Teachers' unions occupy Education Dpt and call for minister's resignation over changes to school year

School Council says it has been excluded from the debate and minister reiterates he will not listen to "immobilism"

4 min
Teachers' unions occupy the Department of Education

BarcelonaThe discomfort of the educational community with the department has escalated rapidly since the announcement last week of the changes in the school calendar. The decision that the next school year will start a week earlier and with an intensive school day throughout September without any previous debate has caused the teachers' unions to explode, and this Thursday they have occupied the headquarters of the Department of Education and threaten to stay until the consellerjosep Gonzalez-Cambray, receives them and commits to reverse the changes. Shouting "Cambray, resign", the unions criticize "the opacity" of the Govern and, beyond the discrepancies with the measure, they are annoyed by how and when the measure has been announced, skipping the participation bodies such as Catalonia's School Council.

When they had been inside the building for an hour, representatives of the department have agreed to meet with union representatives but the meeting has ended without any agreement or approximation to the initial positions. The secretary general of the department, Patrícia Gomà, the director general of teachers, Dolors Collell, and the secretary of educational policies, Núria Mora, among others, participated in the meeting. The organizations assure that they have been summoned to follow Cambray's intervention in the plenary session of Catalonia's School Councilon Monday.

The union delegates reproach the way the department has acted for shunning dialogue and "scorning" them, according to Union CCOO. In addition to the "logistical and organisational" problems that they predict shortening the summer holidays will entail –which was also the trigger for the protest– they reproach Cambray that they have found out about other important changes through the press, including changes to the syllabus and requirements for Catalan language qualifications for teachers. "Since the beginning of the year, education professionals have been victims of improvisation, lack of leadership and unwillingness to dialogue," said Iolanda Segura, the USTEC spokeswoman.

Teachers' representatives –from unions USTEC, CCOO, UGT, Intersindical and Aspepc– have claimed that they will not return to the negotiating table with the Government until the minister retracts his statements in which he defended that the decision about the holidays had not been discussed because otherwise, they still would not have been taken. In parallel, also Marc Unitari de la Comunitat Educativa (MUCE), a platform formed by about fifteen parent associations, students associations and unions, prepares a unitary manifesto to denounce the Department's attitude.

While workers' representatives were entering the headquarters of the Department of Education, minister Cambray was announcing that the Escola Projecte, on Tibidabo Avenue in Barcelona, would change from subsidised to public. In response to questions from journalists, Cambray also referred to the conflict with the unions over the new school calendar and did so to defend the Government's position. "There are four reports of the Catalonia's School Council that say that the summer vacations are too long", Cambray has emphasised, who assured that the change will be favourable for students. He also insisted that the new calendar "does not affect any labour rights" and that teachers "will work the same number of days". As for the controversy with the unions, Cambray has been very tough: "We will never listen to immobility," he said, and lamented "criticism for criticism's sake." "It is done in other places and therefore it can be done in Catalonia. It will be done in Catalonia", he concluded. Once again, to attack the teachers' unions, he said: "Schools would not have opened during covid if it were for the unions, since there would never have been enough conditions".

The role of Catalonia's School Council

The education law makes it clear that Catalonia's School Council has to be consulted on draft bills, general provisions, programming and the Department's main actions, so that this body can make its decisions. Although they are not binding, they offer the consensus opinion of teachers, students, unions, employers, organisations, municipalities and universities on the main issues around the educational debate. This body knew absolutely nothing about the changes to the calendar when Aragonès and Cambray announced them, and that is why they regret that "the nature of Catalonia's School Council has not been taken into account" and asks to "rebuild the necessary bonds of trust" with the ministry, now cracked. "We would have liked to know the proposals for calendar changes well in advance to make a reflection and advise the department," they explained in a statement sent to all members of the Council. It is a paradox that the Council is one of the bodies that had most worked and debated on the issue of school calendars and schedules. In 2009 they published an extensive report in which they already saw "the need to shorten students' vacation periods, especially the summer vacations, and to rationalise the rest of the school periods", in order to come closer to European models and "better adjust to educational criteria".

In fact, many of the members of the Council do not see the Government's announcement as a bad thing. What they complain about is the way it has been done: they say that the democratic role of the organisation has been "undermined" and that it comes at an "inopportune" moment, while everyone was trying to digest the curricular changes of the next academic year and the situation in the classrooms was beginning to stabilise after a very complicated month of January due to the economic crisis. "The educational community needs time to reflect and plan," the Council says. They also see some improvisation in the organisation of non-instructional activities during September, which will serve to ensure that in the end, children can stay at school until 4.30 pm. Although Cambray did not say so in the press conference, the Department guaranteed that these extracurricular activities would be paid by the government. Yesterday, Wednesday, the president of the Generalitat, Pere Aragonès, said that bringing forward the start of the school year will cost €12m to pay for the activities during this first month. As Cambray already did, the president defended that the Government has gone ahead with this matter and argued that to transform it is necessary to have political initiative. He also said that he has "no problem" in talking to everyone. He will do so on Monday, in an extraordinary meeting of Catalonia's School Council. Cambray has appeared in the Council twice (to introduce himself and to explain the covid protocols for the new school year).