Classes in citizenship: controversy in the classroom

Article published on Sept. 18, 2007
Article published on Sept. 18, 2007
The Spanish government is set to introduce compulsory classes in citizenship. The law has been blighted by controversy and critics even before some schools have incorporated the subject into their curriculum

Since it made classes in moral values obligatory in schools, the Spanish government has opened Pandora’s box. Religious groups, political parties and other associations are, for different reasons, opposed to this initiative which, although supposedly educational, could exacerbate existing prejudices and conflicts. If the ‘grown-ups’ can’t agree on the constitution, gay marriage and Islam, how will one teacher be able to tackle these questions in the space of two hours a week?

Class test

The cause of the controversy is a new school subject introduced by Mercedes Cabrera, Spanish minister of education and science, in its constitutional law on education. This is being billed as an aid to educating children in democratic values. It will be taught for one hour a week, for one academic year in primary schools and two in secondary schools, and it will be obligatory – although only seven of Spain’s autonomous communities have opted to begin teaching it this year (Andalusia, Aragon, Asturias, Cantabria, Catalonia, Extremadura and Navarre: reaching more than 230, 000 pupils). As with all obligatory subjects in Spain, marks obtained in the this subject will be recorded on pupils’ academic records and will count when a pupil has to re-sit a year of school. In addition, the minister has stated that passing the subject will be essential if pupils are to gain their final qualifications.

Constitution, gay marriage and Islam

The basic course outline presented by Cabrera defines the topics around which the subject will be based: respect and knowledge of human rights and democratic institutions, self-awareness, tolerance of cultural diversity, and the ability to consider and rationally criticise new ideas. However, each educational institution is free to make the topics more specific. Publishing houses have made a range of textbooks available to those who will be teaching the subject (primary school teachers and teachers of social sciences, history, philosophy and ethics), so that they can select those which are most suited to the school’s profile.

In spite of the differing ideological stances of the books with regard to topics such as sexuality and gay marriage, the tendency is to describe the current social situation rather than to pass judgement on it. A study by Alicia Rodríguez published in the Spanish daily newspaper La Vanguardia demonstrates the viewpoint of the publishing house SM, a company whose views tend to reflect those of the Catholic Church, and whose textbook is written by José Antonio Marina, a well-known intellectual and Christian: 'we are ethically obliged to respect everyone’s dignity, as reflected in the constitution and Spanish law, which prohibit all discrimination on grounds of sex or sexual orientation.' And in the textbook produced by the publishing house Vicens Vives: 'the law on gay marriage (and the consequent right to adoption) is a new development that some see as the end of regulations on love, and others as a problem for the future of society.'

Complaints from left and right

The main opposition party, the Partido Popular, believes that the state is interfering in an area which belongs in the private sphere – education in moral values – and has labelled the subject ‘socialist catechism'. Using the same argument, the Catholic Synod calls it

'unconstitutional', since the Spanish constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom.

Some groups have gone further than mere criticism and have urged action. The organisation representing private schools, the Spanish Educational Centres Confederation (CECE), which has Catholic leanings and represents 6% of schools, has circulated an internal memo to its schools. The memo advises them to allow children to sit out of citizenship classes in order to take parallel classes in human rights, the constitution, etc.

But it has not only received criticism from the right. Some groups on the left complain that the subject legitimises a united Europe rather than questioning it, and that content has been replaced with moral values, a topic that cannot be learned per se. Clara Serrano, in an opinion piece published in leftist alternative Rebelión magazine, compares the textbooks on citizenship with 'sticker books' full of arrows and 'role plays', in which there is neither 'discussion nor argument'.

Some are considering objection on grounds of conscience. Professionals for Ethics, an association with Christian values, demands that the subject should be optional and not graded. The organisation has circulated four million guides giving instructions for objecting, seeking recourse, they say, in article 16 of the constitution, and some citizens have already signed up to their proposals.

What about the rest of Europe?

It seems that Spain was not the first to go down this route. Specific classes on citizenship and human rights exist in sixteen European countries, although those topics are also taught across the curriculum (through other subjects) in Denmark, Hungary, Germany, Cyprus, Norway and Finland. The difference between some of these countries and Spain is the fact that it is obligatory to pass the subject. Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International in Spain, has affirmed that, until now, Spain was at the bottom of the class in Europe on the subject of human rights education.