the parents of the students."

Even a seemingly-innocuous subsidy to the Spanish Royal Academy of History's Biographical Dictionary became mired in controversy when it failed to refer to former Spanish ruler Francisco Franco as a dictator.

Wert was even awarded the title of 'Asshole of the Week' in April 2012 by satirical magazine El Jueves for subsidizing bullfighting while austerity cuts were being made to health and education.

But the minister has consistently defended his tough regime of spending cuts, maintaining it is the only way to bring down the country's 24.5 percent school drop out rate.

"If we keep having this scholastic failure rate, we aren't offering our young people a dignified future," Wert told Spain's Cadena Ser radio station in May.

"What we want to do is rescue those young people who are lost, and who don't even access the the alternative, which is professional training," he asserted.

So why is he the Spanish Face of the Week?

His proposal to raise the exam score needed to qualify for university scholarships caused rectors across the country to react angrily.

It's not the first time that scholarships have landed him in the newspapers: earlier this year he announced plans to abolish grants for overseas study of languages.

Then there was Wert's surprising announcement this week about the Catalan language, which he speaks fluently.

"I really like Catalan," said the minister, adding that he was "very proud" he spoke it.

He says he learned the language from a book without needing to resort to a study trip.

Editor's Note:The Local's Spanish Face of the Week is someone in the news who - for good or ill - has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Spanish Face of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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