Spain passes contested education bill

Spain's upper house of parliament approved on Wednesday December 23rd, a controversial education reform bill which removes a stipulation that Spanish must be the main language in classrooms across the nation.

Spain passes contested education bill
Image: klimkin/Pixabay

The measure was included in the bill at the request of Catalan separatist party ERC, whose support is needed by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's minority government to pass legislation at national level.

The ERC helped approve Sanchez's 2021 budget on Tuesday in the Senate, prompting accusations from the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) that Sanchez was now “paying the price” with the education law reform.

“The price is throwing Spanish out the window of classroom in Catalonia forever,” the party's spokesman in the senate, Javier Maroto, said ahead of the vote.

Spain's regional languages were suppressed under the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Francisco Franco and the issue remains hugely sensitive – particularly in Catalonia, a northeastern region home to some 7.5 million people.

After Spain returned to democracy following Franco's death in 1975, education became the responsibility of its regions – including those like Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country that have their own languages, with equal status under the law.

As a result, in wealthy Catalonia classes in public schools have for decades been taught in Catalan, with only two hours a week in most cases set aside to learn Spanish.

A previous PP government tried to change this by reforming Spain's education law in 2013 to include a reference that Spanish is the language of instruction of the nation's schools. But in practice the reference was ignored and classes continued to be delivered mainly in Catalan in the region.

The Catalan nationalists who govern the region argue this policy is needed to protect the language and say that, even four decades after Franco, it remains vulnerable.

Sanchez has defended the bill, saying it reflected Spain's “linguistic plurality” which he said was a “huge asset to society as a whole”.

Image: jairojehuel/Pixabay 

Car protests 

The reform of the education law which was approved by the lower house of parliament last month also downgrades religious teaching and restricts state funding for Catholic charter schools.

It has sparked a backlash from some parents in Catalonia who fear their children's command of Spanish, one of the world's most widely spoken languages, will not be as strong as long as they are schooled mostly in Catalan.

Conservative parties have warned that the reform threatens national unity in a country that is still grappling with the fallout from Catalonia's failed 2017 bid to break away from Spain as it will encourage the development of a regional identity.

Waving flags from cars and honking horns, thousands of people protested in Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga and other cities on Sunday against the reform, dubbed the Celaa law after Education Minister Isabel Celaa. Similar demonstrations were held last month.

“It is not a law against anyone, as will be seen in the future,” Celaa said after the law was passed.

The protests were backed by the PP, far-right party Vox and centre-right Ciudadanos, who have all vowed to challenge the law in Spain's Constitutional Court.

Speaking to reporters at the protest in Barcelona on Sunday, the leader of Ciudadanos in Catalonia, Carlos Carrizosa, called the law “abusive”. “Spanish speaking students cannot study their first words in their maternal language,” he told reporters at the protest in Barcelona on Sunday.

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EXPLAINED: How Spain will make it easier for students to graduate

The Spanish government has passed a new decree which will allow secondary and sixth form students to graduate and receive their qualifications, even if they have failed some subjects.

Spain is changing its education rules
There will also be no re-sitting of exams at Spanish secondary schools. Photo: CESAR MANSO / AFP

The Spanish government approved on Tuesday, November 16th a new Royal Decree which gives instructions to teachers to change the way they grade their students for the rest of the school year of 2021/2022 and 2022/2023.

Education in Spain is compulsory for all those from ages 6 to 16. The Spanish education system is made up of primary and secondary schools. Secondary school is referred to as ESO and students receive a Título de Graduado Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (Title of Graduation from Obligatory Secondary School Education). This is the last four years of compulsory education, up until age 16, and is similar to GCSEs in the UK.

After age 16, Spanish students can go on to study for the optional Bachillerato for the next two years up until age 18. This is equivalent to A-levels in the UK and is needed if the student wants to attend university. 

The new rules apply to the ESO and Bachillerato qualifications. In primary education, there were no specific qualifications or failure limits and this is the same in the new decree too. 

What is changing?

  • Before, students studying for the ESO were allowed to pass each year only if they did not have more than three failed subjects, but now with the new decree, there is no limit.
  • There will also be no re-sitting of exams in ESO.
  • In order to graduate with the ESO qualification at age 16, students could still graduate even if they had up to two failed subjects, however now there is no limit in the number of failed subjects allowed to graduate. 
  • In order to pass each year of the Bachillerato, students could still move on if they had up to two failed subjects. This will stay the same in the new decree too. 
  • In order to graduate with the Bachillerato qualification before, students had to pass all subjects and exams, but now one failed subject is allowed. 
  • Students will also be able to sit the Selectividad, which are the Spanish university admission tests if they have failed some of their Bachillerato (sixth form) school subjects.
  • For the first time in history, students with special needs who have had significant curricular adaptations and have not studied the minimum requirement for other students will also be able to receive their high school qualifications.

READ ALSO: Why Spain is failing in maths and science teaching

How will it be decided if students can graduate?

The text presented to the Council of Ministers by Pilar Alegría, the Spanish Minister of Education states that the decision on whether or not a student passes secondary education will be decided on by each board of the school or institution at the end of the school year.

It is the teaching team “who is given the ultimate responsibility for the decision on the promotion and qualification of students” she stated. It will be the teachers who have to make the decision after assessing whether the student “has reached the appropriate degree of acquisition of the corresponding skills”. 

This means that there will no longer be specific requirements to graduate high school and that the parameters for passing will be different for each institution.   

Why have the rules changed?

The new measures are designed to avoid students repeating years and improve graduation statistics.

According to the latest statistics, out of the countries in the EU in 2020, 79 percent of the population between 25 and 64 years old had graduated Secondary Education or higher and Spain is around 16.1 points below this average. 

Pilar Alegría said that 30 percent of 15-year-old students have repeated a year at least once and “dropout rates are increased by this percentage of students”. 

That is why we are committed to a system “based on trust in teachers”, “continuous evaluation” and “collaborative work by teaching teams”. She has assured that “the culture of effort does not run any risk with this new norm. An effort based on motivation is better than one based on punishment”.  

READ ALSO: Spain passes contested education bill

Are all regions on board with the new rules?

Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia, Castilla y León and Murcia strongly oppose the new rules because they “lower the requirement” and “unsettle the teachers”. 

The five regions complain that the royal decree changes the rules of the game in the middle of the course since the students have started the academic year with a particular curriculum and specific criteria in order to pass it. 


“Within our powers, while respecting the law, we are going to try to prevent the royal decree from being applied, as we consider that it is a direct attack on one of the pillars of the Madrid educational system, as is the merit and the effort of the students “, said sources from the Department of Education of the Community of Madrid.


The education authorities in Galicia said that they will also “explore any legal possibility that allows for preserving the culture of effort and quality as signs of identity”.

Castilla y León

The education departments in Castilla y León said that for their part, they “will make sure that the curricular development and the norms of promotion and qualification are the least harmful”.


“Although the norm establishes that the Baccalaureate degree can be obtained with a failed subject, we understand that it does not make sense because all subjects contribute to the acquisition of the necessary competencies,” said the education authorities in Andalusia.


Murcia is also not in favor of the royal decree and denounces “the improvisation of the Pedro Sánchez government and the lack of legal security for the decisions that have been taken”.   

Unions and Associations

Teachers’ unions such as Csif or Anpe or associations such as Concapa or Cofapa warn that more students are going to arrive less prepared for the next level of education, where the problem will explode. 

These regions argue that this new system will leave a lot of grey areas because teachers’ criteria can be very subjective. The elimination of make-up exams is also causing confusion because “they give another opportunity for students to pass based on their effort and ability”. 

The rest of the regions, on the other hand, were in favor of eliminating the need to re-sit exams because they believe that the evaluation should be “continuous” and the student should not risk everything for a single exam.